The Marxist historian from the West Indies, C.L.R. James, ironically noted: “What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?" James wasn’t indulging in sophistry; he was pointing out the game’s relationship with the Empire, and what it meant for the colonized to adopt the ways of the imperialist, and aspire to claim glory denied politically. He would have cheered Ashutosh Gowariker’s film, Lagaan.

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There is no such colonial hangover when India faces Pakistan in cricket. And yet, when they do, like in Mohali today, they must bear an improbably high burden, redolent with renascent nationalism, which transforms just another cricket match into a battle to assert national identity. In spite of the best efforts of jingoists in India, such nationalism seems less rabid and more relaxed in India than in Pakistan, where Shahid Afridi’s men, like Mushtaq Mohammed’s, Intiqab Alam’s, Asif Iqbal’s, Imran Khan’s, and Inzamamum Haq’s before them, must do more than what 11 men can do—like avenging the military humiliations of 1965 and 1971, and the pushbacks of 1948 and 1999. They assume supranational loyalty—two Pakistan captains, in 1978 and in 2007, thought the world’s Muslims were rooting for them, even as Syed Kirmani in an earlier age and Irfan and Yusuf Pathan at that Twenty20 final probably looked at the Pakistani captains with mild irritation and amusement. The same today, with India’s pride, Zaheer Khan.

Pakistan has a point to prove. An attack on the Sri Lankan team banished cricket from the country; a betting scandal terminated two promising careers. During this World Cup, instead of hosting the matches, Pakistani cricketers have felt like they are foreigners in their own neighbourhood. The bombs aren’t their fault, the betting isn’t the only time they make news.

And yet, for Pakistan, victory over India would matter more than winning the cup on Saturday; for India, a win on Saturday is meant to be a tribute to Sachin Tendulkar, based on the assumption that this is his last World Cup—though he has said no such thing, and given his current form, who’d want to bet on that?

Mike Marqusee, an American writer with Marxist leanings, once wrote a book about cricket in the subcontinent, calling it War Minus the Shooting. This build-up to the World Cup semi-final shows just that—seeing cricket as diplomacy—or war— through other means. (In 1979, Janata Party activists told wavering Muslim supporters in India that during Indira Gandhi’s time, India bombed Pakistan; in Morarji Desai’s time, India played cricket with Pakistan—a classic non sequitur, assuming that only Indian Muslims cared for better relations with Pakistan.

The sort of imagery and paraphernelia deployed in the lead-up to Mohali suggests as though something truly seminal is at stake. Sighing a relief at getting to stay away from the vigilantes hunting down blasphemers, the Pakistani premier will be in India, and the Indian premier will prefer Mohali over receiving barbs in Delhi. On the Internet a Pakistani fan has placed Shahid Afridi’s face on a Pakistani commander’s, which is probably a bad idea, since the Pakistani army’s record against Indian Army is poorer than the Pakistani cricketers’ against Indian cricketers. Another fan in Lahore has photoshopped Katrina Kaif, making Sheila wear a Pakistani T-shirt, as if the British-bred Kaif would want to cheer Pakistan: not really, after the sort of reception Veena Malik got in Pakistan after her appearance on Big Boss.

So this is the game Pakistan thinks it must win, more than even the cup. Pakistan did have a point to prove. It seems like war minus the shooting —or, diplomacy through other means.

But there is an older story, from 1971. That’s when Australia was to host a South African tour, which had to be cancelled due to the sports boycott of South Africa. Indians and Pakistanis were part of the World XI that Gary Sobers led. As the matches began in Australia, the mass violence in what was then East Pakistan worsened. West Pakistani army killed hundreds of thousands in the east from 25 March 1971, and countless women were raped in the months that followed. The refugee crisis forced India to intervene in December. In a fortnight, Dhaka fell, and Bangladesh was free. Meanwhile, cricket went on in Australia.

Recalling those incidents in his autobiography, Sunny Days, Sunil Gavaskar writes of a Pakistani restaurateur regularly sending little notes with news about the war to Intikhab Alam. Within minutes, Intikhab crumpled the notes without reading them, and threw them away, not letting the war affect the bonhomie on the ground.

Which is what makes this a great game. And yes, it is only a game. And the better side on that day wins. Now, over to Ravi Shastri for more cliches, because there is a game on, and the crowd is on fire, and in the end, the game of cricket will win.

Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London. Your comments are welcome at