BHUBANESWAR: Outside the stony walls, built more like a citadel guarding the sanctum, of the Kalinga Stadium an assorted crowd was assembled, restlessly queuing up to latch their hands on the flimsy slip that would guarantee their privilege as certifiers of Saturday’s high-voltage encounter between India and Pakistan.
Privilege because, there is a supply of only 7,000 tickets for 10 times the demand. Privilege because, it’s the first time the balmy city is hosting a contest of this enormity. Privilege because, it’s India versus Pakistan in times less ordinary. Special it always is, irrespective of the variables of season, place and context.
Suddenly, there is a buzz in and around the stadium. There are more policeman moving in groups, there are gun-toting Armymen inspecting anything their eyes find fishy, there are a handful of officials in mufti, strolling vigilantly, there are tea vendors in cycles making brisk business.
As the well-worn cliche goes, it’s not just sport when the two nations — bifurcated by geography but united by a common history, having fought three wars and with an ever-prevailing cross-border tension — meet on the turf. It’s about national pride, identity emotions, and a queasy blend of marketing opportunity, cult and a nice day. It’s about an excuse to be different — louder, nastier, braver.
The rivalry, many consider, has tempered with the passage of time, courtesy the predicable frequency with which diplomats on either side of the LoC sit alongside each other sharing high tea to cheer their sportsmen. But the intensity on the field — though Orwell’s analogy of war minus shooting is woefully misplaced in this particular context — can’t be more extreme.
Make no mistake, there are scores to settle. For Pakistan, the hurt of their Asian Games defeat still throbs, fresh as it had come in September. “It’s still fresh in our minds. Our morale has been low since,” admitted Pakistan skipper Muhammad Imran.
India, meanwhile, will look to banish the ghosts of bitter defeats against Pakistan in Champions Trophy. Thrice have they denied them podium.
Then there are these inescapable pre-match shenanigans. So Pakistan coach Shahnaz Sheik fired the first salvo, “The pressure will be on India, playing at home. On the other hand, we have nothing to lose. It will be an emotional match,” he said.
But ever the pragmatist, his counterpart Roelant Oltmans dead-batted it. “I have told my boys to execute strategies and not emotions. For us, it’s a one-off game. If we win we reach the final, and like as in any game, we will give 100 per cent. My boys aren’t under any pressure.”
Sheik then sounded a warning to the Indian defence. “We will attack with nine players.” But Oltmans thought otherwise, “If the way they played against the Dutch is an indication, I don’t see them going all-out on attack. In that match, they defended and relied on counters,” he pointed out.
Both carefully avoided the T-word. Oltmans, having coached Pakistan as well, pushed it aside. Sheik, the silken midfielder of yesteryear, gave an all-knowing frown, his eyebrows dilated enough to touch the hairline. Surely, it’s the most foolish question to ask anyone ahead of an India-Pakistan clash.
So another narrative in the much-chronicled rivalry-saga is waiting to unfold. And the erstwhile kingdom of Kalinga, with its rich history of wars, isn’t a bad setting at all!
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