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India and Pakistan Square Off in World Cup Cricket
Sometimes, a cricket match is more than just a cricket match
By: Jyoti Malhotra
When India and Pakistan play their inaugural match tomorrow (October 14) in the cricket World Cup at Narendra Modi stadium in Ahmedabad, everything else in both nations is expected to come to a stop. This is one of the world’s most intense sports rivalries and it beats anything that football serves up anywhere, including the World Cup. In a relationship starved of ordinary contact, the off-field tensions between the two nations, which were separated at birth in 1947, becomes sharper, more exaggerated. They acquire a brilliance that is edged with fear, anger and tremulous joy.
At the back of every Indian or Pakistani citizen’s mind when they meet is the knowledge that history hangs heavy. The two have fought three wars – soon after independence in 1947, in 1965 and in 1971, when India helped to break up Pakistan and create Bangladesh – as well as a limited border conflict in Kargil in 1999. Then-Pakistan army chief Pervez Musharraf thwarted his own prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, crossed the Line of Control and attempted to cut Jammu & Kashmir from the rest of the country. Then there were the Mumbai attacks of 2008, when 10 Pakistani terrorists armed with sophisticated weapons took a dinghy from Karachi, landed in Mumbai and created mayhem intended to bring India’s financial capital to its knees. Some 166 people were killed in the attacks, but in the 15 years since, Pakistan has never moved to prosecute even one person. The mastermind of the attack, Hafiz Saeed, is back in jail, but it is more home than prison. Another key perpetrator of the attack, Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi, even fathered a child when he was behind bars.
And yet generations of Indians and Pakistanis clamor every day to get to know each other better. There is no other relationship that is more painful and yet more joyful, at least for each other. The governments continue to spend much newsprint, TV time and online influence criticizing each other. Each crows about the inadequacies of the other with unadulterated glee. Decisions are often taken in the name of the people, but often they have more to do with ego rather than what the people want. The denial of visas is a classic example. Both Indians and Pakistanis routinely point out that when terrorists infiltrate to cause mayhem, as they did in Mumbai and continue to do in Jammu & Kashmir, they don’t need visas.
Especially in the current moment, the Islamic Republic of Pakistan is seen to be increasingly at odds with its neighbors, not just India but also Afghanistan. It is broke. Both the IMF and its patrons, whether China, the UAE or Saudi Arabia, have again and again come to its assistance, but every Pakistani knows the Band-Aid will come unstuck sooner than later.
India on the other hand, still secular despite the battering its minorities have received at the hands of the ruling BJP these past nine years, is growing at a healthy, if not furious annual pace of 7 percent, becoming quite the darling of the Western world – even if a great deal of that affection has been diverted to Delhi because of the West’s (read, the US) frustration with China.
If politics divides the two nations, it is culture that unites them – religion, food, customs, music and the movies. Lahoris yearn to come to Amritsar to eat the local cuisine and vice-versa. When Shahrukh Khan paired with Mahira Khan in ‘Raees’, it was as if the subcontinent knew no greater joy.
And then there is cricket. The Pakistan team has come to India to play after seven years. When the gifted Pakistani captain Babar Azam told Pakistani reporters he was looking forward to playing here, that “most of our matches are sold out, which means Indian fans are eager to see up and support us in the stadiums,” social media went into a frenzy. The team was received warmly when they landed in Hyderabad a couple of weeks ago. Indian fans cheered Pakistan in its match against Australia earlier this week – Pakistan lost by three wickets and a few balls to spare.
Virat Kohli is a hero in Pakistan, much like the now retired cricketer Mahendra Singh Dhoni, when he captained the Indian team which travelled to Pakistan to play in the 2004 bilateral series. Even Musharraf referred to Dhoni’s long hair during a match in Pakistan and the fact he had become a household name. Indian fans have never forgotten how Pakistani shopkeepers and ordinary people greeted them with real warmth, many refusing to accept money for the shopping they did.
The 2003 participation of the Indian team was, of course, made possible by then-Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, whose determined peace moves -- despite the fact that he was thwarted again and again by the Kargil conflict and continuing infiltration by Pakistani terrorists – resulted in a significant opening up of the borders.
That warmth has survived the generations. Last month in Sri Lanka, Pakistani cricketer Shaheen Afridi’s gift to Indian cricketer Jasprit Bumrah on becoming a father had both countries guessing – what was inside that box wrapped in red paper? But there was nothing to beat the real joy on the faces of Indian and Pakistani women cricketers in 2022 when they crowded around the Pakistani skipper Bismah Maroof's newborn baby.
India is the favorite to win this 50-over match. In any case, Pakistan has never beaten India in World Cup one-day internationals although they have played seven times – Pakistan has fared much better in other one-dayers (beating India 73-56) and Test matches (12-9).
Rumor is that Modi himself is going to fly in from Delhi to watch. Concerns that communal tension could surcharge the city if Pakistan wins is a thought that surfaces now and then – although that would undermine the reputed control that Modi as well as Gujarat’s BJP government has over its people. The riots in 2002 in which about a thousand people were killed, mostly Muslim, is a largely suppressed memory.
In any case, the BJP pretty much also controls cricket officialdom – the all-powerful Board of Cricket Control of India (BCCI), which makes the rules for this highly lucrative sport. Jay Shah, the powerful secretary-general is the son of India’s home minister Amit Shah. Nobody knows – and yet, everyone knows – why Pakistani fans have not been given visas for the ongoing World Cup tournament.
Certainly, cricket is being used by the Modi government to drive popularity home in an election year. Commentators are calling it Modi’s “Cricket20” moment, referring to the recent G20 jamboree when leaders of the world’s 20 largest economies showed up in Delhi to applaud Modi and India. When the Australian prime minister Albanese came to India a few months ago, he was taken around the Narendra Modi stadium with Modi standing next to him on a chariot.
Soyh what happens when you have a very strong Indian team, coupled with the overhang of historic rivalry? The ensuing demand has sent airline and match tickets and hotel accommodation rates through the roof in Ahmedabad – match tickets were sold out in the first hour they were put online, and resales are the price of a small holiday abroad. Fans are believed to be checking into hospitals near the stadium because hotels are either taken or too expensive. The number of private jets expected to fly in has crossed 200. Clearly, the social scene has moved out of Delhi and Mumbai this weekend.
For the next 24 hours, nothing else will matter in India-Pakistan. With 132,000 seats, the world’s largest cricket stadium, the Narendra Modi stadium in Ahmedabad, will be packed to the gills. Half a billion people are expected to watch the match online. (I will be there, so watch this space.) This is not just cricket. The joy spilleth over.
Jyoti Malhotra is a frequent contributor to Asia Sentinel. She is Founder and Editor of #AwaazSouthAsa. Follow her on Twitter: @jomalhotra, @awaazsouthasia