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Pakistanís Kamran Akmal watches as Rahul Dravid hits out during an ICC Champions Trophy match in 2009 in Centurion. Julian Herbert / Getty Images
Pakistanís Kamran Akmal watches as Rahul Dravid hits out during an ICC Champions Trophy match in 2009 in Centurion. Julian Herbert / Getty Images

Dravid: India are favourites against Pakistan in today's World Cup semi

While his countrymen face Pakistan for a place in the World Cup final in Mohali today, the Indian great will desperately try to keep up to date on proceedings from Abu Dhabi.

As India take on Pakistan in Mohali today, with a place in the final of the World Cup at stake, expect a sudden quiet to settle on the subcontinental neighbours. The two countries, with a total population of 1.3 billion, will come to a virtual standstill.

Mysterious illnesses will cause thousands to call in sick at work. Those in offices will have scoreboards running on their desktop; others will carry tiny transistor radios around. Malls, markets, metros and streets will be deserted, except for the electronic shops or cafes with a television set; crowds will mill outside those places, trying to get a glimpse of the match.

Far away from those shores, in Abu Dhabi to be precise, one of India's favourite sons, representing the MCC (Marylebone Cricket Club) in the English county season's opening game at the Zayed Cricket Stadium, will be a distracted man, eagerly searching for news from Mohali from any source possible.

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More

ē A two-point agenda for everyone at Mohali
ē India and Pakistan have been two nations with one soul
ē India captain Dhoni wary of Pakistan counterpart Afridi's spin
ē When India v Pakistan matches reached boiling point
ē Time for some hyperbole as Afridi blames media
ē Sri Lanka recover to beat New Zealand in Muralitharan's send-off game

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"Obviously, you can't stay away from a game like that," said Rahul Dravid, who still plays for India in Test cricket. "At least I will be following it on the net or just keeping a tab on what's happening.

"I think it's going to be a great game, a great atmosphere. I think, from a World Cup's perspective, it couldn't have panned out better: India playing Pakistan in the semi-final.

"Well, I guess India playing Pakistan in the final would have been the only thing better, but I think you can't ask for anything more. I think they are two good teams playing good cricket, so it should be a cracker of a game."

Dravid, one of the most respected batsmen of the modern era, was India's captain at the last World Cup in 2007. He has since made way for the younger generation in limited overs cricket, after 339 one-day internationals that produced 10,765 runs. Only six batsmen have crossed the 10,000-run mark in ODIs.

Dravid, whose last 50-over appearance was at the Champions Trophy in 2009, said he will not be missing the buzz of being a part of the dressing room at Mohali.

"I am still playing Test cricket and enjoying Test cricket, and the team is doing well," he said. "So no. I have had my time, I've had a lot of games of one-day cricket and I am enjoying whatever I am playing now. I will enjoy watching them from afar."

A box seat would have been better, though. An India-Pakistan game, with all its unbridled passion and parochialism, is always an occasion. It has often been a balm to soothe the testy relationship between the two neighbours.

In 1987, with troops massed on either side of the border, Zia-ul-Haq, the late Pakistan president, arrived in Jaipur, ostensibly to watch a game of cricket, but the visit eased the simmering tensions as well.

This time around Yousuf Gilani, the Pakistan prime minister, will be in Mohali, accepting an invitation from his Indian counterpart Manmohan Singh. The visit could break the diplomatic deadlock and lead to some normalisation of ties.

With so much riding on one game, predictions are always difficult to make. Still, India start as the favourites. They will be playing at home and, additionally, Pakistan have never beaten India in a World Cup.

"India in India are favourites, there is no doubt," said Rashid Latif, a former Pakistan captain, adding that, "an Indo-Pak encounter is an ideal opportunity to reach stardom in a flash."

Wasim Akram, the legendary Pakistan fast bowler and a star of their World Cup triumph in 1992, holds a similar opinion.

"I feel that India are the favourites against Pakistan," he said. "An India-Pakistan match is always a pressure-cooker affair, whether you play in front of an empty stand or in Timbuktu. It will certainly be a close game."

Dravid feels the same way, but he said Pakistan have a lot to play for after their problems of the last few years.

"I think India start as favourites, there's no doubt about it," he said. "But Pakistan will be keen to put the recent controversies behind them and do well."

Passions will be running high during the game, both on the field and off it, in millions of homes worldwide.

Given the hype, Intikhab Alam, the Pakistan manager, has been forced to make a plea for the nationalist fervour to be toned down.

