NEW DELHI: With their World Cup semi-final 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 centre of discussion in Mohali.
The man once nicknamed the Rawalpindi Express before a series of injury 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 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 semi-final."
Teammate Umar Gul even pleaded with the veteran fast bowler to be included in Wednesday's team.
"Shoaib is an experienced bowler who has performed well against India. If he plays, it will take some of the pressure off me. When he was not there, there was a lot of pressure on me," said Gul.
Back home, the team also came under scrutiny when Pakistani Interior Minister Rehman Malik warned them against match-fixing and said they were under surveillance for Wednesday's game.
"I had given a warning that there should be no match-fixing. This time I am watching it very closely. If any such thing happens we will take action," Malik told reporters in Karachi Monday.
The hype over the India-Pakistan game has overshadowed Tuesday's first semi-final between 1996 champions Sri Lanka and New Zealand in Colombo.
Sri Lanka defeated the Black Caps by 81 runs in the 2007 semi-finals and coasted to a 112-run win in the group stages of this edition.
The co-hosts admitted that they could be forced to risk a half-fit Muttiah Muralitharan in the game.
The world record breaking off-spinner, who will retire after the World Cup, has been carrying a hamstring injury and also picked up a knee problem in the quarter-final win over England.
But the 38-year-old is so crucial to Sri Lanka -- he is the team's leading wicket-taker with 13 at this World Cup -- that skipper Kumar Sangakkara could be tempted to gamble.
"It's no use thinking about the final and saving him for other games," said Sangakkara of Muralitharan who took 4-25 in the earlier win over New Zealand in Mumbai.
"This is the crunch game and if he can play tomorrow that'll be great for us, but if that doesn't work out for us, we've got enough cover to make sure that we are still a solid winning side."
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. AGENCIES