By Priyansh Jun. 16, 2019
If you were to remove the hate-filled discourse, the jingoism, and the hyper-partisan outlook towards the “enemy”, would it be possible to recover the India-Pakistan cricket rivalry?
Peel away the jingoistic baiting that masquerade as promos for an India-Pakistan cricket match. Peel away the calls for boycott. Peel away the notion of cricket as the battlefield for a proxy war. Peel away the “orgies of hatred”, as George Orwell defined the passions inflamed by sport.
What is left, you may ask? Is there anything else to India versus Pakistan? Especially at the Cricket World Cup, where the stakes are that much higher and the questions of pride and honour brought up with intense ferocity. If you were to remove the hate-filled discourse, the jingoism, and the hyper-partisan outlook towards the “enemy”, would it be possible to recover the India-Pakistan cricket rivalry?
As many have observed recently, it is a rivalry only in name. Ever since the exclusion of Pakistani players from the Indian Premier League (IPL), the gap between the two sides has grown at a considerable rate. Until 2009, Pakistan was a formidable opponent for India in limited-overs cricket; the two sides have not played a Test match since 2007. In the past decade, Pakistan’s only major win over the Men in Blue arrived in England two summers ago at the Champions Trophy final.
Yet for some of us, who are moved by the ludic impulse and hold cricket dearly, it is deeply unpalatable that the match is boxed in by a single narrative.
Moreover, India has never lost to Pakistan at the World Cup – a record its fans boast about to no end. At the biggest cricket spectacle, even during the tougher times for Indian cricket, the team in blue would raise its game and give its admirers a victory to savour. So, when we talk about India-Pakistan being “The Match” at the World Cup, it is not really for reasons sporting.
The common unpleasantness around the contest is dependent on reasons beyond the playing field. The very nature of nationhood and the shared history of both countries mean that cricket is subsumed in narratives political and cultural. In the current political climate, when these tensions are underlined by fear and hatred for the other, it is almost as if the cricket is beside the point.
Yet for some of us, who are moved by the ludic impulse and hold cricket dearly, it is deeply unpalatable that the match is boxed in by a single narrative. This restrictive texturing of India-Pakistan cricket also disappoints those whose political and cultural norms do not arise from demonising citizens of another country. So we must ponder whether it remains possible to recover the contest between India and Pakistan as a metaphor for cultural intimacy, of sharing warmth, and the joys of a sport that runs deep in our joint consciousness. Many instances come rushing to the mind if one does undertake this effort.
One commentator recently observed the relative absence of tension when the two countries met at the 1992 World Cup. If you were to excavate the grainy footage from that game, empty seats abound at the Sydney Cricket Ground; the hype machine seemed to be overly sedated. In spite of the long-running tensions between India and Pakistan, it was hardly comparable to the war songs that we hear all the time now.
Before the 1992 World Cup, India and Pakistan had never faced off in the competition’s history. That is a strange fact when you consider that the match-up is enshrined in the itinerary now by the International Cricket Council (ICC) for every major tournament. It is a possibility ensured by those who run the sport as they fall over backwards to keep the sponsors and broadcasters happy – it is for this reason the ongoing World Cup is the smallest affair in 27 years; teams of the richest boards (India, England, and Australia) do not face the risk of an early exit.
To talk highly of the cricketer across the border is to ensure he is not merely defined by his political boundaries.
Tensions escalated for the future meetings between India and Pakistan but the sides continued to compete against each other in cricket throughout the ’90s and noughties, thanks in no small measure to dusty Sharjah. It was in this era that many memories which rush back warmly were made. The standing ovations received by both Pakistan (in 1999 at Chennai) and India (at Karachi in 2004) were the high points of their cricketing history. For the 2004 tour, many Indian fans crossed the border, with “exempted from police reporting” on their visas, and returned with reminders that life in Pakistan was more familiar than they thought.
But before we let ourselves slip into rosy reminiscences, it is imperative to stop and wonder what would cricketing appreciation of the opponent look like in today’s times. A hint appeared to me two years ago when Mohammad Amir’s excellent spell of fast bowling led Pakistan to victory over India in the Champions Trophy final. That spell encapsulated Pakistan’s stunning run to glory, a turnaround for the ages after the Men in Blue had crushed the Pakistanis in their tournament opener. Irrespective of the result, it was worth cherishing a rare talent in Amir and the gift of fast bowling that he spread profusely.
It is perhaps a naïve thought to believe that amplifying the exceptional cricket that is played by the supposed enemy will work wonders. But it is no less worthy for that realisation. To talk highly of the cricketer across the border is to ensure he is not merely defined by his political boundaries. I am aware that this is likely to be a futile effort when we consider that the match on Sunday is going ahead after seeing off the threat of a boycott from the Indian side. However, there is a glimmer of hope.
Earlier this month, the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) rejected a proposal by its players to celebrate the falling of Indian wickets “differently” when the two sides meet in Manchester. It was supposed to be a retaliatory measure after the Indian players wore Army caps for an ODI match against Australia in March. But the PCB instructed its cricketers to stick to cricket. As blind as that message might be — India versus Pakistan is not just cricket after all — it was a reminder of the possibility that exists for defusing the tensions that seem to override this contest. And that in turn is a starting point to imagine a different reality for India versus Pakistan.
Priyansh is an independent writer in New Delhi, looking for the intersections between sport, politics, and culture. His keen interest in sociology comes handy. When not working, he is busy preparing himself to work. He tweets @Privaricate.