Ind v Pak: No holds barred cricket

India-Pakistan cricketing relations have limped along, sometimes mirroring the political reality, at other times being reflected in a distorting mirror. One thing hasn’t changed, however. Finishing second best is not a choice.

Indian skipper Nari Contractor with his Pakistan counterpart Fazal Mahmood ahead of the fourth Test in Madras on January 13, 1961. In a phase between 1952-53 and 1960-61, the teams drew 12 Test matches in a row, the fear of losing contributing to this state of affairs.   -  THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

Indian fans are heartened by the fact that India has beaten Pakistan in the ICC 50-over World Cup encounters every time. The above scene is from the Adelaide Oval on February 15, 2015 when India met Pakistan in the World Cup. And India won, yet again.   -  GETTY IMAGES

On India’s first tour of Pakistan in 1954-55, the host captain Abdul Hafeez Kardar, the Oxford-educated martinet wrote in his newspaper column: “May the better side win, and the second best take its defeat with grace.” But so terrified were the respective captains of finishing second best that in the first two decades, the teams played out 12 drawn Tests in a row out of a total of 15, with India winning two and Pakistan one of the first three.

The hangover has lasted more than half a century. Fans on either side of the border are willing to forgive any defeat so long as it is not to the other.

Through some poor World Cup performances, Indian fans have consoled themselves with the thought that at least they beat Pakistan each time.

Such strong antipathy can only arise from a passion that comes from a shared history. This is sibling rivalry on the sporting field, sharpened by politicians, media and advertising.

 

The latest to-ing and fro-ing ahead of the World T20 was merely a repetition of what has gone before: politicians bickering, the anti-Pakistan brigade frothing at the mouth, Pakistan Cricket Board searching for muscle to flex, the media stoking the uncertainty. Just the normal build-up.

History, geography, economics, psychology have all played their roles in kneading India-Pakistan relations into different shapes at different times. Sport does not exist in a vacuum, divorced from political realities, and this has affected cricket too.

The cricket fan sometimes clings to what George Orwell called the “lunatic habit of identifying with larger power units, and seeing everything in terms of competitive prestige.” Patriotism should have no role in a sporting contest, even if that is what gives competition the edge, and attracts eyeballs to television.

Thus if India lose to Pakistan it becomes a commentary on their political system, literary heritage, the charm of their beauty queens, the strength of their dams. And doubtless, it is the same in Pakistan. This way of judging a nation by the strength of its leg-spinners or middle-order batsmen is not unique to Asia, but is at its perverse best in an India-Pakistan encounter.

The passion is often not so much for the game as for winning. After Pakistan lost to India in a World Cup match, a fan fired at his television set and then turned the gun on himself. Skipper Wasim Akram received death threats and the plane bringing the players home had to be diverted to Karachi when news got out that unhappy fans had gathered at Lahore airport with abusive banners and rotten eggs.

Not so long ago, the Meerut police booked a group of students in a university there for sedition. Their crime? Cheering for Shahid Afridi in an Asia Cup match which India lost. The Uttar Pradesh government later dropped the charges.

More recently, in Pakistan, a student was arrested for supporting Virat Kohli by waving the Indian flag. The law under which he was arrested, Section 123-A (acts of damaging the sovereignty of the country) carries a maximum punishment of 10 years in jail. He has been released on bail.

 

Interestingly, once the uncertainties are resolved and a tour goes ahead, then there is usually brotherhood and moist eyes and stories of love and sharing. When the Chennai audience gave the team a standing ovation after Pakistan had beaten India in a Test, it was a glimpse of how things often are. It was a gesture that still brings a lump to the throat of the then captain Wasim Akram. Sachin Tendulkar was always a big hero in Pakistan, and I know a few Pakistan supporters in Sharjah who would pray for him thus: “Please let Tendulkar score a century — but Pakistan win”. It was a way of reconciling hero-worship with patriotism.

For decades now, India and Pakistan have seemed to be two countries separated by a common culture. Some of that is a legacy of the politics, some the result of commercial practices. “By 1996,” wrote the historian Ramachandra Guha, “it seemed clear that cricket matches between India and Pakistan stoked rather than subdued nationalist passions. This might have worried the peacemongers, but it was greatly to the liking of commercial sponsors.”

In recent years, commerce has indeed trumped both religion and nationalism. I suggested in an article three years ago that an India-Pakistan encounter had been “elevated to ordinariness.”

The teams play, I wrote, to ensure that sponsors and television channels recover the obscene investments they have made. Perhaps the fans are in transition too, the younger generation refusing to carry the baggage of an earlier one. Or this may just be a glimpse into innocence before the politicians begin to influence the impressionable.

Three years later, the politicians are back at their game. The secretary of the Board of Control for Cricket in India Anurag Thakur, 41, born well after Independence said last year there should be no match against Pakistan, and this year tried his darndest to get them to play at his home ground in Dharamsala. He is a BJP Member of Parliament and expediency and convenience are clearly his watchwords. This, sadly, has been the case nearly every time, with every government.

Pakistan are welcome to India for ICC’s multi-team tournaments like the World Cup, seems to be the prevailing wisdom, but not for bilateral series.

Read: > India v Pakistan in World Cup

Soon after that first series in Pakistan, the Maharajkumar of Vizianagaram (‘Vizzy’), had suggested that an India-Pakistan series should be held every other year to mirror the Ashes series between England and Australia.

He even proposed they play for an urn containing the soil of both countries. Luckily the ‘Soil’ series didn’t attract much attention.

India-Pakistan cricketing relations have limped along, sometimes mirroring the political reality, at other times being reflected in a distorting mirror.

One thing hasn’t changed, however. Finishing second best is not a choice. In the early days, this meant safety-first and negative cricket, and playing for a draw from the first day. That now has been replaced by a more positive approach, thanks to the nature of the encounters. You can’t play for a draw in a limited-over match, after all, and the teams haven’t played a Test match in eight years.

Read: > India v Pakistan: Memorable matches