India and Pakistan players
India and Pakistan playersReuters

India-Pak match: A gentleman’s game

here were many instances when players felt scared of returning home, worried about the vitriolic backlash awaiting them, ranging from being called ‘traitors’ to seeing their homes being pelted with stones.

Until recently, an India-Pakistan cricket match used to be perceived as a bunch of 22 gung-ho players, accompanied by a legion of staunch supporters in the stands from both sides, waging a war with bat and ball as weapons. They were looked upon as a gentler version of the gun-and-grenade toting military personnel zealously guarding the borders. But despite there being no bloodshed, it is no less intense. Nothing could be a more heinous offence than the indignity of losing to the archrival. There were many instances when players felt scared of returning home, worried about the vitriolic backlash awaiting them, ranging from being called ‘traitors’ to seeing their homes being pelted with stones. The contests, and the unsavoury incidents and threats that followed off the pitch, scarcely resembled the decorous behaviour associated with the gentleman’s game.

Instead, the cricket stadiums, be it in Mumbai or Karachi, resemble more of a wrestling pit with players facing the Hobson’s choice of wringing their opponent’s neck or finding theirs on a chopping block. Such was the turbulent backdrop against which these neighbours often went about performing their chores. In short, an Indo-Pak cricketing contest transcended all barriers of being just a ‘game’.

After all, it is India-Pakistan that we are talking about. If history has taught us anything, it is that for every one good deed initiated by either of them, a series of mishaps are lying in wait, ready to ambush. Let us jog our memory to the 1999 Pakistan tour of India and how the knowledgeable Chennai crowd gave the Men in Green a standing ovation even after India suffered a heartbreaking defeat in the first Test. Similar sentiments of camaraderie were expressed back then as well – only to be followed by the Kargil war barely four months later. There is no knowing when and where the next storm is brewing, catching us all unawares.

But cut to the present where things appear to have mellowed down. Feelings of mutual resentment have refreshingly made way for disarming warmth and genuine bonhomie. On Sunday, Pakistan avenged its group-stage defeat to India by beating us in the first match of Asia Cup 2022 Super 4 stage. The spirit of sportsmanship was on full tilt during this match and a week ago during the opener when India beat Pakistan. During that match, Hardik Pandya folded the rival team’s wicketkeeper Mohd Rizwan in his arms. The diminutive Pakistani reciprocated that loving gesture with a chuckle that went a long way towards erasing the bitter memories of Javed Miandad leaping up and down, mimicking Kiran More in the first World Cup match these two countries played back in 1992.

Even the usual war-of-words that precedes a game of this magnitude was conspicuous by its absence. And lest we get carried away assuming everything is hunky-dory, things are still far from rosy, as Pakistani players are barred from playing in IPL, the most lucrative domestic T20 league of all. The fact they are deprived of hitting the jackpot every year while players of much less stature and calibre from other nations are amassing millions must rankle them no end.

Even in the international arena, the two teams don’t spar on a regular basis anymore. This big-ticket fixture has become increasingly rare, with the latest Future Tours Programme (FTP) announced by the sport’s governing body, ICC, not featuring a single bilateral series between them. One would hope that the two would play a lot more matches, which would help reduce the alarming intensity with which the fans approach every match. And while they are at it, the brotherly affection shown by Pandya and Rizwan could perhaps be a template that these two adversaries could stick to henceforth.

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