Two teams meet and two nations erupt in frenzy

Truly, nothing else can match an India-Pakistan clash in cricket, though people talk about Brazil-Argentina fixtures in football. The multitude of meanings that seep into any game between India and Pakistan can be summed up in one word — priceless, writes K. C. Vijaya Kumar.

Shortly after India’s comprehensive 76-run victory over Pakistan in a World Cup game in Adelaide, a picture trended on WhatsApp. It showed an Indian fan holding aloft his daughter and she in turn held a placard that had this tongue-in-cheek line: ‘Game ticket — $40, flight tickets from USA – $1200, watching Pakistan lose – priceless.’

May be the picture was morphed and the lines were not original, inspired as they were by a credit card service provider’s advertisement, but there was no mistaking the paraphernalia that adds to the mystique of an Indo-Pak clash on sporting terra-firma.

The angst and expectations of fans, the historical rivalry ever since the Radcliffe Line tore apart India and led to the creation of Pakistan, and the small matter of India’s psychological edge over its neighbour in World Cup games — the Men in Blue’s latest triumph making it a tennis set score of 6-0 — all combined to enhance the aura that surrounds cricket matches between the Asian rivals.

Yes, there is the classic Ashes where England and Australia fight for the famous urn. The sub-text of that is all about a parent nation jousting with its former colony to which it had sent its convicts for reformation. It is a point that Sir Ian Botham in his heyday had alluded to when he said: “It would be fun to defeat 11 convicts in front of 11,000 convicts.” Despite the patronising tone of those words, Botham did walk the talk when he and his fellow Englishmen humbled an emerging Australian team under Allan Border in the mid-1980s.

An anguished Border then strengthened his team, infused self-belief, even banned the customary beer with rivals and a toughened Australia was soon a domineering force. However, if you compare cricket’s oldest rivalry with the one that inflames passions in the Indian Sub-Continent, there are various complexities that have to be factored in. For all the on-field skirmishes and chatter, England and Australia share strong filial ties but that’s not the case with India and Pakistan, who like typical neighbours have a love-hate relationship with politicians, diplomats, army and militants adding their own twist to the tale.

As a nation India is relatively far ahead of Pakistan, but where the country beyond the Wagah border seeks parity is split into two realms — defence and sport, especially cricket. In terms of defence, though India has conventional superiority, Pakistan negated it by being an equal in terms of nuclear power. As for cricket, Pakistan did one better, often humbling India when Imran Khan shepherded dreams from Rawalpindi to Karachi, while scalding defeats were dished out to Big Brother in the desert sands of Sharjah. Javed Miandad’s last-ball six off Chetan Sharma is too painful a reminder to recall.

The Indo-Pak story is schizophrenic when it comes to results — Pakistan’s overall superiority in ODIs being countered by India’s punch in an arena that really mattered, the World Cup. Be it 1992, 1996, 1999, 2003, 2011 and now 2015, India had the right approach and garnered the resultant dominance, while Pakistan got blinkered to pressure and imploded.

Yet, every time an Indo-Pak game flickers into view on the horizon, the drumbeats of hype and expectations touch stratospheric highs. The build-up has various facets like the background score of fans beseeching their respective team to put it past the neighbouring foe, the players themselves getting primed for battle (on Star Sports, Sourav Ganguly spoke about poor sleep ahead of matches against Pakistan on account of the excess adrenalin) and the propensity of politicians to try and partake a bit of the shine (ahead of the latest match Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke cricket with his counterpart Nawaz Sharif).

Asked by Rajdeep Sardesai on Headlines Today about games against Pakistan and about that one match he defines as the most important in his World Cup stints, Sachin Tendulkar said: “The 2011 semifinal at Mohali. I enjoyed Centurion (2003) more, but this game was the most important.” For a man who played 463 ODIs, to pick the Mohali outing as the most significant, just shows how much emotions are invested in sporting tussles against Pakistan.

All this adds more glitter to a much-feted rivalry. India’s stranglehold on Pakistan in World Cups have been engineered by players, both the great (Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid) to the good (Venkatesh Prasad, Ajay Jadeja) stamping their class and striking a wonderful tandem. If stepping into Sharjah about three decades ago meant an inevitable Indian defeat against Pakistan, the contrary happens when the stage screams ‘World Cup!’ for then India clears its throat and roars like a lion that brooks no opposition.

In the latest episode, century-maker Virat Kohli aided by 70s from Shikhar Dhawan and Suresh Raina helped India post 300 and the resultant scoreboard pressure allied with efficient bowlers and sharp fielders was enough to ground Pakistan.

Kohli and gang or for that matter even the present Pakistan squad are far beyond those generations that brooded over partition and coped with displacement be it in the Mohajir enclaves in Karachi or the refugee settlements in Delhi. Yet, every-time India and Pakistan face-off, history does gift a dark shroud.

It is as if the memories of loss and grief have somehow been transmitted in the genes or it could even be that old waiter at a hotel room saying: “Sir, whatever you do, don’t lose to India/Pakistan.” A decade ago, a South Indian player recalled how in the dressing room, he felt that the North Indian cricketers were fired up much more than him for a game against Pakistan. He later reasoned: “May be in the South, we didn’t have the scars of partition to deal with, but they had to and stories from their grand-parents only made them much more aware.” But it is not entirely about a fierce desire to put it past the neighbour because Indians and Pakistanis do get along on account of a shared culture, cuisine and language. Recently, during India’s tour of England, two greats — Kapil Dev and Wasim Akram, now commentators — bonded through their shared love for Punjabi. This beguiling mix of rivalry and latent friendship adds to the allure of an Indo-Pak clash. Truly, nothing else can match this though people talk about Brazil-Argentina fixtures in football. The multitude of meanings that seep into any game between India and Pakistan can be summed up in one word — priceless. Truly, an iconic rivalry that thrills fans and helps television networks laugh all the way to the bank.