September 26, 2009

And so it begins, again

After a period of overkill in the middle of this decade, cricket's most fraught rivalry has an edge again. Or does it?
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Oddly enough, in all these years of writing about cricket, I have never watched a 50-over match between India and Pakistan at a cricket ground. I have watched Tests in Lahore, Bangalore and Chennai, and the World Twenty20 final in Johannesburg, but never an ODI, the genre that has engendered much of the passion between the fans of these two countries, where cricket has always been close to the national identity. I was at the 2007 World Cup, but India and Pakistan were in different groups, and in any case both the teams had gone home in disgrace by the time I landed.

So here it is then, it's that time again when cricket acquires an edgy subtext. For a long while this decade, familiarity threatened to breed tedium. But India and Pakistan haven't played each other for more than year - 14 months, 22 days to be exact, and the world has changed quite a bit in between, so inevitably, though not ideally, it will be a bit more than cricket at SuperSport Park in Centurion on September 26.

Without the friction, the edge, and occasionally even the mean spirit that great rivalries bring, sport will be sterile. India and Pakistan provide all these on a cricket field, but with them, cricket has managed to not merely remain a sport. Sometimes it has been a salve, sometimes a weapon; it has enabled bonding and it has divided; at times it has been a bridge, at others a vehicle for ugly chauvinism; and governments have used it as both a handshake as well a show of fists. Consequently, cricket has provided both India and Pakistan with some beautiful and uplifting moments, as well some noxious ones.

The Ashes, cricket's original big rivalry, and the more traditional, begins and ends on the playing field. Indian and Pakistani cricketers have rarely had that simple luxury, because for their nations the cricket rivalry has always been a small, but profoundly symbolic, part of a bigger, far more complex rivalry. And for the major part of their cricket history neither the players nor the fans have managed to escape this. It has been a burden.

It seemed on India's tour of Pakistan in 2004 that a breakthrough had been made. No one who went on that tour came back untouched by the swell of goodwill and fellow-feeling, and it carried on when Pakistan toured India the following year. However, as the cricket boards, which had always been bound by mutual interest, worked overtime to milk the situation, things began to change.

The teams started playing every year. India went back for a full series in 2006; the same year the two sides played in Abu Dhabi and Glasgow; Pakistan toured for a full series in 2007; in 2008 they took part in the forgettable Kitply Cup, also featuring Bangladesh, in Dhaka, and then in the Asia Cup in Pakistan.

From a pure cricket point of view, it was overkill. It took away the anticipation and the intensity. But from a larger perspective, it also took away the heat and emotional charge, and that was not a bad thing at all. Since they were always playing, wins and losses no no longer felt like life and death. It felt somewhat dull, but it also felt sane.

The Ashes, cricket's original big rivalry, and the more traditional, begins and ends on the playing field. Indian and Pakistani cricketers have rarely had that simple luxury, because for their nations the cricket rivalry has always been a small, but profoundly symbolic, part of a bigger, far more complex rivalry

It's hard to imagine the players wouldn't have found that liberating. After all, no one takes to a game to avenge a nation's honour - though from Indian and Pakistani cricketers, their fans had come to expect nothing less. So even though many of the players were friends off the field, often sharing meals in restaurants and at homes, and schoolboy jokes, they were expected to growl and snarl at each other on the cricket field.

Once the pressure eased, they could allow themselves to be themselves. It wasn't a coincidence that no captain lost his job on account of a loss to the old enemy in this period. And, inevitably, when the Indian Premier League came, Pakistanis constituted the second largest pool of foreign players. They could have been the largest if the Indian Cricket League hadn't appropriated a big lot already.

And then, with the Mumbai terror attack, the landscape changed again. It was clear from the moment it was known that those who burned and killed in Mumbai had come from Pakistan that cricket was bound be affected, and so it was. The first diplomatic response from the Indian government was to cancel the impending cricket tour to Pakistan. It was no more than symbolic, but it was most convenient.

So on Saturday in Centurion there will be yet another resumption of cricket's most fraught rivalry. The governments are talking again, and somehow the build-up has been far less frenzied for this match. In fact, it's been almost muted. Perhaps that is because it's only a one-off, and at a neutral venue, and the Champions Trophy has never been such a big deal. Or is it a sign?

I am looking forward to my first one-day match between India and Pakistan. I am hoping it turns out to be as good as the last one these teams played at this ground. It will be naïve to expect cricket to sort out our countries' problems, but in understanding the meaning of sport there can be a beginning.

