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For Kashmiris Indo-Pak cricket isn’t just a sport

December 20, 2012

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When Pakistan were finally crowned as Asian Champions 2012, the Kashmiris were joyous; they celebrated, they had their ‘Diwali’, they had their ‘Eid’, they burst fire-crackers. This is normal. This happens each time Pakistan wins, each time India loses. Or when India’s early exit from any big tournament is guaranteed. -File photo by AFP

Cricket matches involving Pakistan and India — arguably the fiercest arch-rivals after Australia and England in the game’s history — have often been described as “mother of all encounters”. In Indian-administered Kashmir, many see cricket contests between these two nations as “war minus the shooting”.

The countdown has just begun. The Pakistan cricket team is touring India later this month for a short series of two T20 and three ODI matches, beginning 25 December. The satellite television channels in India have started airing their sensational promos like “Aandhi Hai, Toofan Hai / Dil May Hindustaan Hai / Samne Pakistan Hai/ Asli Imtahan Hai…..” [‘There’s wind, there’s storm / India is in our hearts / Pakistan is the opponent /That’s the real test…’]. And the hearts of many Kashmiris are already skipping a beat. It is not any secret that the majority of the Kashmiris — young and old, men and women, boys and girls — root for the Green Shirts.

With teary-eyes many elderly women and men in the Kashmir Valley could be seen sitting, anxious and worried, on their prayer mats, some also holding rosary beads in one of their hands; seeking divine intervention to rescue Pakistan from scary situations. With an uninspiring Misbah-ul-Haq at the helm of affairs of Pakistan cricket at the moment, the frequency of such nervous prayers has enhanced manifold. During Imran’s and Wasim’s playing days, the Kashmiris had plenty of faith in the Green unit and skill of the players. People, more often, expected magical performance from the game-changers like Imran Khan, Wasim Akram, Waqar, Miandad, Inzamam, Zaheer Abbas, Shoaib Akhtar, Saqlain Mushtaq, and Saeed Anwar. But some would still pray, just in case.

In Kashmir, cricket has never been seen just as a sport. It so easily gets mixed with the regional politics and history that divides the disputed region, administered by India and Pakistan in parts and claimed by both in full. On the 22-yard cricket strip, the Kashmiris love to see Pakistan winning and India losing. In fact, they support all opponents of the ‘Men in Blue’and their hearts beat faster for the ‘Green Army’.

For Faheem, a young Kashmiri telecom engineer based in Dubai, the reasons for this ‘love affair’ with Pakistan cricket are also political.

“To many, like my father who is from the partition years, Pakistan was a 'dream'. It was a country that emanated hope in that generation. It fulfilled all romanticism in nationalists. It gave them an identity. The green flag with a crescent, evoked patriotic vibes in a lot that was a thirst of selfhood. The years after partition all added up to an affable affair with this country. Anything and everything from across was considered pious,” he told Dawn.com.

Supporting the Pakistan cricket team came naturally to Faheem.

“I grew up to the stories of Majid Khan knocking down a bird in one of his ferocious cuts at the pretty Exeter ground; Imran running down Greg Chappell's side at SCG in '76; and Zaheer Abbas ending a certain left-arm Sardar's flagging career with three consecutive sixes. In the ancient concubines of my ancestral house: father, grandfather and my uncles had a fable recital for every landmark in Pakistan cricket. Hence, liking Pakistan cricket team is something that came naturally to me. I wasn't fed. I was born in the romanticism of this 'Dream',” he explains.

For Arif Ayaz Parrey, a writer from the Kashmir Valley, the unwanted stifling of right to free speech has a lot to do with it. He believes the architecture of choice in Kashmir vis-a-vis international cricket is a “classic case of collective sublimation of political opinion in the face of criminalization of any independent politics by a thought-policing occupier State”.

Ayaz opines that despite the severe dip in the form of Pakistan players in recent times the affection for team Pakistan has hardly lessened.

“The bad form has hardly diminished this affection for Pakistan, which is still seen as an ally, in many instances even more lovingly now that it struggles against a much more muscular and assertive India. The hatred for India has increased with its new-found confident aggression, a stance which reminds Kashmiris of all that is wrong with the world,” he concludes.

Why is there so much fascination in Kashmir in relation to Pakistan cricket?

“Supporting Pakistan cricket has to do something with the sentiments the Kashmiris share with that country. Pakistan has always championed the Kashmir cause at international level and that gesture has seeped into the hearts and minds of the Kashmiris. Also, there are too many similarities the way both the Kashmiris and Pakistan players go about their business; positive attitude and aggressive brand! The Kashmiri fans identify themselves with the Pakistan team and not India,” says a Valley-based sports editor while pleading anonymity.

Pictures and big posters of Imran lifting the coveted World Cup in 1992 could be seen in many Kashmiri homes and shops. Other favourite posters are of Wasim Akram, Inzamam and ‘Boom Boom’ Afridi.

-Photo by AFP

There is another side to this liking for unpredictable ‘Cornered Tigers’.

