“Excuse us, just another game?” we asked ourselves in disbelief when we heard Virat Kohli speak of India’s opening match in the ICC Champions Trophy 2017 against Pakistan. Had not many of us cricket writers put our heads in the cups of our hands, frustrated and anguished by another defeat in Sharjah? Had we not faced the taunts by Pakistani taxi drivers after such losses?
Had we not unhesitatingly shed the pretence of neutrality when India beat Pakistan in a high-voltage World Cup quarter-final in Bangalore in 1996? Had we not celebrated with the Indian players when it won ODI series in Pakistan in 2004 and then again in 2006?
After all, old-timers — and we are not talking of the greybeards here — keep talking of India-Pakistan games being more high pressure games than others while the present lot of players appear completely oblivious to this. Is there a generation gap? Or is there something else that made the Indian captain say that this was but another game? Was he just being dismissive?
Fair questions to ask, we thought. It was during a casual conversation with one of the heroes of that 1996 quarter-final and one of the finest thinkers of the game, Ajay Jadeja, that a different perspective emerged. Perhaps, we were revealing our age and were stuck in a time warp when we said: "Excuse us, just another game?"
Without a hint of his being complaining, Jadeja hit the nail on its head. “These players are unaware of the kind of pressure we were familiar with because they have seen Indian teams beat Pakistan quite comfortably,” he said, matter-of-factly. The more one thinks about that, the more one is convinced of his line of thinking.
Most of the current lot would have grown up watching Indian teams establish ascendancy over Pakistan. And this includes Rohit Sharma, who played two ODIs games in Karachi as a 21-year-old back in 2008. For a generation that aspires to compete with Australia and has played fearless cricket, it is most likely that playing Pakistan was not such a hoodoo as in the past.
Let us look at some numbers: Apart from Yuvraj Singh (37 ODIs against Pakistan) and Mahendra Singh Dhoni (32), Rohit (12) and Kohi (11) are the only players who have figured in more than 10 games against the team from across the border. And, in the past decade, India have won 12 of the 20 ODIs against Pakistan.
It must be remembered that Yuvraj and Dhoni surfaced at a time when the political leadership in India allowed a series of matches to be played every year in either nation. They were the only ones in the current team who were born before Javed Miandad hit that most talked about final-ball six off Chetan Sharma in Sharjah in 1986.
No one from this Indian squad has the experience of playing a game against Pakistan in that pressure-cooker called the Sharjah Cricket Ground; Yuvraj (ODI debut 1999), Dhoni (2004) and Rohit (2007) are the only players who have figured in ODIs in Pakistan; And, what’s more, over the past 15 years or so, Indian cricketers have expressed themselves on the pitch rather fearlessly.
To be sure, Pakistan’s decline as a cricketing force may also have contributed to the confidence exuded by the Indian team. Always a mercurial outfit capable of producing devastating performances or imploding apparently without reason, Pakistan have not been able to produce the players who invoke a sense of awe, let alone fear, in the minds of the opposition.
The presence of Zaheer Abbas, Imran Khan, Miandad, Asif Iqbal, Wasim Akram, Waqar Younis, Aaqib Javed, Saeed Anwar and Saqlain Mushtaq, to name but a few, lent the Pakistan team a collective aura that they miss today. Of course, they have players who can crank up their competitive levels but without causing any emotion beyond respect in the minds of their rivals.
Come to think of it, the hordes of fans of Indian cricket who pack the stadia during ICC competitions — be it the World Cup or the World Twenty20 or the Champions Trophy — lend a distinct Indian touch to the ambience. Small wonder then, Kohli and his ilk have rarely faced the challenge of playing before an alien, if not entirely hostile, crowd.
Though the cricket tournaments in Sharjah were designed to attract audiences, Indians in Sharjah and the neighbouring Emirates had slowly ceded more space to vociferous Pakistani fans. It was not really until the 1999 World Cup in England that we saw clinching evidence of the unflinching and unconditional fan support for the India team.
With the singular exception of the time when India went out of the first round in the ICC Cricket World Cup 2007, fans have mostly been on a wonderful ride backing Team India in the new millennium. Pakistan fans were out-numbered in the terraces at the Adelaide Oval at the ICC Cricket World Cup 2015 — and the Indian team rewarded themselves and their fans with a big victory.
Small wonder then Kohli and his ilk think of an India-Pakistan cricket match as just another game. This is, after all, the new-gen Indian cricketer who is unfamiliar with the pressure of playing Pakistan and backed by a sea of flag-waving blue shirt wearing fans.