As Pakistan and India square up for their crucial World Cup match on Saturday, there is more than just political rivalry at stake. Quite simply, the chances of Pakistan reaching the Super Sixes stage depend almost exclusively on this one game; if Pakistan lose, they might as well start packing their bags, irrespective of the outcome of their final match against Zimbabwe. India have got the basic 16 points needed to qualify although it does not make qualification certain for them. If they were to lose to Pakistan and Pakistan were to beat Zimbabwe, both sides would have 16 points and perhaps both would go through to the Super Sixes if form is not upset by a shock Australian defeat at England's hands.
If on the other hand Pakistan lose this one and England lose to Australia as well and Pakistan beat Zimbabwe, Pakistan, England and Zimbabwe might all find themselves on 12 points with run rates coming into play. There can be little doubt that if Pakistan's batting continues to perform as it has been, it does not give the bowlers, however good they may be, much of a chance. The debacle against England may in part be attributed to conditions becoming much more difficult under lights. England themselves faced some of this against India, although nothing should take away from Ashish Nehra's outstanding effort.
But that factor apart, Pakistan's batting has been tentative right throughout this tournament and except for the occasional flash of form, has been consistently underperforming for the past six months. The side is accustomed to playing around Inzamam and since he is in no sort of form to speak of, the Pakistan batting effort seems to have lost its moorings. His confidence must be at rock bottom and it must be a huge ask of him to come and perform in a game as high profile as this one. The expectations of the fans back home and the importance everyone knows they attach to the game makes things more difficult.
It remains to be seen if Inzamam will be able to cope with all that after having scored just 10 runs in his four World Cup outings. He can be certain that he will never face a more stern and demanding test than this one and if he does come through, he is not just a tremendous player but a man with tremendous strength of character as well.
To a lesser extent, that applies to all of Pakistan's batsmen. Saeed Anwar has struggled even against the minnows and his new found technique of stepping in front of middle stump, exposing leg and trying to play past midwicket inspires one with no confidence whatsoever, particularly when the ball has been moving and bouncing. In South Africa, the ball has been doing both particularly in the first 15 overs or so. Youhana and Younis Khan have also been desperately short of runs. All in all, if Pakistan is to compete, it will have to lift its batting many notches.
In bowling too, much more attention will have to be paid to the more mundane attributes of line and length. Some of the minnows have shown that in the one day game batsmen do not have to be blasted out; they can be held in check by bowlers who do the few things they know they can do well and wait for the batsman to make the mistake which, if one is consistent enough with line and length, will come in due time. The search for the unplayable ball may be very exciting, especially when it comes off, but it keeps the opposition going at a steady five-and-a-half per over and that takes off pressure even when wickets do fall.
There has to be a reappraisal of that attacking policy, for though it wins praise from the media, winning matches is more important. More discipline is also required from bowlers over wides and no balls. Giving 41 runs by way of extras over a 50-over innings is simply not acceptable. It means Pakistan has to bowl extra overs, leading the problems with the over rate and gives free runs away thus putting an extra burden on Pakistan's batsmen who on present form, need all the help they can get.
By contrast, India's batting seems to be peaking at just the right time with Tendulkar leading the way. His feet are moving well and there is an element of casualness about his batting which would concern any bowler anywhere. With Nehra coming of age after that fine performance against England, India can boast the best pace attack they have ever had and on wickets that give assistance to swing and seam, they could cause Pakistan's heavily out of form batsmen problems.
India have never lost to Pakistan in the World Cup. Although strange things have happened in this World Cup, the odds would not be on that record being broken this time around.