January 9, 2013

What trophy should India and Pakistan play for?

Ramchandra Guha
How about naming it after a man who has defined the cricket played between the two sides?

Following the well-attended (and incident-free) one-day series between India and Pakistan - the first since the Mumbai terror attacks of November 2008 - the chairman of the Pakistan Cricket Board, Zaka Ashraf, suggested that the two countries play each other regularly, for what might be called the Jinnah-Gandhi Trophy. Reading this, I remembered a similar proposal being made, decades ago, in the pages of the Dawn newspaper. I dug out my notes, and this is what I found:

In 1955, an Indian team led by Vinoo Mankad, toured Pakistan for a series of five Tests. It was now seven years since Partition. The wounds had begun to heal. A Karachi Hindu, writing to the newspapers, said the warm reception the team received spoke for "a changed feeling for the better between India and Pakistan now, which is very good and will be helpful for both countries". Illustrating this changed feeling, some 10,000 Indian fans crossed the Wagah border to watch the Lahore Test - including many Sikhs and Hindus who had been forced to flee West Punjab in 1947.

The cricket, unfortunately, was dull, the two sides battling one another to five dreary draws. Still, the warmth of public sentiment encouraged cricket lovers on both sides of the border to urge the regular exchange of teams. The (pompous and self-regarding) Indian commentator Vizzy suggested that India and Pakistan have their own Ashes, the trophy containing soil from both countries. An ordinary cricket fan, Sheikh Khan Bahadur, had a more original proposal. The two teams, he said in a letter to Dawn, should play for a Gandhi-Jinnah Trophy, for a shield with embossed portraits based on "photographs or corresponding postures of the two great statesmen together".

The letter by Sheikh Khan Bahadur - and the context behind it - is mentioned in my book A Corner of a Foreign Field. However, in my experience few cricketers read books, and even fewer cricket administrators do. So we may assume that in making his proposal, Ashraf almost certainly did not know that it had been made 67 years previously. In any case, there is one telling difference - while the man in the street in Pakistan asked for a Gandhi-Jinnah Trophy (probably since "G" comes before "J"), the chairman of the PCB suggests that we have a Jinnah-Gandhi Trophy.

The proposal made for regular tours in the mid-1950s ran aground. Pakistan came here in 1960-61, then two wars intervened. Cricket ties were resumed in 1978, but, ever since, have been hostage to the deep political animosities between the two countries. Through the 1980s and 1990s, whenever India played Pakistan, the fans of both sides would display their jingoism in abundant measure. I carry a painful memory of standing to applaud Javed Miandad in Bangalore, after he had played his last innings in international cricket. I was the only man to do so in my stand. The feelings of the others summed up by a fellow who said: "Thank God I shall never see the bastard again." (I should mention that Javed was not yet, in 1996, an in-law of Dawood Ibrahim - he was merely a great cricketer.)

In recent years, however, Indians fans have become more mature, focusing on the cricket rather than seeing it as a substitute for politics (or war). When Pakistan won a Test in Bangalore in 2005, those in the Chinnaswamy Stadium were quite happy to cheer Inzamam and his men. Sanjay Manjrekar - in my view the most intelligent as well as the most independent-minded of Indian player-commentators - thought that it was because Indians were now less anxious about their nation's survival and their individual futures. They no longer worried that the Union would break up into many parts under the malign influence of Pakistan. Khalistan was dead, and the Kashmir issue had gone off the boil. Meanwhile, a decade and a half of steady economic growth had pulled many more Indians into the middle class.

I think Manjrekar's analysis is persuasive. That this time, too, Indian fans and crowds took defeat at the hands of Pakistan so calmly spoke of a new, and very welcome, ability to separate sport from national pride. Dhoni's men had been conquered by Misbah's, a fact not remotely comparable to the Indian army losing to the Pakistani army (or vice versa). This was a battle played in enclosed stadia, not on exposed mountain tops, and fought with bat and ball, not tanks and bombs.

Cricket between India and Pakistan is best played and best enjoyed when it is saved from the contaminating influence of politics. So let's leave Jinnah and Gandhi (or Gandhi and Jinnah) out of it

In this changed climate, we may indeed push for regular tours between the two sides. And since the first Test between India and Pakistan was played as long as 60 years ago, it may be time a formal arrangement is put in place, and a named trophy contested for. But where I depart from Ashraf (and the now forgotten Sheikh Bahadur Khan) is in what this trophy should be called. To the idea of naming it for the fathers of their nations there are two serious objections. One is cricketing - neither Gandhi nor Jinnah really had much interest in the sport. The other is political - namely, whose name should come first?

Cricket between India and Pakistan - or between Pakistan and India, if you will - is best played and best enjoyed when it is saved from the contaminating influence of politics. So let's leave Jinnah and Gandhi (or Gandhi and Jinnah) out of it.

Whom then could the trophy be named for? The Lata-Noor Jehan Trophy, to take account of the other great popular passion of the two nations? The Iqbal-Tagore Trophy, to honour their two great writer-thinkers?

These suggestions may be less contentious than the one offered by the PCB chairman, yet they are not entirely satisfactory either. It seems best to name a cricketing trophy after cricketers. The Border-Gavaskar Trophy (for Australia-India series) and the Warne-Muralitharan Trophy (for Australia-Sri Lanka series) are both wonderfully named. One could, in the same spirit, think of an Imran-Kapil Dev Trophy, or a Kumble-Wasim Trophy for India-Pakistan contests, the first honouring a pair of great allrounders, the second a pair of match-winning bowlers.

Or one could think of naming this trophy after a single cricketer alone. Here, too, there are precedents - the Frank Worrell Trophy for Australia-West Indies contests, the Basil D'Oliveira Trophy for England-South Africa series. I think we should follow the latter model and promote a Sachin Tendulkar Trophy. No man has defined India-Pakistan cricket in the way that he has. Or for so long - he first played Pakistan in a Test match in 1989, and he most recently played against Pakistan in the World Cup semi-final of March 2011. For 22 years, in all forms of the game and at all venues, how much Sachin scored and when he got out often decided which way the match would go. Some of his greatest innings have been played against Pakistan - several in a losing cause, as in that epic hundred in Chennai, when, after they won by a mere 12 runs, Wasim and his team had the Chepauk crowd rise to them.

I think many Pakistanis will be content with a trophy named for Tendulkar alone. For their fans and cricketers venerate the man and his game. I remember the late Raj Singh Dungarpur telling me how, at a reception at Buckingham Palace during the 1999 World Cup, the young Pakistani players merely wanted to be in the presence of Sachin, to touch his blazer and be photographed with him. For its part, the Pakistan board knows that Tendulkar, apart from being the cricketer of his age, is in personal matters completely uncontroversial. I think would accept this proposal gracefully too. Let the announcement be made forthwith.

Historian and cricket writer Ramachandra Guha is the author of A Corner of A Foreign Field and Wickets in the East among other books