“Also, the good looks of Pakistani players added to their enormous popularity, at least in the female tribe. It is said that every time Imran Khan came on, a heart skipped a beat, somewhere in uptown Karachi or downtown Srinagar,” Faheem adds.

People give different reasons for having a soft-corner for team Pakistan ranging from political to geographical, and in some cases religious too.

Many Kashmiris studying and working in different Indian cities like New Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore and Kolkata face this predicament of which team to support in presence of their Indian friends and colleagues, who obviously cheer for Sachins, Sehwags and Dhonis. Sometimes the situation can turn ugly, as it did in the case of 22-year-old Waseem, a Kashmiri youth pursuing his B-tech from a University in the Indian capital.

India were playing against Bangladesh in Asia Cup. While favouring Bangladesh, Waseem was watching this encounter with his batch mates and few strangers.

“As soon as Bangladesh, the underdogs, defeated India, I couldn’t control my emotions, I clapped and shouted. All Indians around me were furious. What happened thereafter was my worst experience so far,” recounts Waseem. Some Indian fans, according to Waseem, had made plans to teach him “a lesson of his life”.

“I was staying in a rented accommodation as a paying guest. Two young boys entered my room and began inquiring why I had supported Bangladesh. I explained to them it was purely because of my cricketing sense. Soon I saw a group of around 10-15 boys waiting outside my room to teach me a lesson. I got worried about my safety,” he says. Sensing trouble, Waseem recalls, he tried negotiating the matter. It was not so easy, though.

“Somehow I managed to lock my door from inside. I was dismayed. I feared for my life,” he adds.

Waseem’s landlord had intervened and asked him what the matter was all about.

“I expressed my freedom of speech. I liked the way Bangladesh fought back and won. I am no fan of Indian cricket,” he was candid with his owner.

“In that case, what are you doing here?” this is what, according to Waseem, the landlord told him in response. Two weeks later, he was asked to arrange for another accommodation!”

Most Kashmiris support the Pakistan team. Many favour all other teams playing against India. Logic, match situation, nuances of the game, everything gets buried in an unnamed grave. Raw emotions take the centre-stage. This hasn’t changed since many decades. It is highly unlikely that the Kashmiri psyche in this regard will change in future as well.

There are, however, a handful of Kashmiris who have their heroes from the Indian team, as is the case with Arished Hussain, 26, based in the Indian state of West Bengal since the past one decade.

“I grew up watching Tendulkar, Viru [Sehwag] and Yuvi [Yuvraj]. I like the sound when the ‘Master Blaster’ hits the red cherry in the middle of his willow with elegance for straight drives and back-foot punches through the cover region. I’m fond of Viru’s aggression and Yuvi’s power and timing,” Arished told the Dawn.com from Kolkata.

Like Arished, there are quite a few who also like young Indian star Virat Kohli. Extreme dislike for team India has always been there in Kashmir. The situation is different in Jammu region.

India were the surprise world champions in 1983, beating the great West Indies side. Soon after their historic win, the Indians hosted West Indies in a five-match ODI series in October the same year. The first match of this series was played at Sher-i-Kashmir Cricket Stadium [SKCS] in Srinagar, the first international match held in Indian-administered Kashmir. The staging of this match was obviously controversial and intensely opposed by those fighting against Indian rule. The Kashmiri crowds supported West Indies and booed the Indian players.

This fact has been acknowledged and documented by former India captain Sunil Gavaskar in his book ‘Runs n’ Ruins’. Gavaskar has rated the Kashmiri crowds as amongst the “worst he has seen in his life”. “….We were stunned by the change. As the Indian players came into the arena to loosen up and do their physical exercises, they were booed by some sections of the crowd. This was unbelievable. Here we were in ‘India’ and being hooted even before a ball had been bowled. Being hooted after a defeat is understandable, but this was incredible. Moreover, there were many in the crowd shouting pro-Pakistan slogans which confounded us, because we were playing the West Indies and not Pakistan. The West Indians were as surprised as we were but were obviously delighted to find support in their first big encounter against us after their defeat in the Prudential Cup finals,” Gavaskar writes.

India lost that game by a margin of 28 runs, a revised target in a match reduced to 22 Overs in the second innings [when West Indies batted] because of unwanted intervention. The Kashmir crowds had clapped for each run scored and wicket claimed by the West Indies side. Unfortunately, some spectators had thrown bottles and trash at the Indian players. This had indeed been unpleasant. Chasing a modest target set by the Indians, the visitors did not lose even a single wicket. It was a game which both Kapil Dev and Viv Richards played in.

At least 12 Kashmiri men, including pro-freedom leader Shabir Shah and former guerrilla Showkat Bakshi, were accused of digging up cricket pitch at SKCS, Srinagar during the lunch break of India-West Indies encounter in 1983. The accused were released on bail in 1984. Charges against them were filed in 1989. They always maintained that charges against them were fabricated. After a yawning gap of 28-years, a court in Srinagar acquitted all accused for lack of evidence in 2011. The Srinagar cricketer stadium hosted one more game after this one in 1986 when the Australians toured. India lost that game, too.

