Stumped by Rivalry
The re-telecast of old cricket matches by Star Sports Network in lockdown helped sports lovers to take a trip down memory lane. An India-Pakistan match is not played by cricketers alone. Drawn into its vortex are administrators, politicians and a fiercely passionate population of two nations. Let me take you to the origins of India- Pakistan rivalry and how it has blown up into a diplomatic, political and religious issue. Sports was believed to be diversion from life’s problems, not the problem itself.
In The Cambridge Companion To Cricket, British-Indian journalist and author Mihir Bose have written about how Indo-Pak cricket relations were shaped by two individuals – Lala Amarnath and Abdul Hafeez Kardar. Both hailed from Lahore and were members of the Indian team that toured England in 1946. Bose writes, “Then, Muslims had formed a sizeable proportion of the Indian Test team. Nearly all of them were from Punjab…India’s partition resulted in the division of Punjab, with Lahore going to Pakistan, and the loss of a great many Muslim cricketers, particularly fast bowlers.” Kardar ‘opted’ for Pakistan. He was Pakistan’s first captain. After Independence, when the two nations met for their first-ever series in India in 1952, Amarnath and Kardar were skippers of the respective sides.
This was an interesting lead and got me digging deeper to the first-ever ‘rivalry.’ In Lala Amarnath: Life & Times: The Making of a Legend, his son Rajender Amarnath provides some hints. India won the first Test in Delhi. The second was held in Lucknow, a city being ‘one of the great centres of Muslim culture and power.’ India chose this venue probably to make the visitors feel at home. The hosts lost this Test. The crowd did not take kindly to this defeat. ‘The Indian team bus was stoned and Amarnath had to wade into the crowd with a ‘lathi’ to rescue his players.’ India managed to win at Mumbai and the series 2-1 but the battlelines were drawn.
DULL MATCHES AND FIGHTS
India travelled to Pakistan in 1954-55. All the five Tests ended in dull draws and there were other problems too. Amarnath, now manager of the Indian side, fell out publicly with Kardar and even exchanged blows in a Lahore hotel. There were some interesting off-field diversions too. Vinoo Mankad fell in love with a Pakistani singer and was ‘often distracted’, while Amarnath discovered a conspiracy between an umpire, Idris Beg, and Kardar that led to the umpire being changed. For this tour, thousands of Indian fans crossed to Pakistan. Newspapers reported of how Indians and Pakistani greeted each other on the streets and bazaars, reviving memories of their days together. Indians were welcomed to homes and there was a warm camaraderie.
Matches were disappointing. Scoring rates were abysmally low; teams threw away chances to win trying to play safe. Neither side dared to take risks for they felt too much was at stake. It was the first time that any five-Test match series resulted in a 0-0 draw.
IMPACT OF POLITICAL RELATIONS
By the end of the tour, there was so much bad blood, so much of pressure that neither team wanted to play each other. Incidentally, political relations between the nations deteriorated and this impacted cricket. Skirmishes along the borders put cricket on hold. The India-Pakistan Test series of 1960s turned out to be dull and allegations of biased umpiring were raised. More importantly from a historical point of view, the series witnessed the altered attitude of the Indian Muslims. Bose notes that in Bombay one of the stands was ‘filled with Muslim-looking people.’ He records the remark of a passer-by: no wonder they are coming, ‘It is their team that is playing.’ This remark revealed the feeling of many Hindu Indians during the series.
It was this feeling, Bose says, that proved the undoing of Abbas Ali Baig, a brilliant cricketer, but a Muslim. His poor scores in the series; hate letters, telegrams, telephone calls accusing him of being a traitor hit Baig hard. He opted out of the Calcutta Test. After this tour Baig was a forgotten man, though he did play seven years later, he had been destroyed. The Indo-Pak rivalry had its first victim.
For 17 years (1961 to 1978) India and Pakistan did not play each other. It would be interesting to consider how two Indian cricketers, two Muslims, Nawab of Pataudi Jr. and Salim Durrani, would have coped with the pressure had they played against Pakistan, which never happened. By the time cricketing relations were resumed in 1978-79 Pataudi and Durrani had retired.
