For India and Pakistan, cricket is never just a game

The match on Sunday, the first in two years, comes as part of a World Cup
Last Updated 24 October 2021, 01:56 IST

The event will be watched by hundreds of millions around the world, on televisions in remote villages, jumbo screens in crowded cities, phones in migrant labour tenements and flickering monitors in the living rooms of a diaspora spread across the world’s time zones.

Face-offs on the cricket field between India and Pakistan, like the expected encounter on Sunday in Dubai, have become increasingly rare, a victim of the frosty relationship between the two nuclear-armed neighbours. For a match to take place at all, even on neutral ground, players and fans have to hope tensions remain short of war and that the organisers can weather growing calls for a boycott.

The meeting on Sunday, the first in two years, comes as part of a World Cup. The rising tensions are tied to a number of factors — repeated militant attacks in India; the disputed territory of Kashmir, where India accuses Pakistan of supporting militant groups; and rising intolerance in both countries — that have almost entirely wiped out any exchange between two nations that otherwise overlap in shared history, passions and culture.

But the intensity of passions surrounding Sunday’s match draw on deeper reservoirs, issues of national identity that are wrapped into the fortunes of the competing cricket teams.

And despite calls for a boycott from Indian political leaders after a spasm of violence recently in Kashmir, the game is going ahead. As India’s cricket organising body has made clear, the country cannot simply opt out of an international commitment like this one, the T20 World Cup — especially one where its team is favoured to win.

“We need to maintain a cricketing bond,” Ramiz Raja, who leads the Pakistan Cricket Board, said after meeting his Indian counterpart. “Our stance is, ‘The further politics remains from cricket, the better.’”

But in cricket, a game that can appear bafflingly complex to the uninitiated, it is precisely those political fault lines that generate such passionate interest.

Cricket in South Asia is a legacy of British colonial rule — “an Indian game accidentally discovered by the British,” as the critic Ashis Nandy once said. The end of that rule saw India partitioned in 1947, creating Pakistan as a new nation for tens of millions of the region’s Muslims.

In the 75 years since, the two countries have gone to war several times, and have remained on a war footing when not fighting. Sometimes, the tensions have meant the cricket teams didn’t play each other for a decade or so. Other times, such as during the 1999 World Cup, they played a match even as they waged a war over Kashmir.

“It’s tempting to draw parallels between the story of cricket and the story of India,” Amit Varma, who hosts the popular podcast “The Seen and the Unseen,” said in a recent episode. “We started out uncertain of our place in the world, trying to find our feet, hobbled by an inferiority complex, looking for pride in small consolations, but eventually opening up to the world and asserting ourselves.”

“Our cricket has flourished to a point that India dominates this game, especially in a commercial sense,” Varma added.

India has become the undisputed destination for the sport in recent years, with top players from the around world seeking to play in the lucrative Indian Premier League. The league is among the top five most profitable sports leagues in the world, and top players can make as much as $2 million for a two-month season.

But in a sign of the tense times in the region, Pakistani players are barred from joining the league, depriving them of a major platform to compete with the world’s best — or to cash in on some of the riches. The two countries largely cut off bilateral ties after a deadly terrorist attack in Mumbai in 2008 by assailants who had come from Pakistan.

That the occasional games have been played only in neutral venues for a decade has done away with a major vehicle of interaction between the two cricket-crazed nations.

Indian and Pakistani players have often said that every time they play in the other country, the intensity on the field is matched only by the hospitality off it. Vendors in bazaars would refuse payments, while the families of the host players would send home-cooked food to the visiting players in their hotel rooms.

“I had hosted the whole Indian team at my house — a full spread, of kebabs and all,” Shahid Afridi, the former Pakistani captain, recalled of one tour more than a decade ago. “When they arrived, I found out they were all vegetarians. I had to quickly scramble for lentils and vegetables.”

Vicky Luthra, who runs a photo studio in New Delhi, is such a dedicated fan that he has watched India and Pakistan play four times, including travelling all the way to England in 2017, where the match ticket alone cost him about $400.

“I cannot paint my face, I cannot do every drama. I am a gentleman audience of cricket,” Luthra said, smilingly. “But I definitely always wish good luck to India.”

The game he most fondly remembers is when he crossed the border on foot in 2006 to watch India play in the Pakistani city of Lahore. He was excited to go — his grandparents hailed from the part of the country that ended up in Pakistan — but his wife insisted she would not let him travel alone.

“My wife was very much against going to Pakistan,” Luthra said. “But she was surprised by how good it was, how friendly the people were. It was because of cricket I got to see those parts.”

For Pakistan, too, the story of its cricket team at times mirrors the state of affairs in the country — bursts of brilliance and talent undermined by mismanagement, uncertainty and lack of opportunity.

Pakistan has been the underdog in recent years, with India dominating the World Cup faceoffs while compiling an undefeated record. But in the 1980s and 1990s, Pakistan had the kind of talent that could win bilateral matches frequently, creating heartbreak for the Indian team’s massive fan following. The country’s current prime minister first made his name in cricket; he led Pakistan to the World Cup crown in 1992.

This year’s tournament comes at a time when the mood in Pakistan is “sagging,” their cricket chief, Raja, said.

Following a militant attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore in 2009, Pakistan went a decade without hosting a single international match. International teams have slowly begun touring the country again. But just weeks before the World Cup, New Zealand abruptly called off its tour because of security concerns, and England soon followed suit.

In the Pakistani port city of Karachi, fans prepared for the T20 World Cup match with hopes that their team could finally reverse India’s domination.

Cricket has many formats, including a “Test match” that can run as long as five days, and still end in a tie. But the T20 World Cup is the shortest, each match lasting about three hours, so the results are more easily swayed by a brief spell of brilliance.

“The pocket Qurans are out, the memorised holy words are recited and hands are raised for prayers,” Ebad Ahmed, a journalist based in Karachi, said about some fans seeking divine intervention. “The idea is to bring God to our team’s side.”

No matter the Pakistani team’s chances, the game will be a publicly shared experience even for people like Muzamil Ali, a 33-year-old sales professional who confessed he didn’t even like cricket. Nevertheless, when it’s India and Pakistan, most people can’t help but watch — and Ali plans to take it in on a big screen outdoors.

“Watching a Pakistan-India match with a crowd is not only fun,” Ali said, “but also it is better to share grief with others in case Pakistan loses.”

(Published 23 October 2021, 22:37 IST)

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