"Let it remain as cricket and don't make us feel as if we are standing on a war front," he said on his arrival in Mohali earlier this week.

"Both teams cannot win and somebody has to lose, but whichever team loses should lose gracefully. We have to give that positive message."

Dravid, however, does not mind the fanaticism, though he has suffered from it in the past. As India made a poor start to the World Cup in 2003, his car was stoned by angry mobs in Bangalore.

Reminiscing on that World Cup, John Wright, the then India coach, recently said: "It was difficult. We knew about the reactions back home and some of them were extreme and I think Mohammed Kaif [whose house was tarred by angry fans] and Rahul Dravid were affected. Sourav [Ganguly] and some of us had our effigies burnt."

Dravid, however, prefers to see the positive side and said: "I have always seen that as a passion for the game. The Indian fan is what makes this game a great game.

"The passion of the supporters from the subcontinent has meant that there is so much more money in the game, there is such a bigger following of the game all over the world because there are so many expats.

"So I think it's great. This World Cup has been a great success because the people have come out and supported, whether it has been in India, Bangladesh or Sri Lanka.

"In all these three countries, people have come out and supported the game. That's really critical and important."

Away from the bustle of ODI cricket, Dravid is still going strong in the traditional five-day version of the game, where he is third in the list of Test run-scorers with 12,063, behind Sachin Tendulkar (14,692) and Ricky Ponting (12,363). He is the only batsman to have scored centuries in all 10 Test-playing countries and also holds the record for most catches (200) by a fielder.

India's Test cricket fans, however, will not be blessed with his assured presence at the crease for many more years as he turned 38 in January. Dravid, however, is not worried about the future of India's batting, even though the team could lose him and their other mainstays - Tendulkar (who turns 38 next month) and VVS Laxman (36) - in the coming years.

"I don't worry so much about the batting in India because history tells you that we tend to produce good batsmen," said the man, who earned the tag of "The Wall" for his defiance while batting.

"There have always been good batsmen, whether it's been from the days of [Vijay] Merchant, [Vijay] Hazare and [Vijay] Manjrekar. You go on to [Sunil] Gavaskar, [Gundappa] Viswanath and [Dilip] Vengsarkar, and then Tendulkar and [Mohammed] Azharuddin. Then the rest of us have come through.

"I hope that cycle will continue. We'll move on and we have to at some stage, and other young kids will come on. There are already some young kids showing a lot of potential and talent. So I am confident that they will come on and they'll do their bit."

arizvi@thenational.ae

DRAVID SPEAK ON OTHER ISSUES

The changing trends in batting
I love watching the way people play today, they play positively, runs are scored, itís great for spectators, itís great to watch. Scoring rates in Test matches are so much higher now, so itís fantastic.

Still get a kick out of cricket
I played in a different era. I grew up learning the game very differently. Today thereís a lot more one-day cricket, thereís so much Twenty20 cricket. People learn different skills at a young age. So yeah, I love it, I love watching it and I think itís fantastic for the game.

On Dravid Junior, Samit, aged five
He is five years old and we donít really put any pressure on him. We donít force him to watch cricket. He doesnít really watch a lot of cricket now. He is too young. He likes to throw the ball around, he likes to kick a football, he just likes to run around and play whatever he can.

ĎThe Wallí or just Rahul?
I think I like Rahul. I donít like to take these tags seriously, to be very honest. I donít go around thinking of myself as ďThe WallĒ or any particular nickname people have used for me. I like Rahul and thatís who I am.

Books or TV?
I wonít say I am a bookworm, but I enjoy reading. I read a bit. I prefer reading to watching TV. Reading is a good distraction for me. It just takes your mind away from the cricket and the pressures and stresses of just playing the game. So I always found reading as a good relaxing thing to do in the room, rather than switching on the TV.

Future Plans
I havenít decided what I am going to do. Itís obviously been a long career and after Iíve had this travelling for so long, I will probably take some time off, settle down, spend some time at home ... Iíd like to stay involved in the game. I donít know what sort of† role Iíd like to play.

______________

More

ē A two-point agenda for everyone at Mohali
ē India and Pakistan have been two nations with one soul
ē India captain Dhoni wary of Pakistan counterpart Afridi's spin
ē When India v Pakistan matches reached boiling point
ē Time for some hyperbole as Afridi blames media
ē Sri Lanka recover to beat New Zealand in Muralitharan's send-off game

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