March issue 2004

By | Sports | Published 16 years ago

When India last played a Test match in Pakistan, there was no internet, no e-mails, not even mobile phones — at least not in our two countries. The Soviet Union was still intact with Mikhail Gorbachev as its undisputed leader. Benazir Bhutto was Pakistan’s Prime Minister while Rajiv Gandhi had just been ousted in India by his ally-turned foe, Vishwanath Pratap Singh.

Fifteen years is a lifetime in politics — and cricket. The two are interwined whether one likes it or not, and the sub-continent’s passion for cricket has been used ad nauseam by politicians on both sides as a tool to score points with their electorate.

Want to show official displeasure? Cancel a bilateral cricket tour. Want your name in the newspaper or on news channels? Just vandalise a cricket pitch. Activists in India and Pakistan have made careers out of staging protests over the game that is virtually like a religion in both countries.

As Saurav Ganguly’s team embarks on an ice-breaking tour to play a Test series in Pakistan for the first time since 1989, cricket lovers have good reason to celebrate. There is no guarantee that future tours will not be sacrificed at the altar of politics. So let us enjoy what we have got. The moment when Ganguly and Inzamam go out to toss, in the first one-day international in Karachi, on March 13, will be priceless. Even the two governments and our respective cricket boards know that.

Nothing can be left to chance when cricket’s ultimate rivalry is being revived after so long. The hottest issue is that of security which has clouded the tour from the start. The Indian government cleared the visit to Pakistan as early as October 22, 2003. Under pressure from the International Cricket Council and its sponsors, the two cricket boards announced the tour less than 48 hours after their governments gave the green signal. Yet, the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) and the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB), which have organised two World Cups between them in 1987 and 1996, took four months to work out the logistics.

The hint that something was amiss came in early February when the BCCI delayed sending out accreditation forms for the media even though they had been received from the PCB. BCCI president, Jagmohan Dalmiya, insisted the forms be released, only after the return of the three-man delegation from Pakistan in mid-February. He obviously did not want to be publicly embarrassed lest his government had a sudden change of heart. Dalmiya was proved right. Even as the delegation was touring Pakistan, word came that the Indian home ministry was attempting to delay the tour until after the general elections scheduled for April and May. This was no mere media speculation as was widely believed. The government had genuine concerns that any incident during the tour could have repercussions on the party’s standing at the hustings.

Thankfully better sense prevailed as the government realised that postponing the tour at this late stage would have a negative impact and push back the peace process initiated between the two governments. A high-level meeting was convened at the residence of Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, appropriately enough on February 14 — Valentine’s day. It was attended by deputy prime minister and home minister Lal Krishan Advani, foreign minister Sinha, finance minister Jaswant Singh and national security adviser Brajesh Mishra. Sinha emerged after the hour-long meeting to announce the tour would go ahead as planned. The sigh of relief could be heard as far away as Calcutta, where Dalmiya called a media conference to confirm the tour. It took more than a week after that to finalise venues as India objected to playing Test matches in Karachi and Peshawar, demanding “minimal exposure” of the Indian team in these two cities.

All that, however, is in the past. We can now get on with the game and what a game it promises to be! The world got a taste of subcontinental rivalry a year ago, when India and Pakistan played the most scintillating match of the 2003 World Cup in South Africa. ICC president-elect Ehsan Mani, who took over in June, wondered after that match that if India and Pakistan could produce such exciting cricket on foreign soil, what kind of a performance would they put on before their own crowds. Mani’s prayers have been answered now as India seek to win their first Test match in Pakistan.

One has often heard players say that they regard an India-Pakistan match as just another encounter. It is only a public facade to hide the jitters within. The pressure on the cricketers is immense, mainly from excited fans who can’t bear to see their teams lose. A classic example of the keen cricketing rivalry between the two countries took place last year. India did not make the semi-finals, at the World Cup in England, while Pakistan went on to play the final against eventual champions, Australia. Yet Indian players were garlanded on their return home, while the homes of Pakistani players were stoned. The fact that we had not made it to the finals was of no consequence. What mattered was that India had beaten Pakistan in the Super Six match at Manchester.

Hopefully the reaction of fans on both sides of the border will not be as drastic this time. The pressure, however, will be immense. Sachin Tendulkar is the only player on both sides to have experienced the drama of an India-Pakistan Test on Pakistani soil, having made his debut in the 1989 tours. Few will believe this, but the first time Tendulkar stepped out in international cricket was as a substitute fielder for Imran Khan’s Pakistani tourists in a side game in 1986-87! So much so for Indo-Pak rivalry!

Hopefully, once the tour is over cricket will emerge the winner. The battle on the field will be hot in more ways than one, but off it, the atmosphere between the two teams will be relaxed. Indian captain Saurav Ganguly is confident his team can win both the Test and one-day series, following their good showing in the longer version of the game on their recent tour of Australia. With the likes of Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid, VVS Laxman, Virender Sehwag and Ganguly, the Indian batting is powerful, but their bowling remains a concern.

Due to an injury and subsequent surgery on his bowling hand in Australia, off-spinner Harbhajan Singh is a non-starter, while doubts remain about the fitness of strike bowlers Zaheer Khan, Ajit Agarkar, Ashish Nehra and Anil Kumble. Even if one of them is injured, India will have to struggle to take 20 wickets on Pakistani pitches, despite the presence of budding bowlers, Irfan Pathan and Laxmipathy Balaji.

Pakistani cricket fans will remember Pathan’s exploits during the junior Asia Cup. Guided by the legendary Wasim Akram and Australian Bruce Reid, the youngster improved by leaps and bounds on the Australian tour. Wasim has in the past given tips to the likes of Zaheer Khan and Ashish Nehra, just as Mohammad Azharuddin was guided on his batting grip by the great Zaheer Abbas. Similarly, this writer has seen Sunil Gavaskar encourage Hasan Raza during a visit to Sharjah a few years ago.

This is what sport is all about. One salutes Wasim and the other cricketing greats on both sides of the border for whom the love of the game comes first. Such reciprocity will help build bridges as much as actions on the field.