The tension is building up gradually. The euphoria is in the air. Saturday can't come sooner for cricket fans as arch rivals India and Pakistan get ready to lock horns in front of 130,000 fans at the iconic Narendra Modi Stadium in Ahmedabad.
India vs Pakistan is not just about cricket; it is much more than that, both for players as well as fans.
Yes, players rightly downplay the hype around it to avert unnecessary pressure, but it is a fact that the implications on their image and their career are a lot more on this game than any other. They know that if they perform here, people will idolize them for decades; and if they fail, people will chastise them no matter what they do against other teams.
Just ask Venkatesh Prasad how many times people have reminded him of his fiery face-off with Aamir Sohail in 1996 or Ajay Jadeja on how fans still sing praises of his breathtaking assault against Waqar Younis in the same game or Master Blaster Sachin Tendulkar about "THAT SHOT' he hit off Shoaib Akhtar in Centurion in 2003.
Or ask Suresh Raina how fans still thank him for saving the Men in Blue with his amazing cameo during the 2011 semi-final in Mohali or Munaf Patel about that peach of a ball he delivered to Abdul Razzaq or Kuldeep Yadav about how fans still play his magical wrong-un to Babar Azam during the 2019 World Cup.
Or Wasim Akram about how people still accuse him of deliberately missing the 1996 Q/F or Shoaib Akhtar about that infamous six from Sachin in 2003.
Or Virat Kohli and Rohit Sharma on how their respective 100s against Pakistan during the 2015 and 2019 World Cup remains one of the highest points on their glittering CV.
That said, the players/teams also know that there is very little scope for failure. Which makes this game more about temperament than skills. This is the major reason why teams generally tend to make a lot more mistakes in this match than they would otherwise do. The key is to minimize the errors viz-a-viz their opponent.
On October 14th, as the Men in Blue march on the field amid 130,000 roaring Indians, the tension will be irresistible, and the pressure at its peak. A billion hearts will be bleeding blue in the hope that the Rohit Sharma-led unit will carry forward the legacy of previous teams and extend the proud record to 8-0; a legacy built on innumerable moments of joy.
However, before that, let us recall how this 'rivalry' has shaped up in the last 30 years.
The 1990s: When WC wins over Pakistan was the only solace amid doom
The 1990s was a grim time for Indian cricket, While they boasted of the best batsman in the world in a young Sachin Tendulkar, they just didn't have enough pedigree to match up with the best sides in the world consistently. And the off-field issues didn't help.
Pakistan, on the other hand, was one of the best sides in the world with match-winners in every facet. They also had a stranglehold over India, post Javed Miandad's final-ball six off Chetan Sharma in 1986.
With the relations with Pakistan at an all-time low, losing to them in World Cups was just not an option.
"Kisi se bhi har jao par Pakistan se mat harna (Lose to anyone but Pakistan)"
Used to be a common saying among passionate Indian fans.
And, thankfully, the magnanimity of the occasion ensured that the Men in Blue used to unleash their hidden beast against their fierce rivalry at the World Cup stage.
The arch-rivals first locked horns with each other in World Cups during the 1992 event. India had lost 9 out of their last 12 games to Pakistan heading into their marquee clash in the WC, but an all-round show from young prodigy Sachin Tendulkar (54* off 62 & 1/37 (10) and a disciplined bowling performance meant that the Men in Blue were able to pull off a comprehensive 43-run victory to kickstart an era of dominance.
Four years later, India and Pakistan co-hosted the World Cup, and they met each other in the Quarter-finals in Bangalore. Once again, Pakistan went in as favourites, only to be sucker-punched by knockout blows from Navjot Singh Sidhu, Ajay Jadeja, and Venkatesh Prasad.
Sidhu set the tone with a 115-ball 93, but it was Jadeja, who knocked the stuffing out of the Pakistani bowlers- particularly Waqar Younis- by smashing 45 off just 25 deliveries. The sight of Jadeja smashing Waqar down the ground, with Tony Greig's high-pitched commentary amid a roaring stadium still send goosebumps all over the body.
In response, the Pakistani openers came out firing on all cylinders. Aamir Sohail, in particular, was at his animated best as he regularly danced down the track to unleash his powerful cut shots.
But, Sohail went overboard and proceeded to rile up Venkatesh by gesturing to the medium pacer that he would again hit the latter in the same direction.
Prasad decided to answer with the ball as he went on to demolish Sohai's stumps on the very next delivery to not only give the Pakistani opener an epic send-off but also write the obituary of the Men in Green as India dumped the defending champions out of the tournament to make it 2-0.
The next encounter took place amid an ongoing Kargil War, and once again Pakistan went in as favourites, only to be humbled again by Prasad and co.
This time, Prasad went on to claim a five-wicket haul (5/27) to help India defend 227.
Amid the unending doom and gloom, these three World Cup victories over Pakistan proved to be the soothing balm on the infinite scars that the 90s inflicted on fans.
