March 30, 2011

Foes turn friends in America

After observing so many instances of the two cultures coexisting peacefully within America, I scratch my head sometimes trying to figure out how it’s a rivalry at all

I’ve never got to experience an India - Pakistan match in person. I know that until I do, it will be very hard for me to fully grasp the intensity of the rivalry. I can read and research all I want into the history of the two countries, but nothing can replace the intangible yet extremely visceral elements that are only detectable inside the live atmosphere of a stadium.

Perhaps the most confusing part of this rivalry to me is the amicable interaction between players of Indian and Pakistani heritage who play their cricket within the United States. It totally flies in the face of the inherent tension between the two countries that’s described ad nauseum in print and on television.

On the USA senior team’s recent tour to Hong Kong, I was able to spend an off day doing a city tour with members of the team. Among the players were Asif Khan, Usman Shuja and Muhammad Ghous, all originally from Pakistan, as well as Ritesh Kadu and Sushil Nadkarni who had both grown up playing in India. All of them interact like close friends, on and off the field. It’s hard to fathom that they could have been reared in an environment that would have taught them to be wary of each other because it’s completely absent while watching them.

The same is true at the junior level. While covering the USA Under 19 team on their journey to the 2010 U-19 World Cup, USA captain Shiva Vashishat was frequently hanging out with his San Francisco Bay Area teammates Saqib Saleem and Saami Siddiqui. It didn’t matter that Vashishat was born in Jalandhar and Saleem in Islamabad (or Siddiqui in West Virginia). The only thing that mattered to the legspinner Saleem was that Vashishat set the right fields and Siddiqui held on to any edges behind the stumps.

It spreads down to club level cricket too. While there are plenty of instances of clubs that prefer to maintain a parochial climate, there are just as many that establish a cosmopolitan flavor. In 2007, a documentary was made called “Leg Before Wicket”. It focused on a cricket club called the Chicago Giants, a team with Indian and Pakistani members co-existing as they mounted a challenge for the league title in the Midwest Cricket Conference.

The most enjoyable teams I have played for are the ones that mix and match players from different religions and nationalities. In my first couple of experiences playing with Indian and Pakistani teammates, I asked why they are able to get along here in America when there are so many issues between their countries back home.

“It’s not the people who hate each other,” said one of them. “It’s the politicians. When we come to America, we get to leave all the politics between India and Pakistan behind.” Last year, I spent the early part of the season playing for a team that contained mostly players of Pakistani heritage. I brought my girlfriend, whose parents are from India, along to one match. Instead of a façade existing between my girlfriend and my team-mates, they became friendly because they were all Punjabi. Having family from different sides of the border didn’t matter.

Just about everyone in India and Pakistan, in addition to the millions of expats from the two countries living in America, will be glued to their TV sets to take in the latest match between these two arch rivals at the World Cup. That the build-up to this match keeps growing and generating so much attention underscores the magnitude of the rivalry. But after observing so many instances of the two cultures coexisting peacefully within America, I scratch my head sometimes trying to figure out how it’s a rivalry at all.

Peter Della Penna is a journalist based in New Jersey