On paper, Saturday's Group B matchup between India and Pakistan at the 2013 ICC Champions Trophy (follow at Cricinfo) may not have much at stake. India was the first team to qualify for the semifinals, Pakistan the first team eliminated from semifinal contention.
However, the quickest match to sell out at this tournament in England and Wales between two neutral sides gives notice that even if pride is the only thing up for grabs between India and Pakistan, that pride still means a helluva lot to the Asian rivals.
Both countries have happy memories of lifting trophy hardware in England -- a World Cup win for India in 1983 and a World Twenty20 win for Pakistan in 2009. Their paths in recent times have been filled with a fair share of highs and lows heading into their group stage encounter at the Champions Trophy.
Ahead of the tournament, Indian cricket was plunged into crisis following the news that a group of players, including 2011 World Cup-winning squad member Sreesanth, had been arrested on allegations of spot-fixing matches in the popular Indian Premier League domestic Twenty20 competition. The picture grew even murkier after Gurunath Meiyappan, a team official with Chennai Super Kings whose father-in-law is the president of the Indian cricket board, was detained by police on allegations that he illegally bet on matches.
While there appear to be many ills plaguing Indian cricket off the field, the Champions Trophy has shown that India is in robust health on the pitch. For years, there was an underlying concern about what would happen to Indian cricket after Sachin Tendulkar leaves the game. Even though Tendulkar hasn't retired, his absence from this tournament has given a glimpse into the crystal ball of what life will be like without him, and the early signs are more than encouraging.
Only four players on India's World Cup-winning squad from 2011 were retained for the group competing in England at the Champions Trophy, but fresh blood has invigorated a team that went through a trough after that World Cup triumph. Captain MS Dhoni and Virat Kohli may be the headliners wearing the Indian blue, but Shikhar Dhawan and Ravindra Jadeja have been the catalysts for success in England, playing an entertaining brand of cricket that is sure to captivate audiences.
Dhawan's scoring has been prolific, far outshining more heralded names by notching back-to-back hundreds. He's a major reason India clinched a spot in the semifinals with a game to go in the group stage. Rather than keeping an opening spot in one-day cricket warm for Tendulkar whenever he decides to suit up again, Dhawan's red-hot batting shows that there might not be wailing and gnashing of teeth from Indian fans if Tendulkar's return to limited overs cricket for India never actually happens.
Jadeja fetched a bid of $2 million in the 2012 IPL auction, the highest bid for any player that year, to play alongside Dhoni on the Super Kings. That number may have seemed extravagant at the time, especially for a league season lasting only 7½ weeks, but Jadeja has increasingly shown how valuable he is not only for his franchise but for the national team. Whether it's a late hitting spree with the bat, a momentum-shifting spell of spin bowling or his electric fielding, Jadeja's energy is emblematic of a new wave of athleticism permeating through not only India but just about every other team in world cricket.
The Pakistanis on the other hand have looked energy-sapped in this tournament, a team in limbo on and off the field. They haven't been able to play any matches at home since 2009 after a touring Sri Lanka side's team bus was the target of a terrorist attack in Lahore. In 2010, three of their leading players were caught in a spot-fixing sting and were subsequently banned from cricket.
They managed to overcome those obstacles to reach the semifinals of both the 50-over and Twenty20 World Cups in 2011 and 2012. So getting eliminated ahead of the semis during this Champions Trophy campaign in England is a disappointing result for Pakistan. The lone ranger in the batting department has been captain Misbah-Ul-Haq, an underappreciated servant of his country through the bright and the dark periods. Misbah may not be as glamorous or charismatic as his predecessor as captain, Shahid Afridi, but he's also far less mercurial with the bat and the consistency Misbah provides remains one of his great assets.
Despite two losses in group play for Pakistan, there are other positive signs amid the gloom. Perhaps the one player who piques curiosity among neutrals more than any other on the Pakistan team is Mohammad Irfan. Imagine Randy Johnson being given a 30-yard running start before delivery and that is what opposition batsmen are tasked with facing when Irfan strides in to bowl. Listed at 7-foot-1, the left-arm fast bowler is the tallest player in international cricket. At first glance he might appear better-suited to a traveling circus, but Pakistani cricket sometimes gives off that vibe anyway. He has been Pakistan's leading wicket-taker in the tournament, and even though he's 31, his international career is young. He still has an opportunity to refine his skills at that level to become a regular in the side for several years to come.
The atmosphere should be lively Saturday, and Birmingham serves as a worthy site for the game. Southall on the outskirts of London, Bradford in West Yorkshire and Leicester in the East Midlands may have bigger reputations across England for the sizable South Asian communities in each territory, but Soho Road on the west side of Birmingham is an active area for Desis too. Lord's in London may be steeped in history, but Edgbaston Cricket Ground in Birmingham has a reputation for having the best crowd atmosphere for any cricket facility in the U.K.
The only thing that could potentially spoil the match is a rainy day. Friday's match in Cardiff between South Africa and the West Indies was significantly affected by rain before play was called off with the match ending controversially in a tie. But even the cool British weather will have a hard time dampening the excitement for the hottest ticket of the tournament.