We once admired good cricket teams, even Pakistan

We once admired good cricket teams, even Pakistan

The past was no paradise, but one could love India and Indian cricketers but still applaud their nemeses

Rahul Jayaram, the Jindal Global University academic believes we are living through the apocalypse. Credit: DH Illustration

Like many others, I grew up in a cricket-crazy country in probably its most cricket-mad city, Bombay. Yes, it was still Bombay then, and it was a time when people could still admire rival teams, even Pakistan. I won’t ever forget the 1992 men’s World Cup final, played in Melbourne when I was in high school in Bombay. It was the innings break, and Pakistan had raised a fighting score against England. I had gone to catch up with friends, many of them Maharashtrian, and whose folks endorsed the Shiv Sena. I remember excitedly asking the group, “Who do you think should win, Pakistan or England?” One said, “How can one not support this great Pakistan team?”; another said, “Look at the way they’ve come back from the dead in the tournament.”

In the 1990s, Shiv Sena founder Bal Thackeray praised Javed Miandad. Pakistan beat India often those days, and many India fans felt they were almost as good as Clive Lloyd’s West Indians. The past was no paradise, but one could love India and Indian cricketers but still applaud their nemeses. That India doesn’t exist today. Watching the recent India-Pak match in a north Bengaluru pub, I cheered Shaheen Afridi for his beautiful yorker that got Rohit Sharma out, and was met with stares from the packed tables.

It’s doubly ironic that the childhood friends I spoke of, or even Bal Thackeray, would be considered ‘anti-national’ today. In the wake of current events, videos of the Pakistan team going on a victory lap after winning the epic 1999 Chennai Test recirculated. Then, the Chepauk had risen as one to congratulate the winning team. One contemporary commenter quipped that in today’s India, the whole Chepauk crowd would be in jail, and a particular state chief minister would be rubbing his hands in glee.

We’ve failed to humanise Indo-Pak cricket. The players’ rivalry-and-camaraderie runs deep. Much of it is perusable online. Reckon with these. In the mid-1980s, during one of the first tourneys in Sharjah, on a slow wicket, an upstart Wasim Akram, surprised Sunil Gavaskar with a bouncer that went down the leg side for a ‘bye’. As Gavaskar completed a run, he shouted to Imran Khan, who was fielding at mid-off, in Hindi: “This young fellow has got pace, why is he trying to bowl swing?” Khan joked back, “I keep telling him that, but he doesn’t listen.” All this in the heat of an Indo-Pak match!

In the mid-1990s, Inzamam-ul-Haq, suffering poor form, sought out Sunil Gavaskar for batting advice – Gavaskar, because he was encouraging of talent from anywhere, Inzamam said. In 2005, before Pakistan embarked on their tour to India, Sourav Ganguly requested Inzamam to bring him two bats from Sialkot, which had become famous for bat manufacturing. Ganguly has often said India’s victorious tour to Pakistan in early 2004 was the finest cricketing experience he’d had simply due to Pakistani hospitality. Nearly every Pakistani captain or coach over the decades has felt likewise about playing in India. The storied past appears to have been blanked out now. Pakistanis appear only as aliens and enemies.

They refuse to see the Pakistan team as one with human beings with exceptional human predicaments: A country that is disallowed in the Indian Premier League, that doesn’t have home series, has home tours cancelled at the eleventh hour, and is invariably on the road. With much lesser resources compared to the Indian team, the Pakistan team has shown its passion and class on the pitch. Former England captain Michael Vaughan tweeted that after their two losses, Indian players must play in all international domestic leagues to gain from that experience. Not everyone takes IPL at face value.

The abuse online is far removed from the lived experience of India-Pakistan cricket. Indian public culture is sliding into the sludge created by pretentious hyper-nationalists. How paradoxical that in the age of mass connectedness there is so much misinformation and outrage. Indian fans in the past were open-minded, appreciative of the sport, willing to doff their hats to the talents of others. Now, they are not interested in the sport, only in victory that they can claim as their own.