When India play Pakistan, it goes far beyond mere victory and defeat in cricket

Pakistan v India is a heavyweight clash in all senses of the word. When it is also a World Cup semi-final, it becomes epic and illustrates how sport can open borders.

MS Dhoni, left, and India got the better of Pakistan in the Twenty20 World Cup final in 2007 in Johannesburg, South Africa. Hamish Blair / Getty Images
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The stage is set for the 2011 cricket World Cup to be graced by the mother of all battles — cricket's el clasico — as India and Pakistan prepare to go head to head on Wednesday.

As if the pressure of a potential final berth is not enough, add into the mix probably the biggest rivalry in the sport replete with some unforgettable moments.

Fans will no doubt be bracing themselves for an epic encounter. Etched in supporters' minds will be a number of defining moments.



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For Pakistan, Javed Miandad's famous last ball six off Chethan Sharma's low full toss outside leg stump when a four was needed to win the 1986 Australasia Cup final.

Then there was Aaqib Javed's hat-trick in the final of the 1991 Will's Trophy in which he ended with career-best figures of seven for 37.

For India, Ajay Jadeja's onslaught against Waqar Younis's famous inswinging yorkers in which he smashed 18 and 22 off the pace bowler's last two overs, and the face-off between Aamir Sohail and Venkatash Prasad in Bangalore at the 1996 World Cup quarter-final with the Indians emerging as the winner.

In later years, Sachin Tendulkar's heroics in the 2003 World Cup when he destroyed an electric Shoaib Akthar as India successfully chased a stiff total.

To top it all, the Twenty20 World Cup matches in 2007, in which the teams tied in the early match and the Indians won a dramatic final.

Perhaps the running theme relating to all of these moments is that despite detailed consideration of all the potential cricketing and technical permutations, it is often quite simply the team with the clearest minds and coolest heads that emerges the victor.

The role of the captains will be important, their contrasting leadership styles tested.

It is a situation that India have managed more efficiently in World Cups and, despite Pakistan having an overall positive win ratio in one-day internationals (ODIs), India have been victorious in all four previous meetings in the premier ODI tournament.

Perhaps tellingly, cricket is a game of statistics and precedent, and it is often the chains of history that are the most difficult to manage.

Breaking the shackles requires a superhuman effort and it is an area Shahid Afridi and his Pakistan team will no doubt have on their minds as they prepare for the big match.

In the diplomatic melee that is the relationship between Pakistan and India, it is the fans who suffer, and it is a travesty that these teams only meet when forced together by World Cup stipulations.

However, this lack of contact has added to the mystique, further compounded by the spicy Indian Premier League snub of Pakistani talent.

It is a fact that will not be lost on the fans who will no doubt create an electric atmosphere during the match in Mohali.

This will constitute a new challenge for Pakistan, as previous hosts have been gracious and supportive to the extent that games have had the atmosphere of home ties for the men in green.

No doubt some of the thousands of Pakistani fans who have travelled to watch the match at Mohali will support the team with passion, even though they will be vastly outnumbered.

The rivalry that is stoked as a prelude to the game is a complex one. In the 2004 series, Indian fans travelling to Lahore were offered free meals by their hosts.

Thus differences, whether perceived or actual, melted away upon social interaction.

Similarly, during the 2006 ICC Champions Trophy, where Pakistan and India met at Edgbaston in Birmingham, England, focus was placed on security and policing. But the reality, in a non-segregated ground, turned out to be that the match passed off without any significant incident.

In fact, home-cooked pakoras and bhajis were shared between the opposing fans during the match and congratulations and commiserations offered all around.

Talking of precedents, who could forget the famously knowledgeable Chennai crowd applauding the victory lap after Pakistan's tight 12-run win in 1999 which was the first tour of Pakistan to the country in 12 years

But it is not all fun and games, and the truest sense of the rivalry should not be underestimated.

In the past, Pakistani and Indian armies have exchanged artillery fire at the end of matches.

Even the border guards at Wagah have displayed an extra zip in their dusk drills.

In cricketing terms, the question still remains: how will India's star-studded batting line-up fare against the tournament's most potent bowling attack?

This has been the deciding factor in matches between the two teams and the semi-final will be no different.

Pakistan's previous game against the West Indies highlighted this, as did India's tense run chase against Australia.

Umar Gul and Afridi will be the men to watch.

Although the latter's form with the bat has not been good, Afridi will seek to draw the parallels with the Twenty20 World Cup in 2009, where his batting rose to the big occasion.

Afridi has already stated he will aim to prevent Tendulkar reaching his 100th century.

Yuvraj Singh, Tendulkar, Virender Sehwag and Zaheer Khan are the key Indian players, with Yuvraj in imperious form.

The fact is that both teams have played some exhilarating cricket, the home advantage will favour India and previous form will mean nothing.

The stakes are high and lines are being drawn in the sand, but what should not be lost in the hype is the manner in which sport has yet again exhibited the ability to catalyse the building of bridges across the chasm that has opened up between the two countries over the last few years.

This is the first match that Pakistan will play on Indian soil since the Mumbai attacks of November 26, 2008.

The pain of that day will no doubt be in the thoughts of all involved.

The Indian prime minister has invited his Pakistani counterpart to attend the match.

Is it more than just a cricket game? Always!

This is a point that has not been lost on Afridi, who also hopes that the upcoming game can rebuild relations.

The subcontinent will come to a standstill while the match is on and many fans across the world will be planning to take the day off for this much anticipated match.

Yes, the stage is set. Let's hope for a cracker and may the best side win.