India vs Pakistan - lot more than just a league match en route to the final

Indian fans proclaim their support in the ICC Cricket World Cup 2003 Pool A match between India and Pakistan held on March 1, 2003 at the Supersport Stadium, in Centurion, South Africa © Getty Images

While Indians need to win to ensure safe passage into the finals, Pakistan is assured of a final berth as long as they don’t concede a bonus point. However, Arunabha Sengupta writes that an Indo-Pak encounter is never just a league game.

 

Having completed his 100th international century, Sachin Tendulkar will now gear up to face the mystery of Saeed Ajmal.

 

Having been shell shocked by the brilliance of Bangladesh, Mahendra Singh Dhoni will be desperate to reverse the tide in the affairs of his men which has ebbed to an extreme.

 

And although Misbah-ul-Haq’s team is guaranteed a place in the final as long as they don’t concede a bonus point, they know that there is much more to play for.

 

Indeed, when India and Pakistan can somehow sidestep the confusing web of diplomatic red tapes and face each other on the cricket field, much more than a simple cricket match is on the cards.

 

Warring neighbours

 

One of the earliest books on cricket I ever came across was in Bengali, written by the respected sports journalist Shantipriya Bandyopadhyay, with a quaint title which literally translates to “Two Neighbours in the Season of Winter.”

 

As some may have guessed from the name, it tried to capture the cricketing encounters between the neighbouring nations – India and Pakistan – from the 1950s up to the 1970s.

 

Bandyopadhyay did have a penchant for romantic names more suited for novels, and called his excellent book on soccer stars Pele and Eusébio, Badshah Golam (The Emperor and the Slave). But there has often been a distinct lack of neighbourly affection whenever the two countries have clashed. And with so much financial killing to be made by riding on the emotions that these matches generate, the face-offs have not been restricted to winters either. Indeed, Saeed Anwar stroked and hobbled his way to 194 in the sweltering heat of late May in 1997.

 

Given the less-than-friendly political relationship between the two nations, divided by a historical tragedy and joined together by language, culture and geography; it is natural that in the thought-scape of the fans a ball hurled down the pitch will resemble a ballistic missile and the batsman at the other end will conjure up the image of an armed and armoured soldier.

 

Two countries that have accepted cricket as the vehicle for national honour, and with teeming fans passionate and excitable as no other, the atmosphere around the games tends to oscillate between simmering and aflame. For the home side, pressure becomes enormous – losing ceasing to be an option. For the visitors, the battle stretches beyond the boundary, even stands and is often played out in the diplomatic high commissions.

 

Even when they have met in Sharjah, the ground has been transformed into a cooking cauldron of drama. No wonder the teams have been happier when playing in distant neutral venues of Toronto and Singapore.

 

Drama on and off the field

 

 

The cricketing spectacle on offer in the one-day encounters has often been nail-gnawing, edge of the seat, pulse-racing thrillers. From Javed Miandad’s heave off Chetan Sharma’s last ball full toss at Sharjah, 1986, to Sachin Tendulkar’s 6,4,4 off Shoaib Akhtar en route his match-winning 98 at Centurion, 2003, action has been supreme and aplenty.

 

 

The tension has often given way to histrionics, with Javed Miandad mimicking a bush kangaroo in 1992 at Sydney, and in the next edition Venkatesh Prasad emphatically showing Aamer Sohail the way to the pavilion at Bangalore.

 

 

The excitement of the crowd has often spilled onto the ground – with regrettable incendiary incidents leading to abandonment in Karachi and forcing the police to evict the entire crowd in Kolkata.

 

There is plenty at stake for the players as well – often much more than when playing other nations.

 

Abbas Ali Baig, who captured the imagination of the country by hooking thunderbolts from Freddie Trueman on his way to century on debut, was dropped from the team after a poor series against Pakistan in 1960 – a decision not entirely based on cricket. It effectively ended his career, Baig playing only two more Tests, that too six years later.

 

Vinoo Mankad, Bishan Bedi, Sunil Gavaskar and Krishnamachari Srikkanth have lost their captaincy after leading teams to Pakistan. 

 

Government enquiries have initiated when Pakistan have lost to India, and Wasim Akram has had rioters assemble in front of his home after the Bangalore loss of 1996.

 

More recently, Shahid Afridi has felt the heat of losing a highly-charged World Cup semi- final against India. While he professed neighbourly love in a refreshing interview on his return, he famously reversed his statement and ran into multiple problems with the administrators of cricket and – perhaps – country.

 

Marquee game

 

Now they meet in Mirpur, Bangladesh – in a country that had been a historic bone of contention.  

 

Both teams have won four times against each other in Asia Cups, while India holds a 5-3 advantage in all head-to-heads in Bangladesh. However, for the current match, Pakistan seems to be ahead by some distance on the bowling front.

 

As in any marquee game, Sunday’s game promises to be a battle of nerves with the team managing the impossible of remaining calm more likely to pull it off.

 

Whatever be the outcome, during the showdown, as in any other meeting between the two countries, the atmosphere will be charged as ever – tempers at tipping point, knuckles cracked to the limits, and mercury shooting through the roof in discussion forums.

 

(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history and the romance of the game, punctuated often by opinions about modern day cricket, while his post-graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces. The author of three novels, he can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/senantix)