Think of India and Pakistan and you think of the estranged relationship of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton; twice married, twice divorced. Or talking of current times that of Rihanna and Chris Brown. Appropriately the once battered female singer was seen sitting next to her fellow singer and one-time assailant and abuser at a Lakers game on Christmas day sharing a bag of popcorn and giggling away.
Appropriately, because on the same day the continuously quarrelling and sparring South Asian neighbours were involved in a make-up attempt via the game of Twenty20 cricket.
Even more appropriately it was limited-over cricket and will be till today; rebounding and rebonding under some limits after 26/11 and all that.
I have drawn parallels with the showbiz world because that is what the Pakistan-India stage has been; oscillating between Shakespeare drama and Tarantino naked violence. Whether you call it Much Ado About Nothing or Measure for Measure, Kill Bill or Django Unchained, the box office never fails to draw.
So what is it about cricket that brings out the rivalry like nothing else (admittedly in the first three decades of separation it was overshadowed by hockey)? Perhaps subliminally we are still fighting each other while revolting against the British, and paradoxically still using their beloved game as a tool of battle. Yes, Mountbatten left us two things we have never resolved or accepted who the rightful heir is: Kashmir and Cricket.
The roots of such partisanship are before Partition though and embedded in the Muslim versus Hindu matches that took place as part of the Bombay Pentangular tournament involving teams made up of Parsis, Europeans and the Rest, every November. The last, in 1946 was won by the Muslim Gymkhana by one wicket in a thrilling finish.
So when it comes to facing each other across the ‘other’ Great Divide, the 22-yard pitch, we are no different than when we were shooting away on either side of the Neelum River almost six-and-a-half decades back; only the firing is replaced by the sledging and shrieking as another man comes in or falls. You can call it the phony war, the bat and ball a proxy for bullet and bayonet. Having said that, it is perhaps the only event in the world that incites celebratory aerial firing over the mountainous border every time one side wins, coupled with some choice words hurled at each other where the troops can make eye contact.
If anything today reflects the contest between the two, it is the journey across the Pacific of Piscine Patel and the Bengal Tiger in a small boat in the book Life of Pi by Yann Martel.
That in essence is India-Pakistan cricket. It can get very viscous. On the 1960-61 tour of India, a fan extended his hand to shake Hanif Mohammad’s. The halved razor blade hidden in between his fingers all but cut out the Pakistani batsman’s finger. On the 1986-87 tour of India, Ijaz Faqih had to field in a helmet at long leg after he was targeted by a stone thrown from the crowd. While touring Pakistan, Indian captain Krishnamachari Srikkanth had his shirt torn off by a spectator who ran onto the ground in Karachi.
It can also get very satirical. On the 1952-53 tour of India, Waqar Hasan recalls being heckled on the boundary line at Lucknow: “Aji qibla, aap agar rukh-i-zeba iss taraf nahin karenge, tau hum app ke abba hazoor ki shaan mein gustakhi kar dain-ge.”
And of course you are more sensitive about your country than when playing against other countries. Saad Shafqat, co author with Javed Miandad of his autobiography recalls that while sledging from silly point Javed said something to Mohinder Amarnath that touched on India. Amarnath turned to him and said to the Pakistani: “Dekh Javed, mujhay jo kehna hai kah, laiken meray desh ko kuch na kah.”
But then would Javed have become as famous for a last ball six had it not been against India? Remember Asif Mujtaba won a match for Pakistan in similar fashion against tougher bowling on an Australian pitch in a bigger ground. Of course you don’t know, let alone remember.
And all is forgiven by the patriot if a heavy defeat elsewhere is compensated by victory over the neighbor. There is the world cup and there is the match between the two; an introverted view similar to the Americans calling their domestic baseball season finals the World Series.
But perhaps the rivalry was never as cut throat or knife edged as when the two countries played each other after the two wars of ’65 and ’71, and a gap of 17 years. In between four Pakistani players (Zaheer Abbas, Asif Masood, Mushtaq Mohammad and Intikhab Alam) had played alongside three Indians (Bishen Bedi, Sunil Gavaskar and Farokh Engineer) on two tours (one during the Indo-Pak war of ’71) as part of a World XI while Mushtaq, Sarfraz and Bishen Bedi played together for English county Northamptonshire for five years in the seventies.