Cricket may be a ‘religion’ in India and Pakistan but in Kashmir, according to some, it is one of the many symbols of showing resentment towards India. It is one of the many ‘symbols of resistance’ against Indian rule. Even the 700,000 Indian troops stationed in the strife-ridden region are aware who the Kashmiris favour when it comes to cricket encounters. That is perhaps why there is a quiet competition going on between the troops and the Kashmiris regarding who bursts more firecrackers on an Indo-Pak match day, depending upon which team wins.

These days it has become fashionable to use phrases like “cricket diplomacy”, but does battling it out in the middle of the pitch somehow reduce enmity between nations that have fought wars in the real battle field?

Politics should not be mixed with sports. Cricket is just a game. These are some of the oft-repeated sentences when our favourite cricket team loses; and the team we do not want to see on top, actually wins. Those who claim to have graduated to another level and learned detaching sports from politics are speaking only the half truth.

-Photo by AFP

When India defeated Pakistan in the semi-finals of World Cup 2011, many Kashmiris were dejected and felt ‘defeated’ too. India celebrated. Kashmir mourned.

India and Pakistan recently met in the Asia Cup 2012. India won. Kashmir’s streets, I was informed, wore a deserted look. India celebrated. Kashmir felt a pang in the heart.

When Pakistan were finally crowned as Asian Champions 2012, the Kashmiris were joyous; they celebrated, they had their ‘Diwali’, they had their ‘Eid’, they burst fire-crackers. This is normal. This happens each time Pakistan wins, each time India loses. Or when India’s early exit from any big tournament is guaranteed.

The Kashmiris are in love with Pakistan cricket. Not because they see a political future of Kashmir with that country. It appears they know that their applause for Pakistan would hurt India more. They shower praises on Pakistan team to injure India’s “ego”.

During an Indo-Pak cricket encounter there is passion. There is provocation. Points are made. Points are scored. There are arguments of history. There are arguments related to statistics. Yes, there is everything.

If an Indian fan boasts about Sachin Tendulkar’s impeccable record of 100 international tons, a Kashmiri supporting Pakistan cricket recalls the fastest ball being bowled by the ‘Rawalpindi Express’, quickest hundred scored by ‘Boom Boom’ Afridi in just 37 balls, Wasim and Waqar being the all-time second and third highest-wicket takers in limited overs cricket history respectively.

An India fan reminds the Kashmiris about Pakistan’s defeats at the hands of India in the world cup quarter-finals (1996), world cup semis (2011), and T20 final (2007), the Kashmiris brag about the overall edge that Pakistan holds against India by winning 69 out of 121 ODIs played between the rival sides. The Kashmiris also remind Indian fans about Javed Miandad’s famous sixer off Chetan Sharma’s last ball at Sharjah, Shoaib Akhtar disturbing the furniture of Dravid and Tendulkar in two successive deliveries at Eden Gardens, Saeed Anwar’s innings of 194 against India in Chennai (1997), the historic victory in the Chennai Test and Aaqib Javed’s hat-trick and seven-for against India at Sharjah.

The arguments keep coming. So do the counter arguments. There’s no stopping.

On the 22nd of March, the day when Pakistan were crowned as Asian Champions 2012, the Inspector General Kashmir range S M Sahai chose to updates his Facebook status writing this “cheeky” message: “Sometimes Pakistan also should be happy.”

Mr Sahai got some befitting replies in the shape of comments on the thread that followed. “I am the 1992 world cup winner. I am the 2009 T20 world champion. I am the last ball sixer at Sharjah. I ended the career of Kris Srikanth with that ferocious bouncer. I am the ‘Sultan of Swing’. I invented the reverse swing and the ‘Doosra’. I mastered the multiple hat-tricks. I am the ‘Cornered Tiger’. I am the fastest ball, the quickest hundred, the longest six, the shattered stumps at Eden Gardens, the highest individual score of 194 at Chennai, the 40-ball century at Kanpur. Now I am the Asian Champion 2012. I am the aggression. I am the passion. I am the unpredictable. I am Pakistan.”

If India wins and the die-hard Indian fans jog your memory by showering accolades on Kohli’s magnificent hundred in Asia Cup match, the Kashmiris shot back: “India did not ‘Kohlify’ for the finals.”

The Indian fans remind them about Kohli’s knock of 183 at Dhaka against Pakistan in a winning cause, Kashmiris find solace in their own creative ways, arguing: “When Indians score centuries, they pump their fists in arrogance. When Pakistani batsmen score centuries, they bow their head in humility and kiss the soil.”

That’s why the Kashmiris love them. That’s why they support them. The Kashmiris say they detest “arrogance”. They are fond of “humility”.

And even if no such reasons ever existed, the Kashmiris will still be rooting for Pakistan’s victory.

The writer is an international journalist. He has worked as editor at Deutsche Welle in Bonn, Germany. Previously, he has also contributed features to the BBC web. Feedback at [gowhargeelani@gmail.com].