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The score is finally even

For the next eight weeks, a billion people across the Indian subcontinent can afford to miss work. The neta can avoid the public rally, the babu can stay away from the files, the aam aadmi can simply stay at home.

india Updated: Jan 06, 2006 02:16 IST

For the next eight weeks, a billion people across the Indian subcontinent can afford to miss work. The neta can avoid the public rally, the babu can stay away from the files, the aam aadmi can simply stay at home. Indo-Pak cricket is here, and the prospect of Shoaib versus Sachin is delicious enough to forget the drudgery of daily life. The Indo-Pak relationship has always been schizoid — sibling rivalry occasioned by the pain and anger of separation at birth is how a former Pakistani diplomat described it once — but it’s on the cricket field that the complexity of the equation manifests itself.

A game played between two sides becomes, to use author Mike Marquese’s term, war minus the shooting.

The well-known cricket writer, Ramachandra Guha, has a great story to tell on Indo-Pak cricket. It was the tense 1996 World Cup quarter-final between India and Pakistan under the floodlights of Bangalore that Guha was watching. As the match reached its dramatic final moments, Javed Miandad, Pakistan’s batsman for all seasons, was run out. It was Miandad’s last international match and as he left the field, Guha got up to cheer him. “What are you applauding him for?” asked the man in the next seat. “He is a great player and you may never see him play again,” was Guha’s response. Pat came the sharp reply, “Thank God I will never see that bastard again.” In a world of intense competing nationalisms, there is simply no place for sentimentality.

Here was Miandad, arguably the finest Pakistani batsman of his generation, playing his last game, but for the crowd, he was the ultimate ‘enemy’, someone who once had hit the most famous stroke in Indo-Pak cricket history: a six in Sharjah on the last ball off the hapless Chetan Sharma (Sharma, who took a hat-trick in a World Cup match, once bemoaned that he was only remembered as the bowler who was at the receiving end of Miandad’s final ball heroics).

In the Eighties, Miandad took a fancy to Indian bowling and a Hindi film director even named the villain of his film after the Pakistani batsman. And now that Miandad’s son has married Dawood Ibrahim’s daughter, the demonisation is probably complete.

My own memories of Indo-Pak cricket are shaped by another remarkable Indo-Pak match that was played in Karachi, also in the mid-Nineties. The Indian team was in Pakistan after seven long years, and the stadium was a sea of green. In the last over, India needed six runs to win, one wicket in hand. The Pakistani crowd was delirious, convinced that victory was at hand. Suddenly, Rajesh Chauhan played the shot of his life, a six into the stands off a Saqlain Mushtaq full-toss.

If you ever wanted to witness how the roar of 60,000 people can, within seconds, descend into complete silence, then Karachi was the place to be in. As I was leaving a spectator muttered, “Bloody Saqlain, must have been paid to throw the match away!” Once again, jingoism had overcome cricketing logic.

And yet, Rahul Dravid’s men are visiting Pakistan at a time like no other. This is perhaps the first Indian team that is visiting Pakistan without the burden of a defeat signalling a national calamity.

In the first ten years of Indo-Pak cricket, the memories of Partition were so raw that neither side could afford to give an inch. This resulted in a succession of tedious draws for the most part. The 1965 and 1971 wars ensured that the two countries did not play each other for almost two decades. When the series resumed in 1978, the tension was enough to make grown men tremble, and India’s famous spin quartet was consigned to history after one bad showing.

Little changed in the Eighties or Nineties. The rules of the game were clear: whoever lost an Indo-Pak series, the captain would be sacked, the team overhauled. Cross-border terrorism in the Kashmir Valley and beyond only intensified the sense of bitterness. It also gave individuals like Bal Thackeray an opportunity to draw mileage by contrasting the apparent double standards in playing with a country that was sponsoring violence. The war in Kargil, the attack on Parliament, the collapse of the Agra summit were all seen as evidence of a perpetually hostile neighbour, and cricket matches became ‘revenge’ games aimed at correcting historical wrongs and restoring national pride.

In fact, one reason why a section of the NDA government was reluctant to allow the Indian team to visit Pakistan before the general elections of 2004 was the fear that defeat would demoralise the Indian nation and rob the India Shining campaign of its sheen (that the Indian team won, and the NDA lost is one of the ultimate ironies of cricket and politics).

But unlike previous Indian captains, Dravid, fortunately, faces no such guillotine if defeated. And the stability of the Manmohan Singh government is entirely dependent on the Left and not on the vagaries of cricketing fortune.

Sure, the tour will be an emotional roller-coaster for millions of cricket fans. But for the first time, there is genuine belief that emotions released on the field will not vitiate the atmosphere between the two countries off it. One reason is that despite the periodic finger-pointing, both nations seem to have reconciled to the reality that what history divides, geography does unite. The Kashmir quake was a classic example of this. The citizenry slowly came to terms with the uncomfortable reality that a man-made line in the mountains separated the collective human tragedy caused by nature.

Moreover, there is increasing willingness to distinguish the Pakistani State from its civil society. So, a terror attack in Delhi or Bangalore is not seen as an act endorsed by the ordinary Pakistani citizen, but by terrorist outfits who have received the patronage of certain groups within the Islamabad establishment. This distinction is important because it means that, unlike in the past, Indo-Pak cricket is less likely to be held hostage by gun-wielding jehadis. And the Indo-Pak dialogue will not collapse every time there is an act of violence.

Most importantly, there is a generational change, driven by those in both countries for whom Partition is not a permanently festering sore, but a historical event that one needs to look beyond. Even the cynics of people-to-people dialogue will have to admit that the growing interaction between various groups across the border is slowly chipping away at the walls of mutual mistrust and yielding to a relationship based on sheer pragmatism.

There will always be the one-upmanship — our Lata versus your Noorjehan, our Kapil versus your Imran — but there is also a grudging acknowledgement of the success stories on either side of the border. In that sense, cricketers as part of a wider entertainment industry are now easily transformed into regional folk heroes. The reception that a Balaji got on the streets of Pakistan two years ago was a bit like what a Shah Rukh might get during a stage show.

More than symbols of ersatz nationalism, cricketers are now emerging as genuine ‘entertainers’ whose appeal, courtesy satellite television, is not confined to national boundaries. And just like flops and hits are part of an erratic box office, fickle cricket fans too are realising that a defeat one day could be followed by triumph the very next, especially when the two countries play each other so often.

Maybe, the great Javed Miandad should also make a comeback. Dawood connection apart, he might just find a few more Indians inclined to applaud him on his next walk to the crease.

The writer is Editor-in-Chief,

First Published: Jan 06, 2006 02:16 IST