After a sluggish start to the Cricket World Cup, with a series of mismatches and one near-history-making upset, this weekend provides two games that should whet the appetite.
First is the matchup between Sri Lanka and Pakistan, which provides some fascinating social angles. Many American sports fans may be aware of a terrorist attack on the Togo team bus in Angola at the African Cup of Nations soccer tournament in 2010, which left three people dead and eight injured. Perhaps it picked up more press than usual in the United States because the FIFA World Cup was only months away.
In the cricket world, an event in March of 2009 that was just as harrowing managed to slip under the radar on these shores. The Sri Lanka team bus was caught up in a machine gun ambush less than half a mile from the entrance to the Gaddafi Stadium (yes, named after that Gaddafi) on the morning before play started at a match in Lahore, Pakistan. Eight people were killed and nine were injured in the shootout, with only a miracle sparing the entire team from death when a rocket launcher fired at the team bus narrowly missed its intended target.
Sri Lanka had decided to tour Pakistan as an act of good faith because all other international teams had refused to tour Pakistan since October of 2007, fearing that exactly such a scenario would occur. Sri Lanka had stepped up to show that other teams had nothing to fear because no terrorist would dare attack cricketers in such a cricket-loving country and that sport had risen above violent politics since the 1972 Munich Olympics. Prior to the attack in Lahore, avoiding Pakistan had been voluntary, but afterward it became mandatory.
Since then, Pakistan has lived a nomadic existence, playing "home" series in the UAE, England and New Zealand. It also had its hosting rights to this World Cup stripped. Because diplomatic ties have been strained once more between Pakistan and India after the Mumbai terrorist attack in November of 2008, Pakistan was not scheduled to play any group matches in India. Instead, their first six games are slated to be played in Sri Lanka.
With so much political turmoil surrounding the Pakistan team, not to mention three of its own players being recently suspended for their roles in sabotaging the team's on-field fortunes during matches last summer against England, it's quite remarkable it is able to turn up focused and ready to play.
Sri Lanka's players have managed to continue with life after being caught in the line of fire in Lahore. They have also experienced the turmoil of a nasty civil war on their own shores that ended in 2009. For Sri Lanka and Pakistan, the match provides an opportunity for more healing. It's also a chance for both teams to jockey for position at the top of Group A, after each country produced convincing wins over lesser competition in its opening game.
A day later in Group B, England and India will square off in Bangalore. The background of that game is interesting, too. It was supposed to be held at Eden Gardens in Kolkata, a facility that can cram in roughly 90,000 fans where people willingly pack themselves in like sardines in an attempt to see their cricket idols. Unfortunately, stadium renovations were not completed in time, so the game was shifted to Bangalore's 38,000-seat facility, causing predictable outrage in Kolkata and for traveling fans.
However, that outrage is expected to subside when Virender Sehwag comes out to bat for India. In the opening match of the tournament against Bangladesh, Sehwag registered a new personal high in One Day International cricket and tied the fourth-highest score in World Cup history (175) to set the tone for a thumping win.
Sehwag made his debut for India in 1999 but was out of the national team for a period in 2007, during which he took on somewhat of a barnstorming persona by playing at a festival tournament in Los Angeles. Cricketers who participate in such events do so when their careers have all but finished. Sehwag's time in the wilderness is similar to the one experienced on the tennis court by Andre Agassi, who was reduced to playing in Challenger tournaments after his world ranking fell to 141 in 1997. Yet, Sehwag is now on top of the world and crushes bowling attacks like Adrian Peterson runs over middle linebackers, a devastating one-man wrecking ball that shows no mercy.
England will now be looking to slow him down. In its opening match, England escaped a dramatic upset bid from the Netherlands that would have been on par with the 1980 Miracle on Ice. Another win for India would give it double the confidence it received after thrashing Bangladesh, but a win for England would show that the performance against the Netherlands was an anomaly and not the start of a trend. It should be an entertaining weekend.
Peter Della Penna is an American-born and raised cricket journalist who writes for ESPNcricinfo.com and DreamCricket.com. His work has also appeared in "The Wisden Cricketer" and "Wisden Cricketers" Almanack.