Arch-rivals India and Pakistan face off at the Cricket World Cup in Adelaide today
A shared love of the game has provided an opening during times of tension between the neighbors
India's attitude towards the match-ups has matured as it has become more successful, writes Ravi Agrawal
When I was just a child in London, India surprised the world by winning the Cricket World Cup at Lord’s.
It was 1983. At the time, India was a desperately poor country. Cricket was a unifying force. You could be Bengali or Punjabi, Goan or Kashmiri, but if you were Indian you were proud of a rare big win on the world stage.
A few years later my family moved from London to Calcutta. We had migrated from the birthplace of cricket to the game’s burgeoning new Mecca.
India’s 1983 win turned out to be a catalyst for a new enthusiasm for one-day cricket, the version of the sport in which the World Cup is contested. (The longer version, Test cricket, takes five days per game; a Test World Cup has never been feasible.)
My most vivid memories of my childhood in India are of cricket.
India was crazy about it. A public holiday meant putting up makeshift stumps on the main road and starting a game. At school we would squeeze in a quick match in our 20 minute tiffin break.
No ball? No problem. Our ball was a stone with a handkerchief wrapped around it.
No bat? We played “hand cricket.”
No stumps? Well, that’s what tree trunks were for. An Indian child could conjure up cricket paraphernalia from anywhere.
I was no good at cricket. And yet I couldn’t help but get swept up in the national frenzy.
When India played another country it was a monumental event. We would feign fevers on the big games to skip school; then we’d try and sneak into the stadiums.
Calcutta’s Eden Gardens, its stands heaving with 100,000 cricket fanatics, was a sight to see. It was our Mecca. As we grew more middle class and more homes acquired color TVs, we would huddle together to watch games at home.
How far we’ve come.
A billion fans
Today, a billion viewers are expected to tune in to watch India play. And it’s not just any game: It’s India versus Pakistan.
India versus Pakistan. Those are three words that conjure up all kinds of images. The two countries have fought three wars. Our childhoods were filled with propaganda videos and movies of the evil enemy.
But India versus Pakistan has also been a moment to bring the two countries together. I remember 2004 when India toured Pakistan after a fifteen year break.
Thousands of Indian fans got their first glimpse of Pakistani soil when they got special visas to attend games.
In 2007, when I visited Pakistan for the first time, the instant ice breaker was always cricket: imagine picking a fantasy team with the best players from either country!
After the 2008 Mumbai attacks, I remember the hostility so many Indians felt towards Pakistan; all diplomatic contact was broken off.
And then in 2011, cricket provided the opening. Pakistan’s Prime Minister visited India to watch a World Cup semi final game. India won. Peace and common sense were bigger winners.
The Indian historian Ramachandra Guha describes a great anecdote about the evolution of the India-Pakistan game.
In 1996, when Pakistan visited his hometown of Bangalore, Guha made sure he was in attendance. The legendary Pakistani batsman Javed Miandad was playing his final match.
Guha dared to stand up and applaud. No one else in his stand did.
Many years later, in 2005, things had changed.
Pakistan won an epic game of many twists and turns at Bangalore’s Chinnaswamy stadium.
This time many Indians applauded. Guha describes the change as a larger evolution in the Indian psyche. As India has become more successful, more middle class, and less worried about imminent war with the Pakistanis, it has found within itself a confidence to be sportsmanlike.
I couldn’t agree more. There is a maturity to the India Pakistan game now that I don’t remember in my childhood.
Back then it felt like war. If Pakistan won, it was because their Muslim players were meat eaters, they were much stronger, Indians would lament.
Now, of course, India is one of the world’s largest consumers of fish and meat.
Back then, India’s place in the world felt forever linked with Pakistan’s.
Back then, there was a phrase to describe India’s lackluster economic progress: “the Hindu rate of growth.”
No longer. Now cricket is a game – still the most important one – but just a game.
No doubt, my views are colored by my own journey, my growing up. But when you consider that 65% of all Indians were born in the 1980s or later, well after the two big wars of the 1970s, perhaps young Indians have a different relationship with ‘India versus Pakistan.’
So let the games begin, and may the best team win. By a strange quirk, while Pakistan has a better record against India in both Test and One Day cricket, India has won all five of its World Cup games against Pakistan.
If the odds finally catch up with India and the nation doesn’t engulf itself in a period of collective mourning, it will be one more small step forward for a new, confident nation.
Go India, and go Pakistan!