Before every India-Pakistan cricket game, a cliche gets played on loop on both sides of the border. “It doesn’t matter if we don’t win the Cup but India / Pakistan shouldn’t lose to Pakistan / India”. The nouns in that line are interchangeable, depending on the geography. Hidden in this casual remark is the essence of a bitter rivalry that overrides rational thought and limits ambitions.
It also brings to mind a charming story that a friend, and fellow cricket reporter, had narrated after his interview with Tiger Pataudi. Still a rookie, he was understandably overwhelmed to sit across his boyhood hero. While leaving, he couldn’t deny himself a fan-boy moment. “Sir, it was my life’s dream to meet you,” he said. The handsome Nawab smiled and after a cinematic pause replied, “Son, have bigger dreams”.
India and Pakistan fans too need to have bigger dreams. They also can try being less provincial, think global and be less obsessed about bragging rights. Sporting contests between nations with ugly pasts and perpetual border disputes do have an edge but it’s unhealthy to scale down targets of winning the whole tournament. Putting all the rotten eggs, and also the roses, in one basket for that one India-Pakistan game is an unwise investment. It empties you, sucks out the joy of following sport, and undermines the game.
By treating a league match with no far-reaching consequences in the tournament like a do-or-die contest makes one lose perspective. When passion rules the mind, cricketing logic fades. That’s when a missed yorker or a false stroke looks like a monumental mistake worthy of a life-long stain. An everyday fielding slip-up gets treated as a crime on par with treason. In that maddening final-overs frenzy cricketing analysis can turn into “match ka mujrim” who-dunit.
Mohammad Shami and Arshdeep Singh have been victims of cricket’s tribalism. They were unreasonably criticised for their alleged role in India’s loss against Pakistan. Be the judge to decide their crime.
In the 2021 World T20 game against Pakistan where every ball went wicketless, Shami gave away 17 runs in the 18th over. This year, Arshdeep, in an Asia Cup game had figures of 3.4-0-27-1, numbers that would get him a pat on the back by the most hard-to-please coaches. But in the 18th over, the young pacer dropped an easy catch of Asif Ali, the game-changer on the day.
It was the curse of the end overs once again. In Indo-Pak games, death-overs also see the death of reason. It is that time of the tie when those who have raised the stakes of the game unrealistically high, get worried about the imminent fall. That’s when they look around for villains to vent their frustration.
This time around too the pitch will be raised again. Once again, in both nations, the wish to win is so all consuming that the prospect of defeat hasn’t been contemplated.
In the lead-up to this World T20, conversations among fans, broadcasting teasers and digital chatter are about October 23 – the D-day when 100,000 war cries will echo at the sprawling Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG) and not the final on November 13.
Meanwhile, the players have repeatedly insisted that their focus is on chasing the Cup. Like previous teams, they have begged the fans to treat this as just another game. But who’s listening?
Not even the broadcasters. They might have slightly sobered down their promos this time but they haven’t quite fanned out their focus.
Whoever had come up with the now-shelved ‘Mauka, mauka’ India-Pak campaign was a genius with a deep insight into the mindset of a sub-continent fan. It hit where it hurts the most, a sharp nail scratching on an old wound.
Pakistan’s win in the recent ICC events – first in the Champions Trophy final and later World T20 last year – made ‘mauka, mauka’ a hollow sledge, archiving it as a case study for future ad gurus. This time around they have turned the script upside down.
Still the sentiment is not too different. The 2022 World T20 campaign has a town of toughies sobbing buckets while witnessing India’s defeat to Pakistan in the last edition at UAE. It ends with a young chubby boy presenting his plea to the Indian players: “Dil se request hai, iss baar jeet ke bhula do pichli haar, aur khatam kar intezaar (Heartfelt request, make us forget the last defeat by winning this time and end the wait”.
If ‘mauka, mauka‘ was about Pakistan’s wait, this time it’s India’s turn. Both then and now, the ICC event remains a one-match affair for most. Unlike the football fans in England, for the archetypal India and Pakistan fans, the World Cup isn’t quite about the single-minded pursuit of bringing home the Cup. Towards the end of the tournament it cynically extends to – the Cup might or might not come home, but it shouldn’t go to the neighbour.
The administrators too have played their part in raising the temperature. Pakistan Cricket Board chief Ramiz Raja has repeatedly emphasised on Pakistan’s win over India as a benchmark, a milestone that was achieved in his reign. Another case of bad optics was his snub to an Indian reporter who asked him about the reaction back in Pakistan after their team’s loss. “You must be from India, you must be happy,” he had said.
BCCI upped the ante at the right time. In his very first press conference after getting elected as a second-term, secretary Jay Shah said that the Asia Cup that was to be held in Pakistan was to be moved to a neutral venue. “I am saying this as ACC President. We [India] can’t go there [to Pakistan], they can’t come here,” he said. This was a departure from the earlier BCCI policy of waiting for the government of the day to take a stand on India-Pakistan games. PCA would call Shah’s decision “unilateral and disappointing”, they warned that Pakistan would have a rethink about travelling to India for the 50-over World Cup.
This public exchange has been the fuel that the already raging India-Pak game could have done without. Former players in TV discussions, hyperventilating youtubers now had a new weapon – the Shah vs Raja segment added to the Babar vs Rohit episode.
These rare India-Pakistan games have turned into bilaterals that seem cut-off from the ICC event. By the end of Sunday, the winners with swelling chests would proclaim that their World Cup is over, those on the losing sides would wait for their next ‘mauka’.
And in the din of boisterous celebration and wailing disappointment, an important fact will remain unread on ICC’s statistical pages. For over a decade now, neither India nor Pakistan have won a World title – T20, ODI or Test.