By Dave James, AFP
NEW DELHI –With their World Cup semifinal hailed as a diplomatic game-changer, as well as the mother of all cricket battles, India and Pakistan were on Monday just desperate to get the game underway. But in keeping with an occasion mired in sub-plots and off-field distractions, it was the role of Pakistan strike bowler Shoaib Akhtar, destined to miss Wednesday’s encounter, who was the center of discussion in Mohali. The man once nicknamed the Rawalpindi Express before a series of injuries and disciplinary problems derailed his career will retire once the tournament ends. The 35-year-old was clobbered to all points of the Pallekele ground in Sri Lanka by New Zealand’s batsmen in a group match and has been surplus to requirements ever since. Team manager Intikhab Alam hit back at claims that Shoaib, with little chance of featuring in the match, was lacking motivation. “Shoaib has been fully involved in match practice, and is available for selection,” Alam told the pakpassion website. “He’s very much part of the squad and there is no question about his motivation or enthusiasm to play in this important game. Akhtar is ready for the semifinal. “The rumors about Shoaib no longer focusing on cricket after announcing his retirement are false.” Teammate Misbah-ul-Haq also defended his teammate who has featured in just three games at the tournament. “Shoaib Akhtar is a class bowler,” said Misbah. “He has performed for Pakistan on a number of occasions including the 1999 World Cup (when the team lost to Australia in the final).” And Misbah said that, at the very least, he would help Pakistan’s batsmen get ready for the challenge of facing India’s seamers. “Batsmen get to prepare well against pace bowling when they face him at the nets. If he does play in the coming matches, I feel it will give us a psychological advantage.” Both sides, who are sharing the same hotel in Chandigarh, trained at Mohali’s Punjab Cricket Association (PCA) stadium on Monday – at opposite sides of the ground. The hype over the India-Pakistan game has completely overshadowed Tuesday’s first semifinal between 1996 champions Sri Lanka and New Zealand in Colombo.
Sri Lanka defeated the Black Caps by 81 runs in the 2007 semifinals in the Caribbean and then coasted to a 112-run win in the group stages of this edition 10 days ago in Mumbai. “New Zealand are always a competitive side, they are very balanced, so we will never take them lightly. We know that it’s a big challenge to beat them again,” said Sri Lanka captain Kumar Sangakkara. “It’s nice that at least one sub-continent team has been in the final since 1992, but we can’t take anything for granted. We have to work hard and shouldn’t think too far ahead.” Meanwhile, under-fire Australia captain Ricky Ponting has been given just over two days to decide his future as selectors said the next one-day squad would be announced on Wednesday. Ponting, who let slip Australia’s 12-year grasp on the World Cup last week — just three months after their heavy Ashes defeat — has already hinted that he may step down. Cricket Australia said a squad for next month’s three-match one-day tour of Bangladesh was expected to be announced on Wednesday, effectively setting a deadline for the veteran skipper. One man who will definitely not be in that squad is fast bowler Shaun Tait who on Monday announced his retirement from one-day cricket to concentrate on the Twenty20 form of the game.