Commentary

A lot at stake in India-Pakistan clash

Updated: March 28, 2011, 5:13 PM ET
By Ravi Ubha | ESPN.com

Cricket's World Cup is into the homestretch.

Co-hosts India and Sri Lanka, considered the top two contenders entering the event, are one win away from meeting in Saturday's final.

Beforehand, though, there's the tiny matter of India's semifinal clash against Pakistan.

Nothing at stake, is there?

Sri Lanka hosts New Zealand, overachieving yet again at a World Cup.

ESPN.com previews both semifinals.

India versus Pakistan, Wednesday, Mohali

Beauty can come with an immense price.

Kashmir, a region of allure equipped with placid lakes and snow-tinged mountains, has been the major source of contempt between India and Pakistan. Though each owns a patch in the subcontinent's northwestern territory, they each want the other's share.

Wars have been fought, and instead of becoming a substantial source of tourist revenue, wary international travelers largely stay away from the area.

When Pakistani gunmen terrorized Mumbai in November 2008, killing at least 166 people, another war was barely averted. Given both nations possess nuclear capabilities, the uneasiness won't soon fade.

[+] EnlargeIndia
Prakash Singh/AFP/Getty ImagesIs there more pressure to win the India-Pakistan semifinal battle than the final?

Unsurprisingly, and unfortunately, their cricket rivalry, among the most intense in any sport, has been affected.

India didn't contest a Test series in Pakistan for 15 years, ending the barren spell in 2004. India, from all indications, was warmly received.

Mahendra Dhoni summed up the importance of Wednesday's affair -- from a fan's perspective, anyway -- in the aftermath of India's gripping five-wicket victory over Australia, the three-time defending champion.

The Indian state of Punjab, which borders Pakistan, hosts the clash, with unprecedented security measures, including 2,000 police officers in and around the stadium, expected to be in place.

"There will be more pressure on the Indian side and it will be from outside," Dhoni, the captain, told reporters. "People will say, 'Win the semis, we don't care about the final.'"

Mutual respect exists between players, and outwardly, at least, political bigwigs are trying to get along as the world watches.

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh invited Pakistani counterpart Yousuf Raza Gilani and Pakistan President Asif Ali Zandari to the match -- and Gilani accepted.

Call it a start.

As much as they differ politically, similarities exist on the field at this World Cup. Explosive batsmen, who can also dazzle with spin, are leading the way.

No one has performed better than India's towering Yuvraj Singh. Singh has not only produced runs, averaging more than a century, but also delivered at crunch time.

There was no panic from Singh when he arrived to bat against Australia with the game hanging in the balance. His 57 off 65 balls steered India home.

Devoid of elite spinners such as Muttiah Muralitharan or Graeme Swann, Singh has plugged that hole for India, taking a timely 11 wickets. He felled Brad Haddin in the quarterfinals when the opener was cruising at 53.

Pakistan's Shahid Afridi, disappointingly, hasn't matched Singh's batting exploits, held to fewer than 10 runs in three of his six appearances. Only once has Afridi registered at least 20 -- versus Canada, far from a cricketing giant. India hopes his batting slump continues.

Afridi, however, has ripped through opposition batsmen, tallying a tournament-leading 20 wickets.

The teams' top fast bowlers, Zaheer Khan and Umar Gul, are also firing. Khan wobbled near the end of Australia's innings but otherwise impressed. A lefty, like Singh, he sits second behind Afridi with 17 wickets.

Gul excelled against the Aussies in the group stage, a major contributor as Pakistan ended Australia's 34-match World Cup winning streak. Gul -- like every other Pakistani bowler -- made light work of a woeful West Indies in the quarterfinals.

In India, Afridi and Gul face the most stacked lineup in cricket. Singh aside, they must deal with the "Little Master," Sachin Tendulkar, third in the standings in runs. Fellow opener Virender Sehwag, fit enough to play against Australia, hammered 175 against Bangladesh, which remains the highest individual score. Gautam Gambhir has chipped in three half-centuries.

India fielded well in the quarterfinals, yet Dhoni knows it's not a strong point. Pakistan isn't much different.

Wicket-keeper Kamran Akmal hasn't faltered since he was almost benched following a catalogue of errors against New Zealand, but a mistake is never far away.

It's bound to be a fascinating encounter whatever happens.

Sri Lanka versus New Zealand, Tuesday, Colombo

Oh, those South Africans, continuing to disappoint.

Coasting against New Zealand in the quarterfinals, a batting collapse -- better termed "choke" -- extended their World Cup drought.

Adieu to Messieurs Kallis, De Villiers, Amla and Smith, a usually feared foursome.

The Kiwis' progress gives the tournament a feel-good factor -- New Zealand is still reeling from the devastating earthquake that struck Christchurch in late February.

Further, few thought New Zealand, population a mere 4 million, would advance to a sixth World Cup semifinal.

"I look at it as an achievement for a country so small that we make so many semifinals," captain Daniel Vettori told reporters.

If New Zealand can venture to a first final, how Vettori's pride would be further boosted.

Recent results suggest it won't happen.

In its final group game, Sri Lanka crushed New Zealand by 112 runs in Mumbai, despite not fully firing. Kumar Sangakkara indeed hit a century, Mahela Jayawardene added 66 and Angelo Mathews 41, but no other Sri Lankan batsman exceeded seven. Muralitharan took four wickets as New Zealand slumped to 153 all out.

Crucially, though, Vettori himself, one of the game's best all-rounders, missed out due to a knee injury. His leadership was there for all to witness as he returned in the quarterfinals, competing well even though he wasn't 100 percent.

Jesse Ryder eased the burden on Ross Taylor by compiling a measured 83 on Friday, with the latter chipping in a useful 43 to continue his good form. Jacob Oram, injuries behind him, accounted for four wickets.

A 10-wicket victory in a quarterfinal can only be classed as dominant, but Sri Lanka isn't free of concerns.

Upul Tharanga and Tillakaratne Dilshan, authors of centuries against England, struggled in the oppressive heat. Dilshan needed help leaving the field when it ended and Tharanga asked for a runner.

Will the duo be fresh enough Tuesday, a quick three-day turnaround, in Colombo?

Muralitharan's tender hamstring needs monitoring, too, and Sri Lanka dropped balls in the field.

Something to ponder.

Ravi Ubha writes tennis and soccer for ESPN.com.

London-based Ravi Ubha covers soccer and tennis for ESPN.com.