The Wisden Cricketer - January 2004

Taking sides

Mukul Kesavan
India and Pakistan have played only 47 Tests against each other in 51 years

India and Pakistan have played only 47 Tests against each other in 51 years. As they prepare to re-engage in the Test arena Mukul Kesavan explores the background to this unique rivalry

The first wicket in India-Pakistan Tests - Pankaj Roy is bowled by Khan Mohammad at Delhi in 1952-53
© Getty Images

This is a history of men taking sides. India and Pakistan have been playing cricket against each other for more than 50 years, 51 to be exact. The first Test was played at Delhi in October 1952. Half a century is a good round number, favoured by historians, but a deceptive one in this instance; for nearly half this time the two countries have pointedly not played cricket with each other.

After a decade of tense but mainly tedious Test matches (12 of which were drawn), India and Pakistan did not meet for 17 years between 1961 and 1978. Then, after 21 years of normal cricketing relations, India retired to its tent after the World Cup in 1999, refusing to do battle on the cricket pitch with a country that, they thought, covertly sponsored war and bloody militancy across the border in Kashmir. Since then the two countries have played no Tests and no one-day matches on home soil, though they have played each other at the shorter version of the game in the World Cup and there has recently been an announcement that the two countries will resume playing Tests against each other in the spring of 2004.

It is hard to find a parallel for this fraught on-off relationship within the world of cricket. The Australia-England rivalry does not have the same nationalistic edge. While cricketing encounters between Australia and New Zealand bear a family resemblance to the India-Pakistan matches, this is to mistake sibling rivalry for fratricidal rage.

The reason India-Pakistan matches are different is because they are fuelled by an old-fashioned dispute between sovereign nations over land. The whiff of grapeshot that attends these encounters has a 19th-century smell: blood debts, blood lust and revanchism. Serbia playing Bosnia or Croatia at football might raise feelings that parallel the India-Pakistan encounter. Perhaps one way of grasping the intensity of feeling that informs matches between India and Pakistan is to think of them as Balkan contests on a subcontinental scale. Partition pogroms (conservatively a million dead), wars and a vicious dispute over Kashmir make every match between the countries a way of settling other, bloodier scores.

The way India-Pakistan matches are followed and supported is interesting. No one under the age of 50 in India (and India's cricket fans are mostly under 50) has first-hand memories of the first period of India-Pakistan cricket between 1952 and 1961. They were too young to have followed those tours and, when they were old enough, there were no India-Pakistan Tests to follow. The Indians and Pakistanis who gather round their television sets now might be familiar with the great names of that time - Kardar, Fazal Mahmood, Hanif Mohammad, Hazare, Manjrekar, Mankad - but those names stir no nostalgia, no childhood images of mornings spent queuing to watch these great men play. The fans who follow India-Pakistan cricket watch it in a state of frenzy, their partisanship unleavened by the affection that memory usually brings.

This is not to say that the early Tests between these countries were festivals of generous camaraderie. The reason 12 out of the first 15 Tests were drawn was not only that the teams were evenly matched; as important was the terror of losing to this intimate enemy. Even before the first formal war between the two countries in 1965 playing Pakistan was a fraught business for an Indian, especially if that Indian was also a Muslim. Mihir Bose in his History of Indian Cricket recalls the blighted career of Abbas Ali Baig. Baig had first played for India against England in 1959. He scored a century in his first Test and was promptly hailed as Indian batting's new hope. He even made the headlines when a girl kissed him out in the middle after he completed his second fifty of the Bombay Test against Australia the following year. In his next four innings he made 1, 13, 19 and 1. Given that he had made a century and two fifties in his first eight Tests, he might have survived this run of low scores in the normal course; but this was not the normal course, this was Pakistan and he was an Indian Muslim. According to Bose, "the fantastic allegation was made that Baig had failed deliberately to help his co-religionists from Pakistan. This was monstrously untrue but he received poison-pen letters, was dropped and played only two more Tests, six years later, against West Indies."

Decades later Baig's captain and friend, Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi, asked Asif Iqbal, the Pakistan captain touring India, a wicked question before the television cameras. He asked Asif if he planned to switch countries again. Asif Iqbal had played first-class cricket for Hyderabad, Pataudi's first-class team, before migrating to Pakistan. For someone like Pataudi, a Muslim, who like his father, Iftikhar Ali Khan Pataudi, had captained India, Asif's move would have seemed at the time like a defection that bore out the bigots who claimed all Muslims in India were Pakistani fifth columnists at heart. Asif, ambushed by a question that he must have thought gratuitous, to his credit smiled and declared himself content with his Pakistani state.

Tense and difficult though these matches were for the players, the Indians and Pakistanis who watched them were cricket fans first and nationalists later. Cricket was a popular sport but not yet a mass market enterprise. To follow the game you had to buy relatively expensive tickets (they cost three or four times as much as a ticket to the cinema) and invest days of your time watching Test matches. The other alternative was to follow matches on the radio which required some imagination. The wars of 1965 and 1971, Pakistani bitterness about India's hand in the creation of Bangladesh, Indian bitterness about Pakistan's role in creating sedition and secessionism in Kashmir, the transformation of cricket into mass spectacle via television and limited-overs contests, all this still lay in the future. Cricket was popular but also oddly genteel. Ramachandra Guha in his marvellous history of Indian cricket, A Corner of a Foreign Field, describes the almost courtly goodwill that characterised the early tours. Five years after partition Abdul Hafeez Kardar, the captain of Pakistan, a man ideologically committed to the concept of an Islamic state, could commend Indian spectators for their generosity and fairness after Pakistan's first Test series in India, a series that his fledgling team lost two matches to one. When the Indians toured Pakistan in their turn, the president of the Indian board, the Maharajkumar of Vizianagram, reciprocated by praising the "clean good sport" that had characterised the series. So, while a proper sense of solidarity joined Indians and Pakistanis to their teams, the venomous hysteria of the 1980s and 1990s had to wait upon events and technology.

