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Battling history

January 22, 2012

After a long legacy of scandals and controversies, it is refreshing to finally enjoy the cricket itself. -Photo by AFP

Clashes between England and Pakistan are informed by a very particular kind of history. If you connect the dots, it all goes back, naturally, to colonial times.

Through the latter 1800s, as Englishmen posted in India began openly indulging in this most British of pastimes, native Indians realised this was a game in which they could excel as well. The original scenarios have gone undocumented, but the setting is not hard to imagine.

It is doubtful that Indians were attracted to cricket as a leisure activity per se, for it is very much an acquired taste. Rather, a servant called upon to bowl at his English master in the nets would have discovered that if he cut the seam just so, and angled the delivery just so, and pitched the ball just so, then every now and then he would get past the edge of the master’s bat to clip the off bail. Imagine the euphoria—you could go one-up on the otherwise invincible English sahib, even embarrass him in front of the memsahib if she happened to be out for a stroll, without the fear of coming to any real harm. If the master’s mood was right and his disposition convivial, he could even find it endearing.

Understandably, picking up the game as inferiors rather than as equals also sowed the seeds for resentments and misgivings. Over time, the resentments continued to pile up on our side, and misgivings mounted on the other side. As the subcontinent evolved, colonial rule came to an end, and as native cricket expertise improved, a complex psychology came to infuse our cricket relationship with former masters. Virtually every series between England and Pakistan has been coloured by this reality in one way or another.

Interestingly, India’s cricket relationship with England has evolved along a distinctly different path, in which there has been far less animosity and friction. Pakistan and England, on the other hand, have had a testy relationship, which has frequently spilled over into bitterness, both on and off the field; indeed, the UK’s Guardian newspaper recently termed it a “choleric rivalry.” This disparity can perhaps be explained by the unique dynamics with which Indian and Pakistani societies relate to Britain—not just as sibling nations with a common post-colonial origin, but also as immigrant communities in their adopted British homeland.

In 1952, Pakistan became a Test nation, and in 1954 the national side first faced England as equals in the field. Right away, Pakistan got its pound of flesh, drawing the series 1-1 with an immortal Oval win. No other team has managed to win a Test in England on its first trip.

It did not take long for the touchiness between England and Pakistan to surface. Although no major controversies stand out from that 1954 tour, two years later something disastrous happened. In 1956, an England A side (a kind of 2nd XI comprising promising players) visited Pakistan for unofficial Tests. One of their matches was a particularly acrimonious contest in Peshawar, where they felt aggrieved by several decisions taken by umpire Idris Beg.

The English response was to manhandle the umpire and throw him in the hotel swimming pool. An uproar followed, and the matter left a horrible taste. Much has been said and written about it, with several English attempts to spin it as some sort of innocuous prank. The fact that it is still being discussed more than 50 years later tells you it has left a deep scar.

At the time when it happened, no one could have imagined that the outrageous nature of the Idris Beg incident would one day be exceeded by even worse scandals. Yet this is precisely what has happened. A quick glance through England-Pakistan encounters reveals a number of hotspots—from the notorious Shakoor Rana-Mike Gatting confrontation in 1987, to the ball-tampering charges that raged in the English press in 1992, to the Oval forfeit of 2006, and ultimately—the mother of all controversies—the spot-fixing crisis that resulted in the unprecedented outcome of Pakistani stars being sent to jail.

Both teams have excellent resources and are well positioned for success; in all likelihood it has been a balanced and absorbing contest. After a long legacy of scandals and controversies, it is refreshing to finally enjoy the cricket itself.