The India captain says his players will do their best to ignore outside influences, while Pakistan's interior minister apologises for his spot-fixing remarks.
MS Dhoni ignores the hype and politics ahead of India-Pakistan semi-final
MOHALI // Mahendra Singh Dhoni, the India captain, says his players are focused only on playing their best cricket in tomorrow's eagerly awaited World Cup semi-final against Pakistan — and not the possible political ramifications of the game.
A host of politicians — including the prime ministers of both countries — VIPs and celebrities will attend the match, which is expected to be watched by a record television audience exceeding one billion.
Dhoni told a news conference today the presence of such distinguished guests means "we have to be at our best," but says the team will ignore any outside influences which might affect their performance.
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Fans have been queuing outside the stadium for days in the hope of getting their hands on a ticket for the match, which has been sold out for a week. Reports persist of people paying extortionate prices on the black market.
The high-profile match is being seen as a possible first step toward improved diplomatic relations between India and Pakistan, which broke down following the militant attacks in Mumbai in 2008.
For Dhoni though, the match simply provides an opportunity for his team to reward its millions of ardent fans by moving a step closer to winning the World Cup on home soil.
“We are not getting involved [in the hype],” he said. “We are expected to play good cricket — all this has been part of Indian cricket for a long time.”
Dhoni was asked seven times about how the hype surrounding the game might affect his team, and on each occasion Dhoni was unequivocal: “The only pressure on his team is the need to perform well.
“The biggest, distinguished guests will be there to see the game, but they are here to enjoy cricket, so we have to be at our best,” he said.
“When you talk about the hype and the pressure, whether you’re thinking about it or not thinking about it, it doesn’t really help you perform. What’s not helping you perform needs to be kept away. What needs to be done is topping up the skills. These are the vital areas we have been focusing on.”
With that in mind, Dhoni said the team had not watched television throughout the tournament. If they had, they would have seen near-blanket coverage of the match being dubbed the “final before the final.”
Instead, the players have been plotting how to deal with a Pakistan team including the tournament’s leading bowler in Shahid Afridi and one of the world’s best reverse swing exponents in Umar Gul.
“Afridi has been bowling really well,” Dhoni said of the leg-spinner. “He has been the pick of their bowlers. Irrespective of the bowler, it is important to play the ball on merit.
“They have a very good bowling attack. Bowlers who can bowl quick and spinners who’ve been doing well. They’ve also got part-timers, similar to subcontinental teams where part-timers are off-spinners, left arm or leg spinners.”
Dhoni ended his news conference by posing for photographs with the opposing skipper Afridi, prompting another flurry of frantic activity among the raft of photographers present.
Before he left, Dhoni had a reminder for anyone who might be tempted to lose their sense of perspective.
“Somebody has to lose this game, irrespective of what happens about the political talking,” he said. “At the end of [tomorrow], you’ll have one team losing and one team going into the final. That’s part and parcel of sport, each and every sport.”
Pakistan skip practice
Afridi also tried to provide the calming touch by resorting to humour and tagged India as favourites as he attempted to deflect the pressure off his team.
Pakistan decided to skip practice while the skipper amused the media with his one-liners. Asked why the team did not train, Afridi replied: "Why, you didn't like it?"
After drawing hoots of laughter, he added: "We have put in a lot of effort and today's off was absolutely necessary to save ourselves for tomorrow. New things should keep happening."
The inspirational captain was on a roll and ticked off the attributes of his teammates. "Young team. Average age is less. This is a match which will increase the average age," Afridi quipped as the assembled audience once again burst into laughter.
He soon turned more serious. "The boys are really doing a great job especially the youngsters. They are ready for this game," he said.
"We really worked hard at the practice session and took everything very seriously and made sure the boys are enjoying. We are playing as a unit and I am very happy as a captain."
Pakistan will also decide later today if Shoaib Akhtar, the fast bowler, is fit enough to return to the team.
Current and former Pakistan players have been calling for the experienced Akhtar to be restored to the team in a bid to unsettle India's batsmen with his pace.
But Afridi said that Akhtar is not 100 per cent but he's trying his level best and we will decide this evening.
Former captains Imran Khan and Javed Miandad are among those backing Akhtar's inclusion, and the 35-year-old veteran of 163 one-day internationals (ODI) has also received support from teammates Umar Gul and Misbah-ul-Haq.
Gul said that Akhtar's presence would take some pressure of him as Pakistan's front line fast bowler.
The Pakistan team rested Akhtar after the loss to New Zealand, his last involvement at the World Cup, in which the "Rawalpindi Express" conceded 70 runs, including 28 in one over.
But after missing the game against Zimbabwe, he was also left out of the subsequent wins over Australia and West Indies as Pakistan continued to build momentum.
His replacement Wahab Riaz has not made an impact though, and with the pitch at the Punjab Cricket Association ground expected to provide some help to quick bowlers, Akhtar is suddenly back in the frame.
Pakistan's interior minister has apologised to the country's cricket team after saying he was keeping a "close watch" on them ahead the semi-final.
Rehman Malik was quoted yesterday saying he had warned the team "there should be no match-fixing" and that the players were being closely monitored.
Afridi confirmed to the Associated Press today that Malik had telephoned him to apologise for his comments. Afridi said he did not want to comment further on the matter.
Malik said he was "sure the team has very clean members" but that he could not take any risks after the spot-fixing scandal last year which led to long-term bans for three key Pakistan players — Salman Butt, the captain at the time, Mohammed Asif and Mohammed Aamer.
The three players were found guilty of accepting bribes in return for making sure no-balls were bowled at certain times during a Test match in England last August.
Malik's remarks — and in particular the timing of them — were widely criticised in the Pakistan media and by other politicians, notably Imran Khan, who led Pakistan to the World Cup title in 1992.
A series of messages were later posted on Malik's Twitter account to explain his remarks.
One said that "a section of press has twisted my statement out of context, and wrongly projected my words."
Another said: "My only intention was and is that Pak cricket team play and perform their best. The support and prayers of the whole nation are [sic] with them."