Brief encounters: recent meetings have been limited to multinational one-day tournaments, such as the 2003 World Cup
© Getty Images

The matches India and Pakistan played from 1978 onwards, were, thanks to television, transformed into national spectacles. For the first time in the subcontinent's cricket history millions of people with no interest in cricket but a vested interest in seeing the old enemy humbled by their champions were drawn into watching on black-and-white television sets.

Indians have always been susceptible to the broadcast word. An Indian radio commentator once set off arson and rioting in Calcutta's Eden Gardens by suggesting on air that an Indian batsman had been unfairly given out. Now television's growing reach and immediacy created huge national audiences that followed these contests squealing, yelping, exulting and mourning, ball-by-ball, in massive unison.

When in 1978-79 the Indian team led by Bishan Bedi was comfortably beaten 2-0 by Mushtaq Mohammad's Pakistan, it could be properly described as a national humiliation because for the first time there was a nation watching. When Pakistan toured a year later, and Imran Khan did his hamstring early in the second Test, the Indian audience exhaled in relief. Thanks partly to Imran's limited availability for the rest of the tour, the Indian team won the series and the nation was avenged. Years later during the Calcutta Test in 1998-99, when Tendulkar was run out at the bowler's end after colliding with the bowler, Shoaib Akhtar, millions of Indians sulked alongside Tendulkar, then watched helplessly as Pakistan went on to win and take the series in front of an empty Eden Gardens, cleared of its rowdy, rioting crowd.

But Test cricket was not the chosen vehicle for the chauvinist melodrama that this new audience craved. For these neophytes Test matches were too long, too infrequent and too often drawn. One-day matches with their guaranteed results offered more opportunities for catharsis and release. The commercial potential of India-Pakistan cricket was first seriously milked by the organisers of the Sharjah circus. The brainchild of a cricket loving sheikh and that canny former captain of Pakistan, Asif Iqbal, it drew expatriate Indians and Pakistanis working in the United Arab Emirates, former cricketers from the subcontinent looking for handouts, bookies, Bollywood stars, Bombay ganglords and vast television audiences in India and Pakistan.

The most traumatic single moment in the history of Indian cricket as registered by its fans, did not occur during some memorable Test match. It was not contained in the great Madras Test of 1998-99 where, despite Tendulkar's heroic century, India fell 12 runs short; nor was it framed by that earlier defeat in Bangalore in 1986-87 at the hands of Imran's men, when Sunil Gavaskar fell in the 90s after a great innings on a vicious turner. No; India's supremely awful moment, seared into every cricket-watching Indian's eyeballs, was the last-ball six hit by Javed Miandad off Chetan Sharma in 1985-86 when Pakistan needed four to win a tournament, indistinguishable from the dozens of series that Sharjah hosted year after year.

It was the repeated defeats in Sharjah that paved the way for India's refusal to play Pakistan. Darkly implying that the dice at Sharjah were loaded in favour of the Pakistanis, India stopped playing there and, as relations declined during the 1990s, cricket tours became rarer, increasingly hostage to reasons of state. Thaws in India-Pakistan diplomacy are accompanied by a resumption of cricket relations whereas frostier periods lead to disengagement. This latest restoration of cricket ties again follows a flurry of conciliatory gestures made by the governments of India and Pakistan in order to persuade the world that the other country is the warmongering aggressor, deaf to the needs of peace.

Over the past 15 years, despite the stop-start course of India-Pakistan cricket, the boards have snuggled up together to act as a south Asian bloc in the changing world of international cricket politics. This bloc has successfully elevated Jagmohan Dalmiya to the presidency of the ICC, it has managed to strong-arm the ICC into staging the World Cup twice in the subcontinent and it has held together despite India's unilateral ban on cricket matches against Pakistan, at home or away. This ban hurts Pakistan's coffers more than it does Indian ones because the Indian board has very deep pockets. But in spite of that the Pakistan board has backed Dalmiya in all his challenges to the authority of the ICC, from the Mike Denness affair to the row about sponsorship contracts on the eve of the last World Cup.

There are two main reasons for this odd fraternity. One is the perceived tendency of the two founding members of the ICC, England and Australia, to carry on as if the management of world cricket ought to be theirs by right. This by itself is enough to create a kind of post-colonial solidarity. More important is the dawning realisation that the Indian television market makes it the economic powerhouse of the cricket world. Dalmiya put the finances of the ICC on a sound footing by delivering the Indian audience and he is not about to let anyone forget that. It makes perfect economic sense for someone like General Tauqir Zia, head of the Pakistan board, to back India against the ICC. Dalmiya's explicit assurance to all his allies in ICC politics is simple: `Stick with me and I'll make you rich.' In a way that Karl Marx, a materialist himself, would have understood, economics has begun to bring together what the subcontinent's politicians would pull apart.

Mukul Kesavan is an author and academic based in Delhi.

This article was first published in the January 2004 issue of The Wisden Cricketer. Click here for further details.