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.
Their visit to Pakistan was facilitated by the resumption of cricketing ties after a decade or so, thanks to then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s initiative to rebuild bridges with a neighbour with whom India was torn asunder in 1947.
That tragic partition which led to around 14 million people being uprooted and half a million being butchered in what can only be described as fratricidal war, the consequences of which both the nations are still suffering from.
The two nations have fought two wars, a near third one in Kargil in 1999, even when the two nations were battling it out on a cricket field during a World Cup match in England. And they have generally been at each other’s throats throughout their 68-year history so far.
As the engine of the bus roared into life, so did a number of the passengers with a chant "jaykara mata Sherawali da." It was not a war cry but a Hindu religious invocation for a safe journey. On the bus were old people who still remembered their houses in Lahore where they had once lived, the young who had heard stories of their lost homeland from their grandparents, and also those who were pure cricket enthusiasts keen to watch an India-Pakistan match.
As I remember that journey and what it must have meant to those heading towards Lahore, I am flooded with memories. Sweet, bitter memories of many India-Pakistan encounters, the love and warmth of the people in Pakistan towards us, the Indians, and the cataclysmic and even cathartic experiences which the fans across the divide go through while cheering their teams.
It’s probably one of the most baffling and even inexplicable mysteries of human behaviour that the two nations, at war with each other, love to have a sporting, friendly battle on the cricket field. A defeat does at times lead to bitter consequences, but is soon forgotten in the hope that the next encounter would produce better results. It is, to use the Orwellian term, "War minus the shooting" where you want to win by not killing but proving your superiority on the strength of your sporting skills.
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.
Fan frenzy: There is a unique chemistry between the Indian and Pakistani fan that unites and divides them while a cricket match is on.
As millions in India and around the globe dotted with the Indian diaspora, sit glued today (February 15) to their TV sets, they can take comfort in one statistical fact: India has never lost to Pakistan in any World Cup encounter, winning five out of five, and that too with relative ease.
This is as much a reflection of India’s superiority in the shorter format of late, as it is of their better resolve and strength to withstand pressure. But it was not so in the Seventies and Eighties.
Think of an India-Pakistan encounter and the image that still stands out is the last-ball six that Javed Miandad, that doughty fighter if ever there was one, struck at Sharjah against Chetan Sharma, to help Pakistan win a match which they till then had almost lost.
That was one blow, which for a long time was deeply embedded in the Indian psyche, like a lacerating wound which would never heal. The customs officials at the Delhi airport signalled Chetan for special attention, stripping him and his baggage to the bone. This was their revenge on a man whose spell had led to the Indian humiliation.
Today, Chetan recalls those incidents of being treated as a villain with humour and mirth, and as a sign of how times have changed. He also tells you that he has earned more money in selling the story of that last-ball six to the media than he has earned while playing for India.
There is this strange chemistry between the Indian and Pakistani fan that unites and divides them while a cricket match is on. A defeat is unacceptable, yet there is always great appreciation and admiration, even if grudgingly so, of the rival players’ outstanding performance.
Who can forget the standing ovation Wasim Akram and his men got when they took a victory lap at the MA Chidambaram Stadium in Chennai in 1997. If that was unbelievable, so was the warmth and reception the Indians got in Pakistan on that 2003-2004 tour.
I too have been treated like a star once in my life and have even been forced to sign an autograph. This was at Lahore 2004, after India had beaten Pakistan. The crowd in the stands were mobbing whoever had come from India, congratulating them and getting their autograph. There are many who deride cricket being used as a vehicle to reach out to each other, but for people of both the nations, especially those of us who visit Pakistan thanks to sporting diplomacy, it has helped to realise that if you scratch the prejudices of a nasty past, the skin that emerges is no different from each other.
What makes these cricketing encounters a study in contrast is also the ambivalent nature of the people who are keen to watch the two nations play, yet mortally fearful of their team losing.
In the Seventies and Eighties, when India and Pakistan had stopped playing in each other’s territories, Sharjah had become the neutral venue for sponsors and TV channels to milk the financial gains to be had due to the phenomenal interest of fans.
The jingoism and full-throated abuse hurled at each other by the expats of the two countries living in the UAE were a disturbing reminder of the bitter relationship between the two nations. This was much in contrast to when the two nations started playing at home against each other in the latter years, in the 2000s.
Freeze frame: The Aamir Sohail-Venkatesh Prasad verbal duel ends with Prasad shattering his stumps, Bangalore, circa 1996.
The first of the two World Cup matches which the two countries played against each other in India was in 1996 in Bangalore. The city had become a fortress with levels of security unheard of in a cricket match in India then. The match, which India won comfortably in the end, had its moments of extreme tension, with security forces on the edge and the fans ready to explode.
The verbal skirmish between Venkatesh Prasad and Aamir Sohail could have easily boiled over and infuriated the crowds. But in the end, it all passed off peacefully and Javed Miandad, that scourge of Indian bowlers, was given a fitting farewell by the crowd who knew this was the last international match of his career.
There could not have been a worse backdrop to a World Cup match between the two countries in 1999 at Manchester in England. The Kargil war had started and no one in England could anticipate the reaction of the diaspora of the two countries living in England. There was even a vocal majority in the two countries which wanted the match to be called off, the refrain being, how could the two meet on a cricket field while the two armies were killing one another?
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
India 227 for 6 (50 overs) beat Pakistan 180 (45.3 overs), by 47 runs.
Rahul Dravid top scored with 61 runs and Md Azharuddin chipped in with 59. Man of the Match Prasad bowled a dream spell of 9.3 overs, 2 maidens, 27 runs and 5 wickets
Centurion, March 1, 2003
Batting first, Pakistan scored 273 for 7 in their stipulated 50 overs.
India chased down the target in 45.4 overs with Tendulkar top scoring with a belligerent 98 runs and Yuvraj Singh scoring 50 not out. Rahul Dravid was with him on the crease with 44, when the winning runs were scored
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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