The thrill of the contests

Clash of the titans. Pakistan skipper Waqar Younis and his Indian counterpart Sourav Ganguly greet each other as the teams lineup prior to their World Cup clash in 2003.-AP

Despite the India-Pakistan match in the 2007 World Cup being a one-off, bereft of the continuum of a full tour, it's likely it would be mediated by the context set in 2004, advanced in subsequent tours, writes S. Ram Mahesh.

Dean Jones has a facility for the provocative: long before the Hashim Amla kerfuffle, the former Australian batsman had, in a typically overstated moment, drawn attention to how highly India supposedly regarded its perfect World Cup record against Pakistan. After India defeated Pakistan in the 2003 World Cup, Jones had picked out his moment to have his say — Man of the Match Sachin Tendulkar "looking bang into the camera" during the presentation ceremony and saying India was four and oh against its rival.

It's an interesting statistical oddity — Pakistan has the edge in head-to-head records in both forms of the game — not least because it raises pertinent questions. First, is the impeccable World Cup record as fancy as it's sometimes made out to be or is it no more than a debate-stoker? Second, do fans from either country continue to react to wins and losses in terms of esteem and national pride now that India-Pakistan cricket is more prevalent? And third, if the dynamics of spectatorship have indeed changed, will the likely matchup between these Asian nations in the forthcoming World Cup feel different?

Since the background needed for answering these questions is territory trod upon quite often, one seeks, however unsuccessfully, to lay it out simply. There are two schools of thought: one views sport as beneficial, either as a valve to bleed pressure off other spheres or as an avenue of human interaction that facilitates understanding; the other school of thought draws from George Orwell's assertion that sport is "war minus the shooting", that sport, being inherently oppositional, drives wedges of nationalism deeper.

The Test record between India and Pakistan subscribes to the second view. Before the icebreaker series of 2004, 33 of 47 Tests had been drawn — an indication that each side viewed defeat as unthinkable. The cop-out of the draw is unavailable in one-day cricket, and this allowed it to be appropriated by jingoistic elements. At the end of the day, there was a loser, and therefore someone that could be humiliated. On such macabre ground were the contests from the late 1970s to 2004 played out.

Saeed Anwar and Venkatesh Prasad (below) ... memorable performances in India-Pakistan World Cup encounters.-V. V. KRISHNAN

The fact that India and Pakistan rarely toured each other exacerbated matters: as Mike Marquesee wrote, "It's surely now clear that displacing the rivalry to offshore venues and irregular one-off encounters (in World Cups and triangular series) inflated the stakes and distorted the spectacle."

All four World Cup games were played in this period. Surprisingly, the first time the two countries met in a World Cup match was as late as 1992.

Each of these games was invested with an edge. This added context, which worked independent of the cricket. The delighting in little matters, the appreciation of the minutiae of the contest, the emphasis on skill were all secondary — among a majority of supporters — to the actual outcome. The supposed edge-of-the-seat cricket wasn't necessarily edge-of-the-seat for its quality as it was for its result.

The line between a feud and a rivalry often blurs in the case of India-Pakistan cricket — sometimes multiple times during the course of a contest. This phenomenon added to these games though not always beneficially: Pakistan supporters standing to applaud Sachin Tendulkar off the field in South Africa, and Wasim Akram's home being stoned because he didn't play the 1996 quarterfinal, just two instances of this polarity.


To suggest, however, that the thrill of these contests lay entirely in the outcome unfairly sells the quality short. Switch from the spectatorial axiom, consider matters from the players' angle, and the skill immediately stands out. The reason big matches often fall short of expectations is because the contestants are too tightly wound, too inwards-looking to express themselves freely. Yet, all four matches had performances high on quality. Tendulkar's unbeaten, joyous half-century in 1992 was remarkable for someone that age; but in 2003, he played an innings of mastery even he has scarce surpassed. Ajay Jadeja's assault on Waqar Younis in 1996 shattered a legend; Venkatesh Prasad built a smaller one by taking five at Manchester in 1999. Saeed Anwar proved he could still rouse himself if the opposition was India with 101 in South Africa; Mohammad Kaif matched the left-hander in temperament, and — surprisingly on that day — in strokeplay.

The visceral tension post the 2004 tour seems, thankfully, a thing of the past. "In the context of a full tour, minor abrasions seem less significant, victory and defeat less absolute," wrote Marquesee. "The cricket is experienced as an extended interplay of talents, not an orgasmic all-or-nothing collision of collective entities."

Despite the India-Pakistan match in the 2007 World Cup being a one-off, bereft of the continuum of a full tour, it's likely it would be mediated by the context set in 2004, advanced in subsequent tours.