The undercurrent of tension

VIJAY LOKAPALLY

JAVED MIANDAD, the old fox with a street-fighter image, had nursed a dream. He was keen to forge an India-Pakistan combined team to take on the cricket world. Seven years ago, when we met at Lord's, Miandad was quit active with the game and was associated with the King of Brunei in promoting cricket. The crafty Pakistani was on a private visit to England and had just strolled in to have a chat with the Indian team led by Mohammed Azharuddin.

In fact, Miandad had come to admonish the Indians for having lost the first Test of the series at Edgbaston.

``How could you lose to England?'' Miandad thundered, even as he spent time guiding a few batsmen on how to tackle the movement that the English seamers were getting. And then he spoke of his desire. ''Bhai, just imagine India and Pakistan combining to produce a Test XI. It'll be great. No team would come anywhere near us. I wish we could do that. We could teach the world some cricket,'' Miandad became emotional as he discussed the possibility of more interaction on the cricket field between India and Pakistan.

At a different point, even if unfortunately, another Pakistani legend made a public remark which did not go down well with his image. Angry at India refusing to travel to Pakistan, Wasim Akram accused Sachin Tendulkar and his men of having the ''fear of losing to Pakistan.'' The fiercely competitive Akram, however, did not elaborate on what made him conclude that Indian cricketers were scared of losing to Pakistan.

But it was also true that the Indians were scared of travelling to Pakistan. And for reasons well justified.

India was scheduled to tour Pakistan for a three-match one-day series. The Board of Control for Cricket in India was keen about the tour, but the players had their apprehensions of undertaking the assignment. At one point, the players, with the seniors uniting, even threatened a pull out, citing security concerns. The Board sent back a strong message that a replacement team was in place. The players sulked but had no choice.

India and Pakistan have, over the years, produced exciting, and at many times, acrimonious cricket encounters, mocking at the suggestions that the game could bring the people of the two nations closer. Why, at one stage, Imran Khan even suggested cricket as the means to settle all disputes. Not that anyone took his views seriously, but India and Pakistan have rarely looked comfortable playing each other even at neutral venues.

It was a pity that only the India and Pakistan teams had to indulge in a hand-shaking drama at the start of their game at the Centurion Park during the recent World Cup. It was said to be an exercise aimed at easing the tensions in the stands and among the people back home. "It's just a game,'' was the announcement on the eve of the match by a stalwart like Waqar Younis, not to forget similar views expressed by Sourav Ganguly and Shoaib Akhtar. But what was it really?

In the past too, there had been instances of players making a joint plea to treat the cricket clash as just another game. Remember the hand-waving walk along the boundary at Sharjah by the two teams before a match in 1994 at the behest of Rashid Latif, one of the few level-headed cricketers from across the border genuinely interested in improving the cricketing ties between the two nations? The other two who come to my mind readily are the Raja brothers - - Wasim and Rameez. There could be some distressing exceptions too.

Mushtaq Mohammad once described his team's 2-0 Test series win over India as a triumph for Islam, a most petty and damaging statement that any captain could have ever made. He was rightly condemned for that silly observation. For players like Shahid Afridi or Abdur Razzaq, a cricket match against India could well be a jehad. At least they give that impression on the field by creating a bitter atmosphere. Afridi was banned for abusive language after the World Cup contest while Razzaq was once disciplined for suggesting ball-tampering allegations against Sachin Tendulkar.

Much has been made of India-Pakistan cricket producing exciting encounters when the fact has been that a defensive attitude often led to dull draws during the early exchanges. The last time India visited Pakistan, the four-Test series failed to produce a result and shockingly both teams were only happy not to have lost.

Everytime India plays Pakistan, the media concentrate on how the players get along so well. It is not always true. In private, the Indians hardly relish the company of the Pakistanis. And when it comes to touring Pakistan, the Indian team to a man would refuse to travel if given a choice.

Pakistan was once described by England all-rounder Ian Botham as an ideal place to send your mother-in-law. The Indian cricketers too have a similar opinion. "It's like a jail. I wouldn't like to visit that country again,'' a top cricketer had once confessed. The Indians had every reason to avoid going to Pakistan because of the hostile atmosphere. Can anyone fault Tendulkar for raising the issue of players' security in a country where matches have often been interrupted and tours cancelled because of threat from terrorists? None of the seniors in the current Indian team would be happy to travel to Pakistan, knowing well the attitude of the public there.

Not that the Indian spectators are more mature. The greatest shame in India's sporting history happened at the Eden Gardens in Kolkata when a Test match against Pakistan in 1999 had to be completed after driving the spectators out. Pakistan accomplished a grand victory in the most adverse circumstances even as the myth of Kolkata being a sporting city was blown to pieces by the unruly fans.

The `in-camera' finish recorded that day at the Eden Gardens highlighted the truth of India-Pakistan cricket relations. The lack of maturity among the cricket fans has stood out sorely in the five decades of India-Pakistan cricket exchanges, not to speak of the fear in every player. The fear of losing.

What good is a cricket match where a loss sees the players avoid the return journey to their homes. "Illiterate people indulge in such acts,'' Imran had once said. But then the masses react in a similar way after every cricket match. It is this tension before and during the match that actually kills the competition because often players fail to give their best. The Pakistanis had come to South Africa with the sole aim of beating India at the Centurion Park. When they failed, they were crestfallen, from the fear of a backlash at home. No wonder, many heads rolled because of that particular defeat.

People in India and Pakistan should remember how England and Australia contest the Ashes. The competition is fierce but it does not spill beyond the boundary. Or how Australia and New Zealand carry their rivalry to dizzy heights by raising their game and not the temper. Also, the maturity of the fans in these countries too counts a lot and allows the players to concentrate on their game. Cricket exchanges between India and Pakistan would have a meaning, and become a regular exercise, only when the cricket fans actually treat such a contest, as just another game.

Let them learn a lesson from Chennai's sporting fans who gave the Pakistanis a standing ovation after their fantastic Test win in 1999. Even Akram and Miandad were moved by that grand reception, making the gesture of the fans at the M. A. Chidambaram Stadium a glorious chapter in the history of India-Pakistan cricket. But the ugly happenings at the Eden Gardens stood out so sorely, once again reminding that cricket, to some, was not just another game. It is this element which needs to be eradicated as India and Pakistan take measures to resume their cricketing ties in the near future. Who knows, Miandad's dream of a combined India-Pakistan combination could become a reality, at least in cricket!