By Richard Heller and Peter Oborne
One of the world’s greatest sporting duels will resume on Sunday February 15 when Pakistan meet India in the ICC Cricket World Cup.
The last such contest, the semi-final of 2011, was watched by around 150 million people worldwide, the biggest audience for any sporting event that year. The coming match will probably attract double that number.
Like an Ashes Test between England and Australia, it will carry a rich load of memories of cricket drama. The most famous example is Javed Miandad’s last-ball six in Sharjah in 1986 off Chetan Sharma to win the Austral-Asia Cup. On a conservative estimate, this has been viewed ten billion times – considerably more than the world’s present population. But the match will mean more than cricket. It is intimately bound up with the history of both countries and their sense of national identity. As the commentator Bashir Khan wrote in 1987: “Every Pakistani, or that matter every Indian, identifies his honour and dignity with his team and its victories and defeats. To say the least, Test matches between Pakistan and India transcend the stadia and encompass the entire masses of the two countries.”
It is therefore no surprise that these great contests have faced long interruptions on account of politics and war, and latterly terrorism. There has been no bilateral Test series between Pakistan and India since 2007-08 and no one-day series since 2012-13, a great deprivation for live spectators in both countries and a serious financial penalty for Pakistan. However, the two countries have co-operated to host two of the most memorable World Cups, in 1987 and 1996. Political leaders of both countries have regularly attempted to use their meetings for “cricket diplomacy”. More importantly, the peoples of both countries have used each other’s visits to signal their hopes of peace and reconciliation. At the end of the 2004 Test and one-day international series the Indian High Commissioner told the PCB chairman, Shaharyar Khan: “Twenty thousand Indian cricket fans visited Pakistan. You have sent back 20,000 Pakistan ambassadors to India.”
This great rivalry has lasted over sixty years – but it might never have happened at all, for there was no certainty that Pakistan would come into being as a separate cricket nation. At independence, India inherited the title deeds of Test cricket on the sub-continent, and the organisation and most of the infrastructure of first-class cricket. Despite the agony and suffering of partition, it was conceivable that Pakistan and its players might have continued to play as part of an Indian structure, as the West Indies have combined players from independent nations. (Three players, Amir Elahi, A H Kardar and Gul Mohammad have played for both countries). Pakistan’s Test status was hard-earned by its players, under the leadership of Mohammad Mian Saeed and A H Kardar, and its pioneering early administrators, led by Justice Cornelius.
Kardar led Pakistan in their first Test series, away to India, in 1952-53. They succumbed to Vinoo Mankad in the first Test, but Fazal Mahmood bowled them to victory in the second. India won the third and claimed the series 2-1 although Pakistan had chances to level it. This hard-fought series was followed by two drab ones, with ten successive draws, in which the weight of national expectations stifled the players and the captains.
Two wars then kept the countries apart for eighteen years, until India visited Pakistan in 1978-79. Positively led by Mushtaq Mohammad, with a squad greatly improved by experience of English county cricket and Kerry Packer’s World Series, Pakistan took the three-match series 2–0. Led by Zaheer Abbas, who scored 583 runs in just three completed innings, the batsmen over-powered India’s famous quartet of spinners. Fortunes were reversed in India the following year: India took a six-match Test series 2-0.
The 1980s saw five Test series with four wins for Pakistan, none by India and 16 draws, but the two teams met much more frequently in one-day internationals. Many of these were in multilateral tournaments and neutral venues, including Australia, Sharjah, and even Canada and the Netherlands, cheered on by expatriate enthusiasts. These continued during a nine-year hiatus for Test cricket, and one-day matches have taken over from Test matches as the main form of cricketing encounter between the two nations. Since 1998, Pakistan and India have played 66 one-day internationals, and six T20 matches, compared to 15 Tests.
In overall results, Pakistan have a slight edge. The two sides have won four Test series apiece, with eight shared, but Pakistan have 12 victories and India 9, with 38 draws. In one-day internationals Pakistan lead by 72 wins to 50 – but as both sets of supporters know only too well India have never lost a World Cup match to Pakistan.
Both forms of contest have produced performances to inspire each team’s players on Sunday. In Tests, Virender Sehwag produced India’s first triple-century against Pakistan in 2004: Javed Miandad would probably have posted one in 1983 against India but for a still-controversial declaration. In bowling, Anil Kumble took all ten Pakistani wickets in an innings in 1999, while Imran destroyed India with eight for 60 in Karachi in 1982. In one-day internationals, Saeed Anwar scored a majestic (and at the time record-breaking) 194 in 1997. Virat Kohli made India’s highest against Pakistan of 183 in 2012. In bowling, Pakistan’s best was seven for 37 in Sharjah in 1991. India’s (perhaps curiously) belongs to Sourav Ganguly, with five for 16 in 1997, even more curiously in Toronto. Ganguly is tied with Sachin Tendulkar on eight Man of the Match awards against Pakistan. Inzamam ul-Haq is Pakistan’s leader, with six, against India.
The one certainty about Sunday’s match is the depth of commitment from both sets of supporters. We expect a sharp dip in economic output in both countries on the day, and perhaps in others with large expatriate populations. If there is a close finish, there will be a rise in emergency hospital admissions. A disappointed supporter might even take the losing cricket board to court, as happened in Pakistan after the last World Cup encounter. Informally, all the players will face exhaustive judgments all round the world, in the courtrooms of expert spectators.
The winning side may well be the one which best detaches itself from its role as champions of a nation and manages to treat the encounter as just another cricket match.
Richard Heller is the author of two cricket novels, A Tale of Ten Wickets and The Network. Peter Oborne is a leading commentator on British and international politics, latterly in the Daily Telegraph and the Spectator. He is the author of Basil D’Oliveira, Cricket And Conspiracy: The Untold Story. Assisted by Richard Heller, he published Wounded Tiger, a comprehensive history of Pakistan cricket, in 2014.