Sambit Bal is the editor of Cricinfo

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • mnbaig on September 28, 2009, 16:19 GMT

    Match was good and the spirit in the match was good too. As for as the results are concerned, the team played good won the game. If I am not wrong Indian side is the best at the moment and in the ICC ranking they are the number 1. It is very shocking and surprising that the number 2 in ICC ranking is out of the contest, I don't think that they played bad. They did their best but unfortunately luck did not favor them and I have a strong believe that team India is going through the same situation too. Now because of rain India has to make 263 runs in 42 overs to win the game and it will be heart breaking if they loose against Australia, they will have to pack up and go back home disappointed. The reception they will get at home will be rough too. I request to the people, especially the fans of crikcket in India, please don't disrespect them. Welcome them with open heart and pay them respect as much as they can. Winning and loosing is a part of the game and it should not be a criteria.

  • afridi102 on September 28, 2009, 9:04 GMT

    That was a wonderfoul cricket match... I think that this match alone prove the importance of 50 over cricket... There were so many up and down for both teams in the match, that was too exiting. I was very happy that pakistan won, superb innings from yousuf and malik, superb spells by afridi and ajmal. I hope to see more matches between these two teams, you just can't get better...

  • mnbaig on September 27, 2009, 22:15 GMT

    It was a very interesting game and I enjoyed watching it. I don't want to go in to the discussion of who is better/strong or weak but would like to say that team who took the advantages of the weaknesses of the other team won the game. It does not proove that the losing team is weak or the winning is better. If we see the history of these two teams, the fact is that Pakistan has won more matches over India which means that the overall rating goes in favor of Pakistan and there is no doubt about it that the Pakistan side is a world class side. As other experts say this team is unpredictable and can produce miracles and we have seen these miracles in the past. In recent T20 this team rose up once again and won the trophy by beating heart favorites and Sri Lanka in the final. I don't want to be prejudiced in sports and would like to say that the team India is the most strong team in the world and iin the tournament. I suggest commentators to be unbaised against Pakistan when 2 teams play.

  • rookie4u on September 27, 2009, 10:51 GMT

    What a match it has been ... This is the beauty of ODI's. You can get a demo of every aspect of cricket in it. Like the way Malik, Yousuf, Gambhir batted or the way Nehra, Aamer, Ajmal, Afridi bowled or the way Younis brought a important run-out... I mean a proper cricket allround... Who says we need a change in this format... Games like these are always to be remembered.. Rivalry has been taken to its extreme. A typical Indo-Pak encounter and we all must agree that Pakistan at the end of the day proved to be more than handful though they were somehow evenly balanced with absence of all-timers like Zaheer, Shoaib, Asif, Yuvi, Viru ... Hope Pakistan plays with same intensity against a very new looking Aussies.. Good Luck to them.

  • jamrith on September 27, 2009, 6:35 GMT

    Pakistan was by far the better team man for man and this time they played well as a team ; India could have come closer but panicked and Harbhajan continued to prove his critics right, he is a spent force . Well done Pakistan, they can definitely go all the way and win the Champions Trophy crowning a great 2009 for them.

  • cricinformer on September 27, 2009, 2:07 GMT

    i simply can't stop laughing at 'sreedhar2love'... seems like everything went completely opposite to his plans... tendulkar was the worst performer in the match and guess what... it was the 17 year old aamer who struck him out... hahaha

  • henchart on September 27, 2009, 2:01 GMT

    Pakistan has won but no need to go overboard.For IND The battle might have been lost but the war still remains to be won.Ind might pull it across Aus and beat WI handsomely.Pakistan could lose to Aus and get eliminated through NRR. Unlikely but not impossible.Point is ,the group is wide open till Monday when Ind play Aus.The advantage Ind has is they play the last league game of their group against minnows and can monitor the NRR more than Pak or Aus, who could face each other in a QF situation .Ind must Drop RP and bring in Amit Misra .

  • mumbaiguy79 on September 27, 2009, 1:31 GMT

    Since my predictions are going so well, here's one more :-)

    Pakistan and India go through to the semis..Pak play South Africa (South Africa all out 220 runs and Pakistan win by 9 wickets)...India play Sri Lanka and lose (can't predict here what will happen here). So Pakistan square off with Sri Lanka and win by 10 wickets..

    Bottomline: Pakistan will win the Champions Trophy..;-)

  • ali.majaz on September 26, 2009, 23:53 GMT

    AMAZING.....PAKISTAN WINS

    What a match this was , one of the most memorable victory of PAKISTAN over INDIA...this is the beauty of IND vs PAKISTAN, I'll remember this match for a long time...hard luck Deb_Teb

    PAK:66 Wins

    IND:45 Wins

  • cricpolitics on September 26, 2009, 23:04 GMT

    "Deb_Teb" stop living in dreams and come to reality. India by no means is a champion team and Pak team has rightly shown them the right place where they stand.

    I think you should rather be saying this now "Australia will thrash India and the Team India will be forced to pack their bags, go home, and play some more IPL and champions League".

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