x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

The calm before the storm at World Twenty20

Tranquility will give way to tension when India face Pakistan, Osman Samiuddin writes from Colombo.

MS Dhoni, left, says his fellow India cricketers are always playing under pressure, and matches against Pakistan do not add to it. Lakruwan Wanniarachchi / AFP
MS Dhoni, left, says his fellow India cricketers are always playing under pressure, and matches against Pakistan do not add to it. Lakruwan Wanniarachchi / AFP

Yesterday, Colombo was at peace. It was Poya (a religious holiday) and so all businesses and offices were shut. The streets were empty, the tuk-tuks not tuk-tukking and the beautiful colonial-era buildings around the port area in silent contemplation of their own history, untroubled by human interruptions.

There was life at the beach on Galle Road, but a pick-up game of cricket and kite-flying the only clear signs of any physical exertion. The day gave no indication of what is to come tonight at the R Premadasa, India and Pakistan, a little tournament itself within a bigger, global tournament.

Colombo is the way to do it. It has vacuumed in the tension and frenzy this match generates, and let out a gentle breeze of friendly unconcern. The two sides have only played in Colombo twice before, two ODIs ten years apart in 1994 and 2004; the first was abandoned, the second Pakistan won.

This should be surprising because Colombo makes for an ideal neutral venue. Sri Lanka takes cricket seriously, but not thankfully as seriously as India and Pakistan.

The Indian and Pakistani boards are on good terms with Sri Lanka Cricket; they have helped them financially and a Pakistan-India match, wherever it is played, is commercial gold.

It is also perfect for fans from both countries and accommodating of their vast, heaving diasporas around the globe; accessible, cheap, visa-friendly. Many were scattered around the city yesterday in fandom limbo, recovering from the night before and waiting for the night after.

At the city's famous Cricket Club Cafe – a pilgrimage more than an eatery – a Pakistani father and son were meeting up, the latter arrived from Lahore, the former from Austen, Texas. For just two games, but mostly Pakistan and India. "It's a long trip sure," said the father, "but if not for this what else?"

Another group of young men had arrived from Karachi, hoarse from the night before. They are on the same hotel floor as the Indian team, conspiring, by way of banter, to disturb them at night.

It is only banter: after Pakistan's win over South Africa on Friday, they swapped their Pakistan kits to wear Indian ones for their game against Australia. And outside their room doors, bang opposite Zaheer Khan's, they have stuck one Pakistani and one Indian shirt.

At a hotel opposite the port, three brothers, Irfan, Ehsan and Rizwan Ahmed, all sixty-plus have gathered.

One is from New York, one from Paris and one from Islamabad. "We do this a lot," said Irfan. "We were in Dubai for England and Pakistan earlier this year." They are becoming quite the stories themselves with Indian and Pakistani TV channels.

It is good light stuff, distracting even and necessarily so because tonight will not be.

Every India-Pakistan game carries unimaginable tensions and unfathomable pressures, and Twenty20 magnifies those, as well as the conflicts apparent in every single ball, many times over.

The pains, the gains cannot be any greater when they can be produced by one single ball.

The players, of course, dismiss pressure as a default setting.

"We're always at the top of the pressure-chain," MS Dhoni, the Indian captain, said. "The most [pressure] is always there because of the expectation levels. Back home, we're expected to win everything. I don't think the pressure will go beyond that limit because it's always been there. What's important is to enjoy the game and not to think about the result too much."

Pakistan's captain Mohammad Hafeez was asked whether this was a final before the final. Nope.

"This is another game for us and we try to do our best. India obviously brings greater expectations so there is pressure but we've been playing each other often and that pressure has reduced. It is a normal game of cricket in which we have to do our best."

It is not of course, it cannot be, because if it was, cricket-based chat would have been more prominent. Will Virender Sehwag, tormentor of Pakistan, play? Will Shoaib Malik, always a man for India, emerge from his listlessness? Will Pakistan continue with spin? Is Virat Kohli about to extend his excellent record against Pakistan?

Colombo has done its best to deflate the pressure. But by tonight, no one is likely to remember this cherished day of calm.


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