In 1978, the teams played three Tests with Pakistan winning 2-1 amid protests against biased umpiring. The tour also featured three one-day internationals (ODIs). Though the relations seemed peaceful, underlying tensions never subsided. Public sentiment was divided along religious lines. After winning the series Pakistan captain Mushtaq Mohammad called it “the victory of Muslims all over the world over the Hindus.”
ODIS IN NEUTRAL VENUES
Pakistan toured India in 1979, an Indian tour of Pakistan in 1984 was cancelled mid-way due to the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and in 1987 Pakistan President Zia-ul-Haq watched a Test match in Jaipur when troops of both nations were massed in tense border confrontation. President Zia’s visit was dubbed ‘cricket diplomacy’. A national passion was being used as a diplomatic tool. However, this cricket diplomacy has had a chequered history.
Between 1978 and 1990, India and Pakistan met in 29 Tests and many more ODIs. The tests were mostly dry, defensive draws. The ODIs changed this equation. The two countries engaged themselves regularly in ODIs like the World Cup and at neutral venues like Sharjah, Singapore and Toronto.
India’s win in the 1983 World Cup gave the side the edge. Pakistan now looked to defeat their arch-rivals in as many matches as possible. Unlike Tests, the ODIs always had a verdict and were watched by millions. Soon, India- Pakistan games turned into marquee fixtures, huge money spinners.
The showdowns continued through conflicts and crowd misbehaviour. I remember Indian captain Krishnamachari Srikkanth being manhandled during a 1989-90 tour of Pakistan and how the ODI in Karachi had to be discontinued because of crowd disturbance. In fact, that was the last time an Indian team toured Pakistan for a full Test series till 2003-04. In 1990-91, Pakistan’s scheduled tour of India was called off after activists dug up the pitch at the Wankhede stadium. Pakistan did not turn up for the Hero Cup hosted in India in 1993. From 1991 to 1994, India did not play in Sharjah – protesting against the growing anti-Indian bias in UAE.
In 1999, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee visited Pakistan. The visit resulted in the Pakistan side touring India for a Test series — the first time the countries met for a Test match since 1989. The Kargil War brought a halt to the bilateral engagements. The next time India toured Pakistan was in 2003-04. Cricket tours continued till 2007 before the Mumbai terrorist attacks changed everything. Rising terrorism in Pakistan brought a grinding halt to all international games in the disturbed land. The attack on the Sri Lankan side in 2009 was the last straw. They have since then been forced to play their home matches in Dubai and even England.
Pakistan was isolated; it was stripped off the co-host status for the 2011 World Cup. But when the two teams clashed at Mohali in the semi-final, the match was watched by the Prime Ministers of both nations. India won this game. Incidentally, India has not lost to Pakistan in the World Cup.
WORSENING POLITICAL TENSIONS
Bilateral ties between India and Pakistan have resumed in staggered steps with the shorter formats, while Test matches still seem distant. Meanwhile, Pakistan cricketers have been barred from playing the money-rich Indian Premier League (IPL). No remarkable ODI’s were played between India and Pakistan as rivalries were not grounded in sports. Matches between the sides have evoked strong emotions only because of the political tensions existing between the nations. Unlike the Ashes, it is not a rivalry born out of a sporting contest. Any India- Pakistan clash has unfortunately been considered as a proxy war.
It meant that the fear of losing was bigger than the desire to win. Since losing would be seen as a national embarrassment, the teams and the players were desperate to avoid being guilty of bringing shame on the nation. The fans too, saw it this way.
Watching the World Cup clashes from 1992-2019 I observed that Pakistan, after winning in 1996, has slid down the performance graph. They seemed to suffer from the tag of being a sort of ‘political exile.’ India has emerged with renewed confidence as a fast-growing nation. The recent games are proof of this. Of course, Pakistan has had its days under the sun.
‘If it’s not live, it’s dead’ goes a popular saying, meaning who would want to watch a dead event. Re-runs are no substitute for live sport. But I enjoyed these re-runs of the India-Pakistan clashes. It took me back in time, forced me to read, it helped me clear the dust on the books and my rusty memory.