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Monday, Oct 21, 2019

India vs Pakistan, ICC World Cup 2019: Box office hit, but a cricketing no-contest | Opinion

An India-Pakistan match, particularly in the World Cup, brings the sub-continent to a halt.

cricket Updated: Jun 16, 2019 09:42 IST
Ayaz Memon
Ayaz Memon
India take on Pakistan at Manchester on June 16
India take on Pakistan at Manchester on June 16(AFP)

A day after the rousing quarter-final in the 1996 World Cup, I met Mark Mascarenhas, late owner of WorldTel, who had the broadcast rights for the tournament, in a Bengaluru hotel for an interview.

India’s heady victory over Pakistan had the country still agog, none more so than Mascarenhas. “This is big, very big,” was his ecstatic opening line. I could understand his delight, but what exactly did he mean?

“This match is a game-changer,” he added, seeing my quizzical look. “Indo-Pak rivalry will not only replace any other in cricket for appeal, including England versus Australia, but any rivalry in any sport. It will become bigger than even Germany versus France or England in football.”

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Mascarenhas’ passion for cricket and nose for exploiting opportunities in sport had made him come prospecting to India, and he had met with huge success in this World Cup. I was skeptical of his excitement though.

The extraordinary emotional quotient in Indo-Pak cricket was obvious. But to suggest this rivalry could be the ‘biggest’ seemed far-fetched, more so given their volatile political ties that had seen them engage in cricket in a stop-start pattern for half a century.

Twenty-three years later, approaching Sunday’s match, Mascarenhas’s words seem prescient. Consider these. Ticket prices for this match range between approx 100 and 800 GBP (1 GBP is approx ~90). On the eve of the match, prices for tickets had gone up 4-5 times, despite the rain threat. To give this perspective, World Cup tickets for the Australia-England match at Lord’s were cheaper by 60 per cent. If you take the mark-up price for the India-Pakistan game, it makes any comparison silly.

About 80,000-100,000 fans from the sub-continent (75% from India) have come to England for the World Cup from all over the world, each spending approx. ~3.5-4.5 lakh, almost all clamouring for a seat at Old Trafford. Many will go back disappointed.

The audience for this match is expected to be about 1.5 billion, making it among the most viewed sports contests on the planet.

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The match has hogged media space all over the sub-continent and also caught attention elsewhere. CNBC Europe did a special feature on this match, calling it among the biggest sports rivalries. I was part of a news show on BBC where the focus was more on this match than the World Cup.

TV advertisement rates, according to pink papers back home, are as follows: An India match ~10-12 lakh for a spot, a non-India game ~3-4 lakh, the Indo-Pak match ~25-35 lakh! Broadcast rights for the World Cup have grown geometrically, and hinged essentially on the Indo-Pak match.

The first man to unlock the box office potential of Indo-Pak cricket was Sheikh Abdul Rahman Bukhatir, who started cricket in Sharjah in 1981 under the aegis of the Cricketers Benefit Fund Scheme (CBFS), initially with unofficial matches between teams from these two countries before getting ICC recognition.

Sharjah became a major venue for ODIs through much of the 1980s and 90s where every country participated, but Indo-Pak cricket was the big money spinner. CBFS lost its allure after being smeared with allegations of corruption and underworld connections towards the turn of the century. It must seem surprising now that India and Pakistan did not play each other in the first four World Cups. They were kept apart in the group stages ostensibly because of political hostility that existed then.

By the 1980s, however, relations between the two countries improved appreciably. Their two cricket boards in fact became strong allies in the political matrix of the sport (they weaned the World Cup away from England in 1987 and brought it to the sub-continent), and in 1992, India and Pakistan played each other for the first time in this tournament.

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It was a humdrum match in Sydney, but the ball had been set rolling. Since then the Indo-Pak contest, fuelled by expanding cable TV penetration and the peculiar blow-hot-blow-cold political relations between the two nations, has become the blue riband match of the tournament.

It has grown in appeal, passion and financial heft. Experts reckon the monetisation potential of this rivalry has far more scope for full actualisation.

Where cricket is concerned, however, it’s been a one-way street with India winning all six times they have met, in conditions as varied as England (1999), South Africa (2003), Australia (1992, 2015) and India (1996, 2011).

Apart from the quarter-final in 1996 (Bengaluru) and the league match in 2003 (Centurion Park), World Cup matches have been rather mediocre. But that has not deterred fans from either country to invest heavily—emotion, time and money—in the tie, each time.

An India-Pakistan match, particularly in the World Cup, brings the sub-continent to a halt. However intense the accompanying jingoism, what’s important is that cricket keeps the conversation going between the two countries, which makes for a win-win situation whatever the outcome.

Hopefully, the rain gods will understand and relent .

(The writer is a senior cricket journalist. Views are personal)

First Published: Jun 16, 2019 09:24 IST

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