What’s a match between India and Pakistan match if it’s not dense with tension, full of nervous anxiety, and that additional dash of competitive energy? To bring in the cliché, with so much emotion invested it is not simply cricket, it’s war. It’s war of the primitive kind, announced by loud drum beats of nationalist pride, the cacophony of partisan passion and driven by the sole motive to decimate and humiliate the enemy.
The troubled history between the sub-continental neighbours spiced up every cricketing contest and turned them into an event worth waiting for. For people on both sides of the fence, the result was more than just winning or losing a match: it was about affirmation of national strength and confirmation of superiority over the other. Frequent matches meant the cycle of revenge and redemption moved faster, every match became a grudge match.
The cast of characters in terms of players changed, but the passion driving India-Pakistan matches never waned. The matches were never between two teams, those were between two nations.
Why are we referring to the matches in the past tense? There’s a reason. The raw passion in an India-Pakistan contest has long evaporated. Nationalist sentiments on both sides have got stronger as have mutual acrimony and bitterness but these no more reflect in cricket matches. It could be because the equation between the two sides have become grossly unequal . India has gradually emerged as a powerhouse while Pakistan has shrunk in capability and reputation. An Indian victory over Pakistan is taken for granted these days and thus the high tension and sense of anxiety are gone.
It could be because nationalists on both sides no more see cricket as the suitable battle ground. It is too reductive, too small to accommodate all the unbridled hatred they have accumulated over the decades. The release cannot come on a 22-yard pitch. The war here is just too sober, too polite and devoid of blood-lust. The action has to take place in an ambience that is far more violent and bloody. You cannot teach Pakistan a lesson – yes, the new contest is about teaching a lesson, not simply engaging the enemy in a harmless duel — on a cricket ground, it has to be something else – war maybe, where real killing takes place.
It could be because familiarity breeds fondness. It does not suit the aggressive nationalists that Pakistani cricket stars are treated as heroes in India. Remember the celebrity status players such as Zaheer Abbas, Imran Khan, Wasim Akram, Waqar Younis and more recently, Shahid Afridi enjoyed in India? The cricket-lovers adulation for them certainly is not good for the jingoist sentiment. It dilutes the hatred that forms the building block of new nationalism. It is the same on the other side of the border.
Nationalist war-mongering and virtual cessation of cricketing engagements between India and Pakistan thus are connected. So long as temper runs high and political outfits see opportunity in it there’s little hope for cricket. It’s unfortunate. Particularly for those who have been lucky to experience the energy and anticipation-laden atmospherics in an India-Pakistan match, be it in Lahore or Eden Gardens.
Without that energy, India-Pak matches are nothing. You watch these with no sense of expectation. And the celebration or sense of foreboding with each development in the match is never the same. When the matches between the two countries turn into matches like India vs Bangladesh, there’s no fun left. You watch the proceedings with certain disinterest and not put your emotions behind the team.
Someone please bring back the charm in the India-Pakistan matches. Let it be war, let sentiments go berserk, let passions go wild, let there be anger and grief. That’s how they should be.