(Published in Sify.com, on February 18, 2015, retrieved from http://www.sify.com/news/india-vs-pakistan-should-we-leave-the-politics-out-of-cricket-news-columns-pcsi9rjhfjbgd.html)
Picture Courtesy: Sify.com
Picture Courtesy: Sify.com
Some years ago, when I was at university, a Pakistani asked me the sort of question that only a Pakistani can ask an Indian – “When India plays Pakistan, whom do the Indian Muslims support?”
And I gave him the sort of undiplomatic answer that only a Madrasi can give a Pakistani – “You mean Muslims like Pataudi and Syed Kirmani and Azharuddin and Irrfan Pathan and Zaheer Khan and Mohammad Kaif, whom do they support?”
I was a little shocked at the vehemence of my reply at the time, partly because I don’t get offended easily, and partly because I have never associated nationality with sport – geography is really a convenient way to band teams together. You could just as easily band them by language, or alphabet, or height. I’ve always watched cricket as I have watched football – I have my favourite teams, and they have nothing to do with either my nationality or my patriotism.
And so, I wonder both at the force of my reply, and at the fact that my patriotism suddenly finds expression in cricketing fervour every time India takes on Pakistan.
But, I know that my reply would be the same, if I were to be asked the question again.
Because, any attempt to further divide a nation where all any two people have in common could simply be the colour and design of their passports offends me deeply.
It would never occur to me to ask a Pakistani whom the Christians support when they play against Australia or England or New Zealand. It would never occur to me to ask a Pakistani whom the Hindus support when they play against India.
Having roots in the South, I have been as far away from the horror of Partition as an Indian could be. I have Pakistani friends for whose families Partition was far more painful, and who had as little say in that historical mistake as we Indians did.
But why does all the acrimony pour out into the cricket field?
Why are the supposed loyalties of Indian Muslims questioned, and the religions of Indian cricketers enumerated, every time India plays Pakistan? Because I’ve been asked that too – why there are so few Muslim players in the Indian team. I usually reply that a list of cricketers of distinction in the Indian side would include Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, and Parsis.
Is it fair, though, that the twenty-two men taking the field at any time should be burdened by the history of the two countries?
Is it fair for them to have to come back home to brickbats from the press, and fans tarring their houses, and burning them in effigy?
Yet, what choice do they have, when the first reaction of either side to a diplomatic fallout is to cut cricketing ties?
Now that the teams meet so rarely, every game has gained more significance.
The Pakistani team is haunted by its World Cup history, and the Indian team holds on to it for dear life. However beleaguered, it’s a do-or-die match, and neither can afford to lose. Because people from the two countries are stupid enough to give a first-round match the epithet “real final”.
If India were to lose to Pakistan at the World Cup, even winning the title would not remove the sourness of the loss, just as Pakistan is never allowed to forget that it lost to India in 1992.
And no sporting team deserves that kind of pressure.
As it happens, the camaraderie between the two teams has improved enormously over the years. One of my earliest cricketing memories is of Javed Miandad doing a kangaroo jump in imitation of Kiran More, and Azharuddin approaching the umpire in a rage to complain. On the 15th, Shahid Afridi made up for accidentally throwing the ball at Virat Kohli by playfully patting him where he had been hit.
If Pakistani players were not banned from the IPL, several of them would be sharing team colours with Indian players.
While I did have my fun baiting the Twitterati from Pakistan on match day, I was disturbed by some of the images people put up on Twitter. One was of the Pakistani twelfth man giving water to Virat Kohli, as if it were the most remarkable thing in the world. Would the image have been imbued with as much significance if India had been playing Australia, and their twelfth man had offered an Indian batsman water?
Perhaps it’s time we got mature about the game, and left the baggage behind.
Cricketers should be playing their sport; the politicians and diplomats can handle the rest.