India v Pakistan — Where players attain hero status

There is so much at stake for every player and that is the driving force whenever India plays Pakistan in any sporting event, cricket being the most intense.

The mutual respect that the greats from the two countries have for each other stands out even as India and Pakistan prepare for another `mother’ of all contests at The Oval. It is hype in the stands and the media and not on the field where players look at it at as just another match.   -  Getty

Instant glory. That is what an India-Pakistan contest can bring to an individual. Give your best and attain the status of a hero. There is so much at stake for every player and that is the driving force whenever India plays Pakistan in any sporting event, cricket being the most intense.

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“It always brought out the best out of me. I knew the whole nation would be watching the game and one had to focus on performance like never before,” was how Navjyot Singh Sidhu’s looked at playing Pakistan. The rivalry has roots in the acrimonious relationship between the two countries with a tense border adding to the pressure to win.

“Can’t afford to lose,” the fiery Manoj Prabhakar had remarked once before an India-Pakistan clash at Sharjah. An Indian victory would evoke delirious celebrations in the Gulf where it was considered a matter of great pride to beat Pakistan. “You can feel the tension in the air,” Prabhakar had noted.

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Sharjah was a venue that tested the resilience and mental strength of a player. The vociferous support from the galleries would create a theatre of competition that the players loved to perform at. The famous 1985 Rothmans Cup triumph for India and the last-ball six by Javed Miandad to win the final next year belong to folklore.

“One of the finest matches I have ever played in. When you beat Pakistan it becomes a special achievement and the fact that we defended 125 made it a memorable win,” Mohinder Amarnath had remarked on that epic contest in 1985.

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Tackling pressure was the key at Sharjah. “It was like playing in Pakistan. You are lying if you see there was no pressure. The pressure and the tension has always been the crucial factor. You have to be mentally strong to excel against Pakistan,” Prabhakar says. It was a neutral venue but Sharjah resembled Karachi or Lahore because of the huge support from the stands for Pakistan. I remember the players from both the teams feeling the pressure to perform since the expectations were incredibly high.

It did not matter if India or Pakistan did not win the title but losing to each other was unacceptable for the fans and for the players too. The contrived rivalry brought the best out of the teams and cricket was much appreciated. It did not match the intensity of an Ashes where Australia and England produced high quality stuff but the passion that an India-Pakistan clash created was unmatched.

It is true the current generation of players have not known the pressure of playing in Sharjah or in Pakistan. Barring M.S. Dhoni and Yuvraj Singh, none of the current Indian players have toured Pakistan or Sharjah where the complete lack of support from the stands does impact your game.

Sachin Tendulkar is known to have spent sleepless nights before key contests but he would experience unbearable pressure before taking on Pakistan. The World Cup contests of 1992, 1996, 1999, 2003 and 2011 rank among the best triumphs forIndia essentially because they came against Pakistan.

“This talk of rivalry is a hype created by the media. Believe me once you are on the field all that matters is your performance. It is like any other match for the players but the fans see too much into an India-Pakistan contest,” says Aunshuman Gaekwad, who has a rich experience of playing against Pakistan.

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Prabhakar adds that the pressure of fans is more on Pakistan players. “Their fans can become unreasonable if the team loses. Our fans are very supportive and don’t make unrealistic demands from the players. Today, India is far too strong. It would be wrong to say it would be the best contest in world cricket. I thing it is the hype in the media that adds to the pressure on the players. Of course, once you are on the field everything is forgotten and you only look to give your best,” notes Prabhakar.

It is not always acrimonious. One remembers the 1996 tour to England when India lost the first Test and has a concerned visitor on the eve of the next Test at Lord’s. The Indians were pleasantly surprised to see Miandad at the `nets’ wanting to share his experience of tackling English conditions. It was a gesture that made an impact on two youngsters who made their debut – Rahul Dravid and Sourav Ganguly.

The mutual respect that the greats from the two countries have for each other stands out even as India and Pakistan prepare for another `mother’ of all contests at The Oval. It is hype in the stands and the media and not on the field where players look at it at as just another match.