2003- Hungry Sachin feast on Pakistanis in Centurion as all-round India extend WC dominance
The wind of change was blowing at an incredibly high speed in Indian cricket during the early 2000s, and by the time they met Pakistan in Centurion at the 2003 World Cup, they were no longer a team that was dependent on one or two players.
The influx of young talents like Virender Sehwag, Yuvraj Singh, Harbhajan Singh, Zaheer Khan, Mohammad Kaif, Ashish Nehra, and Ganguly's inspirational leadership meant that the benchmark for this team was no longer just about beating Pakistan.
Pakistan, on the other hand, were an aging team, with most of their players well past their prime. And, it showed on that day in Centurion as Master Blaster Sachin Tendulkar just laid into their attack and made an absolute mockery of it.
Backfoot punch? Check. Straight drive? Check. Upper-cut? Check. Flick? Check. Square-cut? Check. Check. Check.
Tendulkar dished out an absolute clinic to leave the Pakistanis knackered in their defense of 273, and while he was eventually dismissed for 98 (75 deliveries), the newfound depth in the Indian batting in the form of Dravid and Yuvraj ensured that his heroics did not go in vain as India romped home with plenty of overs to spare.
Fans had to wait for 8 long years for India and Pakistan to lock horns at the World Cup as both these sides got knocked out in the Group stages of the 2007 event.
2011: When the entire world descended in Mohali
The wait finally came to an end on March 30, 2011, when India hosted Pakistan in the semi-final of the World Cup for the first time in the tournament's history.
The fixture was confirmed 6 days in advance following Pakistan's victory over the West Indies, and India's thrilling win over defending champions Australia, and every fan will confirm that the wait proved to be unending.
Every second felt like an hour, and overthinking was at an all-time high. The worst thing about these high-profile fixtures is that they give us fans a feeling of hopelessness as we aren't in control of the proceedings. We dread the worst of scenarios during the lead-up, and the mental state keeps getting worse as the game nears.
This was exactly the case during the lead-up to the 2011 semi-final in Mohali as the stakes were just too high. A place in the World Cup final is up for grabs against your fiercest rivals, whom you have beaten every single time in previous meetings.
For Pakistan, it was about finally breaking the stranglehold that India had had over them in World Cups, amid a packed crowd of Indian fans.
Losing was just not an option for either side. And, the match proved to be an apt reflection of that as both sets of players made plenty of mistakes. Pakistan dropped Sachin Tendulkar five times, but the Indians still did not cash in and were reduced to 7-205.
But, Suresh Raina saw this adversity as an opportunity to make himself immortal in the annals of folklore, and he did exactly that as he chipped in with an unbeaten 36 to power India to a defendable score of 260.
With just 260 on the board, the Indians knew that they couldn't afford to be reckless. And, they weren't. The same can't be said about the Pakistani batsman as they squandered a decent start through bizarre dismissals and their middle-order just couldn't cope with the pressure exerted by Yuvraj Singh and Harbhajan Singh.
Misbah-ul-Haq tried to delay the inevitable, but the moment finally arrived when his attempted loft over long-on landed straight into Virat Kohli's hands to confirm India's ticket for the World Cup final.
2015- 2023*: An era of ruthless dominance. Will it continue in Ahmedabad?
By the time the 2015 World Cup rolled around, the gulf between India and Pakistan had become huge, and their subsequent WC meetings at the Adelaide Oval and Manchester proved to be an apt reflection of that.
In Adelaide, the legendary Virat Kohli stamped his authority as he became the first Indian to score a World Cup ton against Pakistan. India went on to post more than 300, and the all-round bowling attack did the rest as the Men in Green came no way close to overhauling the target.
4 years later, the Pakistanis faced the wrath of yet another modern-day Indian giant in the form of Rohit Sharma, who painted the iconic Old Trafford venue with his picturesque stroke play to rack up 140 runs.
Kuldeep Yadav then produced one of the greatest deliveries ever bowled in an Indo-Pak encounter as he breached the defense of Babar Azam with a vicious googly to confirm that the World Cup streak would live on.
A lot has happened since that day in Manchester. In 2021, India suffered their first-ever defeat to Pakistan in T20 World Cups. While the Indians redeemed that heartbreak thanks to an all-time classic from Virat Kohli in Melbourne last year, a sense of fear still lingers, not because they do not believe in their side, but because of the law of averages striking at the wrong time.
On Saturday, the ODI streak will be on the line, and the Indian fans will hope that Ahmedabad will join the elite list of Sydney, Bangalore, Manchester, Centurion, Mohali, Adelaide, and Manchester, and not Dubai.
India will once again start as favorites thanks to their all-round squad, and their overall dominance over Pakistan in this format since the last decade, but this will mean nothing once the game gets underway.
This set of players has time and again shown that they can withstand extreme pressure and come out as victors. Will they be able to do that this weekend in Ahmedabad? The entire nation awaits to find it out with bated breadth.
Featured Image Credit: ICC