Pakistan have all-round depth but their batting line-up and World Cup record give India the edge but Dhoni is not taking the leading wicket-taker of the tournament lightly.
India captain Dhoni wary of Pakistan counterpart Afridi's spin
MOHALI // The gloves are off and the waiting is over as the most eagerly-anticipated game this World Cup has seen gets underway today.
And the prize could not be any bigger — a place in Saturday's final against Sri Lanka.
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It is game on and MS Dhoni, the India captain, has not lost sight of that. "We are playing the semi-finals," he said in his usual measured way. "The most important thing is how you prepare irrespective of what is happening around you. And that is what we have been doing the past few days."
India have won each of their previous four World Cup matches against Pakistan, including a highly-charged game at Bangalore in 1996. With their most successful crop of players edging closer to the end of the road, though, you sense that a fifth success would be most cherished.
Pakistan have not reached the final stages of the competition since 1999 and their cricket was in disarray a few months ago after the spot-fixing scandal which saw three players given lengthy bans.
Shahid Afridi, their captain, has won many admirers for the manner in which he has led his side into the last four and considering that Australia and South Africa have missed out, many would say that they have overachieved.
"We are enjoying our cricket and are not the most favoured team in this competition," he said.
"India are favourites. We have played above our expectations. So we're very confident."
While some commentators, such as Ian Chappell, the Australian great, have been critical of Afridi's arms-outstretched wicket celebrations, there is little doubt that his bowling and personality have had a galvanising effect on the team.
"Sometimes I do get very jazbaati [emotional] in team meetings, to get the boys fired up," Afridi said. "We are an emotional people. So I say something to motivate the guys, to get them to play good cricket."
Afridi backs his balanced attack to deliver against India's formidable batting line-up and Dhoni too pointed to that as the contest that could decide the game.
"They have got bowlers who can bowl quick and at the same time their spinners have been doing quite well," he said, assessing the challenge.
"Since they have a couple of bowling all-rounders in [Abdul] Razzaq and Afridi, it gives them the liberty to play with more than five bowlers."
In Dhoni's eyes, Afridi is the danger man. "If you see his performance, you will find it interesting the way he took his first 150 wickets and the next 150 in ODIs [much quicker]. He has been the pick of their bowlers."
They will also have to contend with the outstanding Umar Gul, a threat with new ball and old, while talk of Shoaib Akhtar being involved is likely to be no more than a smokescreen.
If Wahab Riaz or Saeed Ajmal is replaced, it should be the younger Junaid Khan who comes in and not the 35-year-old Shoaib.
An end-of-season pitch that might lack the life of traditional Mohali ones has confused Indian selection, too.
Sreesanth has not played since going for 53 in five overs against Bangladesh in the tournament opener in Mirpur, but if there is extra bounce on offer, the additional pace that he has presents an interesting option. With Munaf Patel having been picked off so easily in the quarter-final against Australia, it is between Sreesanth and Ashish Nehra for the final spot.
Nehra bowled the final over in the group stage loss to South Africa and has not played since.
But the fact that he batted in the nets and Sreesanth did not means that he will probably get the nod this morning.
Though they could spray the outfield with chemicals to reduce dew, it will certainly be a factor in what the captains choose to do on winning the toss.
India have batted first in three of those four World Cup wins and with the confidence of the Australia game behind them, they should edge it.
But when it comes to this rivalry, you know better than to take anything for granted.