Yet when they met in Pakistan in 1978, with an entire generation of cricketers having been replaced since the last series in ’60-’61, there was no love lost between the players on both sides. The stakes were so high that Gen Ziaul Haq had to personally overrule the cricket board and allow the banned Packer players to play for Pakistan. Last day collapses saw the Indians losing two of the three Tests in fading daylight as they fumed over dubious home umpiring. The loss was so badly taken that not only did Bedi lose India’s captaincy but he and the two other of the famed spin quartet, Prasanna and Chandrasekhar, lasted a few months more in cricket.
Likewise, it was time for captain Asif Iqbal to lose his head after the Indians reciprocated 2-0 and their share of dubious umpiring when hosting the return tour a year later. But their then captain and the iconic Gavasker was sacked after losing 3-0 in Pakistan two years later and the Henry VIII syndrome of guillotining captains for failing to deliver had such impact that by the end of 1990, only Imran and Gavasker had managed to captain in successive Test series against each other (and then only twice) while seven were played during this time.
The rivalry became dulled from the mid eighties as the two sides met regularly at Sharjah and the other multi-nations cup that had sprung up around the world to milk brand cricket. The courtship turned to a steady relationship, perhaps even marriage, signaling the end of the romance and the settling in of boredom, though this one was more like Michael Douglas’s and Kathkeen Turner’s War Of The Roses. Within a decade, the relationship had turned sour with Sharjah as the proverbial mother-in-law for India; they refused to play Pakistan there complaining of favouritism of all sorts toward their partner.
But then the pulsating is always there in separation as the heart grows fonder. The two sides rarely play each other now, after a brief stint of thrice in three years (2004-2006) which again led to more of the same. The odd game in a multi countries tournament reignites the feelings; in the case of India-Pakistan it is the dissimilarity that breeds contempt.
Both sides feel the force is with them, and each country fanatic thinks of the other team as Darth Vader. It couldn’t have been more pronounced than in 1999, when both sides sparred over Kargil.
But watching the two teams today, I feel the great personal rivalries have been left in the past and the newer ones still to take on a more challenging eye for an eye. In the first few years it was how Little Master Hanif would handle the spin craft of Mankad and Gupte or how Polly Umrigar handled Fazal Mahmood, alongwith the various subplots involving ‘Merry Max’ Maqsood Ahmed, Khan Mohammad, Vijay Hazare, Nazar Mohammad, Lala Amarnath and P. Roy.
By the next generation it was Zaheer and Miandad versus the Indian spinners and medium pacers, Gavaskar battling Imran whose ultimate rivalry for top all rounder was with the mercurial Kapil Dev.
The baton would be picked up by Wasim and Waqar facing off with Sachin Tendulkar and eventually the young genius’ much marketed conflict with Shoaib Akhtar that was spread over a decade. It included Shoaib castling Tendulkar first ball at Kolkata and Sachin smashing Shoaib for 18 off the first over at Centurion in the 2003 World Cup.
And so it goes on, two of the oldest rivals sharing just about the same language, food, culture, values, geography and history and yet so distant when it comes to playing on each other’s soil. Unlike among the other countries, the one peculiar thing of a bilateral Indo-Pak series, and something that makes it so much more anticipatory, is not knowing when it will happen again.
Perhaps it can be said that every time the bails are removed for the last time on a tour, the haunting song of Lata Mangeshkar resonates over the stadium and in the hearts of the cricketers bidding farewell on the ground: Lagja galay kay phir yeh haseen raat ho na ho, Shaid is janam mein mulaqat ho na ho.
The writer has been writing on cricket since 1979, and has edited The Cricketer International (UK) Asian Edition as well as authoring two books on World Cup Cricket history. He sits in as cricket analyst on various channels. He also has 25 years’ top management experience and now works as a business strategy and marketing consultant and corporate trainer.