It would be nice if the Indo-Pak rivalry emerged from on-field competitiveness

  • Osman Samiuddin, Hindustan Times
  • Updated: Feb 14, 2015 20:50 IST

What is it that we want from an India-Pakistan rivalry? Some days, when there has been too much of it, I think it would be fine for it to be not as permanently loaded as it is. It would be nice if it was an organic and intermittent occurrence, born from a natural on-field competitiveness, as did Pakistan and West Indies in the ’80s, or India and Australia in the 2000s.

Other days, when there has not been enough of it, it feels as if it should be celebrated, that its history and tartness, should be acknowledged as unique in cricket. It is, after all, an Ashes that need never be marketed, an Ashes that can sustain itself even without – and beyond – a playing field.

Above all what it could do with is a little equilibrium. In periods, such as the late 1970s and early ’80s or the mid-2000s, it has swayed to greedy excess. In too many periods it has wallowed in abject drought. The to and fro of those extremes not only mirrors the abnormal emotions around the contest – extreme hate or overbearing love – it exacerbates them.

Clash of personalities: At Mohali, the cool of MS Dhoni’s men worked perfectly to unspool the hyperactive energy of Shahid Afridi and his men.

The two sides have not played a full bilateral series in seven years. Yet if all goes as planned, they will not just dip gingerly into the waters of a detente at the end of this year, they will plunge through the ice: six series in the next eight years. Behold, a season of bounty is upon us all, marketers and broadcasters foremost.

In this pattern, matches in World Cups, or in other ICC tournaments, are vexed. Too much rides on them on the one hand. Foremost, the pressure is concentrated on the players, pressure which, in only slightly decreasing quantities, filters out on to fans, administrators, diplomats and politicians. Is all this necessary?

But you want matches to happen too because that is the only oxygen the rivalry gets in some phases. Between their first World Cup meeting in ’92 and their next, in ’96, they played just four ODIs.

They played plenty of ODIs around the world between Bangalore in 1996 and their Old Trafford meeting at the 1999 World Cup, but the two countries were on the verge of war in 1999, so that put a different world of connotations on the meeting.

Then, until Centurion in 2003, another desert of bilateralism, with only seven ODIs. Infamously they didn’t meet at the 2007 World Cup. But from the moment they entered another freeze, at the end of 2007, to the Mohali semi-final in 2011, they played only six ODIs. Just picture the tension going into each game, built over the years of each gap, only to release it all in just one seven-hour window. At the game’s most coveted event? It doesn’t bear thinking about.

Ostensibly, that terrible weight would seem to have told on Pakistan more than India. At least that is the telling through some of the contest’s most memorable images. Aamir Sohail getting too pumped up in the Bangalore chase; Javed Miandad’s slapstick mimicry of Kiran More at Sydney and Shoaib Akhtar lost in the imagined glory of a duel with Sachin Tendulkar at the Centurion.

In Pakistan, we love to make a big deal of the jazba and passion of our people. Probably it has carried its cricketers and teams to great heights.

But clearly it has worked against Pakistan against India at the World Cup. Certainly in Mohali, the cool of MS Dhoni’s men worked perfectly to unspool the hyperactive energy of Shahid Afridi and his men. To this day it seems remarkable that a side that had fielded (mostly) so well in the tournament, contrived to drop four catches that day.

That interplay of energies has, more often than not, overridden issues of form. It is impossible, however, to wonder how form will not play some kind of role when the two teams meet in Adelaide on February 15.

Pakistan are in an abysmal place at the moment. Their squad is not only deprived, but it is also not particularly impressive. Their bowling, so hampered over the years, can barely afford the absences of Saeed Ajmal, Junaid Khan and, as appears likely, Mohammad Hafeez.

As it stands, they have their weakest World Cup bowling attack in decades, perhaps ever. That is the bad news. The marginally worse news is their batting, which, with the likes of Younis Khan and Misbah-ul-Haq (among other dot-ball hoovers) is so old-fashioned it may as well pre-date limited overs cricket.

India’s own, winless travels through Australia, will be of some comfort of course. As will the fact that Pakistan will not be overconfident on arrival in Adelaide.

Finally, perhaps they will take heart from the thought that they have to win a World Cup game against India at some point.

Osman Samiuddin is a sportswriter at The National in Abu Dhabi and author of The Unquiet Ones: A History of Pakistan Cricket.

Follow him on Twitter @osmansamiuddin

From HT Brunch, February 15

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