Mohali: Billed as the `mother of all clashes`, bitter rivals India and Pakistan go into the high-voltage World Cup semi-final battle on Wednesday in what promises to be an epic tussle of nerves and skills between two teams desperately seeking to regain the coveted trophy.
When the two captains walk out for the toss, two estranged nations who have fought wars in the past but have a common passion for cricket, will virtually come to a standstill with millions glued to the television sets to watch the blockbuster unfold.
Shared history -- albeit bitter -- only adds to the emotional quotient of Indo-Pak contests where victory and defeat is not just a result but a matter of national pride.
The presence of Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his Pakistani counterpart Yousuf Raza Gilani and a host of other dignitaries as part of a cricket diplomacy, the massive hype and build-up and the phenomenal interest the match has generated has set the stage for the 2011 World Cup`s biggest showdown.
Indo-Pak matches, which showcase one of the world`s most intense sporting rivalries, invariably boil down to handling the pressure in crunch situations. With so much at stake, the team that handles the pressure better will travel to Mumbai for the summit showdown on April 2.
The potentially explosive clash tomorrow is the first match between the two neighbouring countries on Indian soil after the 26/11 terror strikes in Mumbai which led to the snapping of bilateral cricket ties between the two nations.
They have faced each other in four World Cup matches in the past and India have come out victories on all these occasions even though Pakistan have a clear edge in the overall record, winning 69 of their 119 clashes so far.
Even on Indian soil, Pakistan have the upper-hand in record books, having managed 17 wins in 26 matches. But all these stats and reputation count for nothing as the team that plays better on the given day will win.
Defending champions Australia and stong contenders South Africa are already knocked out of the tournament at the quarter-final stage which only goes to show that reputation alone does not win matches.
India appear to hold a slight edge over their traditional rivals and will look to capitalise on home advantage and the support of the crowd in pressure situations.
Indian captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni has sought to put up a brave face by stating that the Indians will not be under any undue pressure.
"The World Cup is being held in the sub-continent and India and Pakistan are playing in the semifinals. It does not get better. The pressure will be big, but in reality it makes no difference to us. It will be just a game. Indian cricket team has always been under pressure and we have handled it well", Dhoni said.
The Indians are likely to retain the same team that prevailed over holders Australia in the quarter-final though the think tank may be tempted to include a seamer considering the conditions of the PCA stadium pitch.
Since spinner Ravichandran Ashwin has done a decent job in the two matches he has played so far, it is unlikely that he will be disturbed to accomodate a pacer nor is the team management keen to sacrifice a batsman.
Suresh Raina, who replaced an off-colour Yousuf Pathan in the last match, proved his worth by sharing an unfinished 74-run stand with Yuvraj to steer India to victory.
Amid all the excitement and tension, Indian fans will also be hoping that Sachin Tendulkar, who has been in very good form right through the tournament, achieves the memorable milestone of scoring his 100th international century tomorrow.
But Pakistan captain Shahid Afridi is in no mood to allow Tendulkar or any other Indian to hog the limelight in the crucial game.
"Sachin will have to wait until after the World Cup for his 100th international century because we are not going to allow either him or any other Indian player to play a big innings," Afridi said.
"It is a game of cricket and both teams can lay claim they will win the semi-final but given our current form I am confident we can beat India," he said.
Winning the coveted World Cup has been an unfulfilled dream for Tendulkar, who knows this is the last and probably the best chance to do it.
Unlike the Pakistanis, who have largely relied on their spinners to advance to the semi-finals, the Indians depend much on their batsmen to deliver the goods as the bowling has lacked the firepower.
The hosts will look to Tendulkar and the flamboyant Virender Sehwag to provide a rollicking start and set the platform for the middle-order to take India to a decent total on the PCA stadium track, which is expected to aid the seamers to some extent.
India have the depth in their batting but they need to ensure that they don’t collapse in a heap in the batting powerplay as they had done against South Africa and the West Indies.
Gautam Gambhir, Virat Kohli, Yuvraj Singh, captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni and Raina, who is expected to be retained in the team, have enough talent and skill to put the runs on the board.
Yuvraj, who is having a dream World Cup and has already won a record four man-of-the-match awards, will have a key role to play since he is the player in form both with the bat and ball.
Yuvraj is aware of the pressure that is involved in an Indo-Pak match having featured in quite a few matches.
"The India-Pakistan game is going to be another dream game after India-Australia. We would be playing our best cricket against Pakistan. They know our game we know theirs, so both teams are equal. They have had a very good tournament and have beaten the West Indies and Australia," Yuvraj said.
Pakistan, on the other hand, have played like a unit and have gelled quite well despite being plagued by match-fixing scandals and an unending sequence of controversies.
The team has largely depended on their bowlers to reach the semis and the batting looks a little suspect. Younis Khan and Misbah-ul Haq are the two experienced batsmen though the youngsters have a lot of talent.
Captain Shahid Afridi has been outstanding as a bowler having scalped the highest number of wickets, 21, so far but has not been able to make much of a mark as a batsman.
Afridi is hoping that the sheer fact of playing at home will have an adverse effect on the hosts.
"Normally, whenever both teams play there is great pressure because of the high expectations of the people but this time India are playing in front of their home crowd and the pressure will be greater on them," Afridi said.
Afridi is also not too bothered by Pakistan`s poor World Cup record against India.
"That is history and this team has a habit of changing history. More importantly the winning momentum we have got, it allows the players to be better prepared for the big match," he said.
The pitch at the PCA Stadium still sports some grass and the fast bowlers will have more purchase from the wicket than the spinners.
Another factor, which is expected to play a role in the outcome of the match, is dew. Over the last few days there has been heavy dew with the outfield being wet at night.
Considering the dew factor and with the pitch likely to lose pace later, the team that wins the toss is expected to bat first. Bowlers will have tough time to grip the ball in the second innings.
History suggests that captains prefer to bat first after calling the coin right on this pitch.
Seven out of the nine matches played in the last five years have been won by the side batting first. Out of those nine, seven were day-night matches with five won by the side batting first.
Also, out of the nine matches, the 300-run mark has been breached only twice. Incidentally, on the first occasion, Pakistan chased down India`s 321 in a day-night game.
India: Mahendra Singh Dhoni (capt), Sachin Tendulkar, Virender Sehwag, Gautam Gambhir, Yuvraj Singh, Virat Kohli, Yusuf Pathan, Harbhajan Singh, Zaheer Khan, R Ashwin, Munaf Patel, Ashish Nehra, Piyush Chawla, Suresh Raina, S Sreesanth.
Pakistan: Shahid Afridi (capt), Misbah-ul-Haq, Mohammad Hafeez, Kamran Akmal, Younis Khan, Asad Shafiq, Umar Akmal, Abdul Razzaq, Abdur Rehman, Saeed Ajmal, Shoaib Akhtar, Umar Gul, Wahab Riaz, Junaid Khan, Ahmed Shahzad.
Umpires: Simon Taufel and Ian Gould (both on-field), Billy Bowden (third umpire), Rod Tucker (fourth umpire). Ranjan Madugalle (match referee).
Match starts at 2.30 pm (IST).