India-Pakistan match has always transcended the sport | india | Hindustan Times
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India-Pakistan match has always transcended the sport

india Updated: Feb 27, 2010 21:46 IST
Hockey world cup

An India-Pakistan encounter, be it hockey or cricket, is more about the mind than sport. Given the political equation and relationship between the two Asian neighbours, it is but natural that the tensions and pressures arising from such extraneous situations spill on to the sports field.

As such, Sunday's contest between the two in the 12th men's Hockey World Cup would be a battle of wills and not just another match.

The respective team coaches would no doubt be counselling their wards on the need to maintain calm and not allow emotions to influence their on-field action. Like it or not, it has never been the case whenever India and Pakistan met on a hockey pitch where often the exchanges turn physical.

Although both camps sound diplomatic ahead of Sunday's game, the feeling within will be one of trepidation, anxiety and of course, high tension.

"It is never easy to play Pakistan. There is always an element of fear of failure because of factors that are totally unconnected to sport. We in the Indian team were under tremendous pressure going into that game, and it has always been so," recalled Mir Ranjan Negi, the Indian goalkeeper in the 1982 Asian Games final that Pakistan won 7-1 at the National Stadium, now renamed after Dhyan Chand.

That is one game that no Indian player who had participated in it would like to be reminded of. The defeat still rankles among fans of that generation. Nearly 14 years after that final, Negi, when asked to don the pads for an international veterans' game against Pakistan in Dubai, was a bundle of nerves. The Pakistan veterans team contained virtually the same members as of the 1982 squad - Islahuddin, Kalimullah and Samiullah, to name a few.

Thus, the Sunday night contest promises to be yet another block-buster and a no-holds barred battle of the sticks. Although off the field, the rival players enjoy a healthy relationship, it is different matter when they don the national colours and face each other on the ground.

As for the supporters of either team, it is a question of surviving 70 minutes without suffering a heart-attack. Often, the spectators work themselves into a frenzy that is born out of anxiety. Even the hardened sub-continental souls in the media enclosure are prone to get emotional, for it is an experience that defies description. The passion is infectious.

On their part, the Indian players have always been wary of Pakistan's special ability to fight back. For the men from across the border, the moments of magic that Indians can produce can turn them from heroes to villains as was the case on that balmy winter evening in Chennai in 1995.

The occasion was the 1995 SAF Games final in Chennai. The stadium was overflowing hours before the commencement of the game. The tension was palpable. The temperatures rose by the minute as the early evening sun blazed on the brand new facility.

Pakistan were at full strength, virtually the same team that had won the World Cup in Sydney the previous year with India having finished a creditable fifth. In the Pakistan line-up were such stalwarts as midfielder Tahir Zaman, forwards Kamran Ashraf and of course, skipper Shahbaz Ahmed, undoubtedly the finest ball player of his generation. Facing them were skipper Pargat Singh, centre-half Mohammed Riaz, and forwards Dhanraj Pillay, then at his peak, and Mukesh Kumar.

The setting was perfect. After surviving early Pakistani attacks, India struck twice in two minutes. Pillay scored from a penalty corner in the 18th and Mukesh found the boards from another set-piece in the 19th. The noise in the stadium was deafening.

Into the second half, the Indians were at their flowing best. Pillay struck twice more from two spectacular moves the spread-eagled the Pakistani defence. Mukesh made it 5-0 in the 56th from a penalty corner. Pakistan marked their presence with Zaman and Ashraf finding the net in the last five minutes before the hooter went to set off unprecedented celebrations on and off the pitch.

Long time followers of the sport rate the SAF final as among the best matches between the two in a tournament in the sub-continent. There have been other encounters that have produced some dazzling hockey, but for India, the SAF Games gold medal match remains a benchmark as it was one outing where everything clicked for the hosts. There was cohesion and fluidity in the ranks never seen before or since.

Riaz, who played a lead role in controlling the flow from midfield, said it was one of the best matches he had ever played in. "I can never forget the atmosphere, the packed stands and the way we played that day. It was just perfect," he said many years later.

On Sunday night, India would have to replicate that performance. The hearts would be beating at breakneck speed; tempers and tension on hair-trigger; a prayer on everyone's lips. After all, an India-Pakistan match always has transcended the sport. It is and will be about being human, susceptible to failures and also having the ability to rise from the ashes.

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