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Wednesday, March 30, 2011

SACHIN TENDULKAR SET TO KICK HISTORY INTO TOUCH

SACHIN TENDULKAR'S every move has been tracked ahead of today’s World Cup semi-final against Pakistan.

The fact he intends to use a new bat was a lead item on one television channel’s website. The fact he practised in the nets against left-arm short-pitched bowling led another.

He will go out to bat with the hopes of the country resting on his shoulders as he seeks to make his 100th international century in the biggest match of this World Cup so far.

And he will do so with the words of his captain, MS Dhoni, to “ignore the hype” swirling around this match drowned out by a billion voices.

A game that has been billed here as ‘The Supermatch’ – one which has already gone beyond sport into politics, and one in which Tendulkar’s possible walk into history is a fascinating and compelling subplot – is evidently not just another day at the office.

But for all the hoopla swirling around the semi-final, there is logic in Dhoni’s comments. The moment his players believe they are battling for more than a World Cup final place, so he suggested, it will not be subplots lost but the main one.

“We know the kind of hype India-Pakistan matches generate,” said Dhoni. “But we are not getting involved in all this. We need to know what we are expected to do and focus on that.

“All this is part of cricket and of course we have to accept it. But the key is not to get involved. We are playing the semi-final but we must prepare the same way we have for previous games.”

India have travelled nicely enough through this tournament for all that qualification from the group stages was not guaranteed until the last round of matches. Since then they have ended Australia’s proud World Cup record in the quarter-finals in Ahmedabad and gathered some momentum.

That will be tested against Pakistan in a contest being viewed as India’s batting, led by Tendulkar, versus Pakistan’s bowling.

Umar Gul, the man who many see as the key to unpicking the locks, insisted he is targeting the top three Indian batsmen – Virendar Sehwag, Tendulkar and Gautam Gambhir. “Those first three are crucial for us,” he said. “I am looking for these three.” The second of those sees things differently, though. Tendulkar will have a maximum of two chances to pass his milestone at this World Cup. And no one would begrudge him if it came on the grand stage in Mumbai on Saturday.

His record of 99 international centuries in all forms of cricket for India stands head and shoulders above anyone else. Ricky Ponting, next in the list, has 69 to his name.

Tendulkar’s practice session yesterday morning was dissected forensically. The new bat (he was knocking it in with a wooden hammer) has been in more papers than the other semi-final. Pakistan had requested a 4ft by 2ft slab of black granite to be brought over to the nets at the PCA Stadium on Tuesday in order to try to replicate batting against a skidding, low ball.

Yesterday, Tendulkar placed the slab short of a length and had a local left-armer hammer in balls to rise at his head and shoulders as he practised rocking back and lifting upper cuts over an imaginary slip cordon.

He then moved forward to play some square on both sides and then forward again to round off his session punching balls through the offside.

The session was to see how he coped against the possible deployment of Wahab Riaz. The slab, should he get his 100 today, will be worth a fortune by the end of the night.

Pakistan skipper Shahid Afridi has indicated that paceman Shoaib Akhtar remains a fitness doubt.

Akhtar, who has announced he will retire after the World Cup, has been widely tipped to spearhead Pakistan’s attack.

Akhtar, 35, has not featured since the group-stage loss to New Zealand.

The last time India played Pakistan in Mohali, in November 2007, the match produced a cracker.

Tendulkar top scored for India in a total of 321 but was caught behind off Gul for 99. Pakistan chased them down for the loss of six wickets with Younis Khan making 117. They did it with one ball to spare.

India will be happy enough if Tendulkar is upstaged again, but only as long as he has another chance to reach his milestone on Saturday in Mumbai.

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