The expression on the faces of a motley gathering of young and old at Delhi’s Ambedkar stadium bus stand had a story to tell. The faces were taut, a mix of tension and expectancy with a faraway look in the eyes that reflected they were not sure what to expect from the adventure they were embarking upon. They were all boarding the Friendship Bus to Lahore on a warm albeit pleasant April morning of 2004.
This “war minus the shooting” means different things to different people. When I was growing up and not strong enough to bear the impact of the leather ball on my tender palms, a Pakistan team was visiting India. My aunt would underline the deviousness of the Pakistan team with the story that the Pakistani captain had hidden pins in his fingers to hurt his Indian counterpart while shaking hands with him before the toss. Needless to say, I discovered much later, this was not true.
In 1997, when I first visited Pakistan to report on a one-day series, I saw a boy not even in his teens crying bitterly outside the Karachi stadium after India had won the match. On asking him the reason for his trauma, the boy replied: “I have been told we should never lose to them.”
This enemy “them” on a cricket field has led to many an epic encounter, where fans have died a thousand deaths, choking in their own anxieties and fear of loss, while the players have surmounted extreme pressure to script heroic performances.
A cursory look at the overall win-loss record in the Tests and the one-dayers would leave an Indian fan surprised and disappointed. India lag far behind in one-dayers as well as Test matches, though not when it matters the most.
The pre-match days were fraught with tension and a few of us, who had made friends with a couple of Pakistani fans and had decided to see the match together, were showing signs of unease and feeling disturbed. As a way to treat the match as a sporting event and not let the war at home interfere, we, like many others, entered the ground holding the flags of both the nations together in a gesture that signified togetherness and peace.
Though there were minor incidents of disturbance in the crowd, the match, which India won with a lot to spare, passed off peacefully and once again, cricket fans across the political divide showed the way and were a credit to themselves and their countries.
Four years later, at the Centurion in South Africa, the mood was much different though there was no dearth of acrimony and tension on and off the field. The match was played in a sea of flags and myriad colours. Frayed Indian nerves were set to rest by an innings of supreme control and aggression by the one and only Sachin Tendulkar and the predatory Virender Sehwag.
As the match ended in an Indian victory, the ground was immersed in a sea of Indian flags. In the press box, I could hear my Pakistani friend and journalist Shahid Hashmi telling his mother on the phone: “Ammi koi baat nahin hai haar gaye hain. Allah ki yahi marjee thi. Khel mein haar-jeet to hoti rahti hai (Mother, never mind if we have lost. This is God’s will. In sports one team wins and one loses).” These consoling words could well have come from an Indian journalist, had the result that day been different.
Our most recent World Cup confrontation on home soil at Mohali in 2011 had the Prime Ministers of the two countries watch the tussle from the ground itself. Manmohan Singh took this opportunity to invite Pakistan PM Yousuf Gilani to visit India and watch the match with him. Cricket diplomacy was once again used to thaw the ice between the two nations.
This invested the match with a meaning far beyond the boundary line, reminding the world that when the two nations meet on a sporting field, it is much more than a mere cricket match. In a tense, bruising match, the mediocrity on display betrayed the pressure and tension the players must have been under: India were the victors again. The momentum that they gained from that quarter-final win led them to ultimate glory as they crowned themselves champions.
Today, India begin the defence of their title, playing against Pakistan on a neutral turf, as the fans of the world brace up for yet another World Cup confrontation on a cricket field. Never mind if the relationship between the two countries is at its lowest ebb.
Tighten your belts and enjoy this ride into the unknown. It may be a war all right, but it is not fought with guns and bullets. No one dies here. The winner will be the one who plays better, enthrals the spectators with his skills and holds its nerve even when the pressure gets insurmountable. That is the beauty of sports.
The score so far
A rewind of all India-Pakistan clashes in the World Cup:
Sydney, March 4, 1992
India 216/7 (49 overs) beat Pakistan 173 (48.1 overs) by 43 runs.
Tendulkar top scored with 54 not out.
, Manoj Prabhakar and Javagal Srinath took two wickets each
Bangalore, March 9, 1996
India 287/8 (50 overs) beat Pakistan 248/9 (49 overs), by 39 runs.
Navjot Sidhu scored 93 runs and Ajay Jadeja hit 45 of just 41 balls.
Waqar Younis and Aaqib Javed went for 67 runs apiece in 10 overs. Venkatesh Prasad and Anil Kumble took three wickets each
Mohali, March 30, 2011
India 260 for 9 (50 overs) beat Pakistan 231 by 29 runs.
scored 85 runs and Suresh Raina chipped in with 36 not out. In the Pakistan innings, Zaheer Khan, Ashish Nehra, Munaf Patel, Harbhajan Singh and Yuvraj Singh took two wickets each
From HT Brunch, February 15
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