India is playing Pakistan once again and I'm licking my chops. My cool blue India T-shirt will be ready, as will the popcorn and pints. There's going to be tension in the air, and whatever Ms Mandira Bedi wears (or doesn't) and Srikkanth babbles is going to be inconsequential. This is the game we are all waiting for and, whatever sane heads and head-to-head stats say, it's going to be a real battle of nerves for players as well as fans.
Somehow, playing against Pakistan in Tests or one-dayers gets the best out of Indians, and vice-versa. Who can forget Javed Miandad's last ball six at Sharjah, or Anil Kumble's 10 for 74 in Delhi? Who can forget Zaheer Abbas's blazing assault, that hastened the end of the spin troika of Prasanna, Bedi and Chandrashekhar or Sunil Gavaskar's brilliant 97 during his swan song in Bangalore?
But the World Cup is a different stage, and in spite of a better overall record, Pakistan has lost all three games against India in cricket's showpiece tournament. The pressure cooker atmosphere of the big occasion has led to frayed nerves on the field. Remember Miandad's imitation of Kiran More in Sydney in 1992? Or Venkatesh Prasad's duel with Aamir Sohail in the 1996 World Cup quarter-final?
From what one has heard from Indian cricketers who have played against Pakistan, whatever the rivalry may be on the field, off the field there is lots of mutual admiration, respect and regard for each other.
I remember Zaheer Abbas visiting Sunil Gavaskar's home in Dadar (central Mumbai) to attend young Rohan's birthday. Sunny and 'Zed' had bonded when they toured Australia as part of the Rest of the World team in 1971-'72. Also, questions floated by Pakistani cricketers to their Indian counterparts have often included queries about Raveena Tandon and Sonali Bendre!
My own personal favourite is the story of when a Pakistan XI led by the awe-inspiring Imran Khan took on the Cricket Club of India Golden Jubilee XI at the historic Brabourne Stadium, Mumbai, sometime in 1987-'88. The Pakistan team was playing this festival match as part of the CCI Golden Jubilee celebrations, and the CCI team had stalwarts like Roger Binny, Mohammad Azharuddin among others in its ranks.
The day before the game, the Pakistan nets had a welcome visitor. The late music maestro Shankar, of Shankar Jaikishen fame, sought out Abdul Qadir and told him that he had composed a tune after watching Qadir's unique bowling action!
Having been a member of the CCI cricket team, I was one of the 'volunteers' looking after the Indian dressing room, and was warned by the Pakistan manager that they would require a couple of fielders in case any of their stars decided that the hotel was a better place to be instead of the field.
Sure enough, after the guests had finished their batting and Chandrakant Pandit was smashing the ball around, Javed Miandad and Abdul Qadir decided to hop back to their hotel and the Pakistan manager looked toward us for much needed resources to patrol the Brabourne outfield.
CCI, that year, had in their ranks a few promising youngsters as 'playing members', a fabulous tradition that has given a platform for young cricketers to display their talents in Mumbai's senior tournaments. Kushroo Vasania, a former India Under-19 captain, was among those who had been drafted into the CCI as was a young man with curly mop of hair and prodigious talent, who answered to the name of Sachin Ramesh Tendulkar!
Sachin had become a 'playing member' that year, and had played in Mumbai's senior league for the first time. The CCI's then president Madhav Apte (a former India player) had changed the rules to allow the 'minor' to step into the 'above-18 allowed' CCI cricket dressing room. Both were told to be available if required
Kushroo was an obvious choice, having been one of the good fielders in the Mumbai cricket circuit. While Shishir Hattangadi (former Mumbai captain) and I were looking for 'fielder No. 2', we heard the (now famous) soft voice ask: 'Me Zaaoo Ka?' (Can I go?).
Even before we said 'yes' the curly-topped kid was on the ground, rubbing shoulders with Wasim Akram, Imran, Rameez Raja, Mudassar Nazar!
India's pride and joy, Sachin Tendulkar, had in fact stepped on to the international arena for the first time as a reserve fielder for a Pakistan XI! I doubt if there can be a better example of what could be possible, if we were to propagate good relations between two neighbours who love peace and share the same passions, but are unfortunately kept away from each other by rabid politics and hateful propaganda.
Postscript: Marcus Couto, a cricket enthusiast, umpire, statistician and friend of Sachin's remembers the conversation they had when he and Sachin headed home after that game. "We were travelling in a second class compartment of Mumbai's Western Railway, and Sachin was upset that the captain had posted him too deep at long on. He tried to go for a catch, but the ball was too far away from him," says Marcus.
"I think that was the last time Sachin traveled in a Mumbai suburban train," he adds.