It is difficult to think of a series between the two neighbours that did not have the blessings of political leaders

For starters, we could have never used this headline for an Ashes series. The reason, if I may add, is pretty simple — there are no political overtones to the Ashes whereas an India-Pakistan series is seldom without a political “tarkaa.”

Perhaps, that is what raises the excitement quotient of India-Pakistan cricket.

Goodwill tour

Pardon me for recalling here a very personal experience of the most horrendous kind — way back in 1978, when the government of India, under the leadership of late Morarji Desai, decided to mend/renew relations, it was us cricketers he chose to send to Pakistan on a goodwill tour.

Yes, it was earnestly a goodwill tour on which Indian cricketers were expected to do what politicians would not dream of doing – create goodwill that is. I must confess, initially I was very excited too because it was a dream to play against my good old colleagues Mushtaq Mohammad and Sarfraz Nawaz, from Northants, both outstanding professionals.

There were others too from the county fold, namely Asif Iqbal, Majid Khan, Imran Khan and Zaheer Abbas, all accomplished professionals and happily dominating the county scene then.

We thought we had the added advantage of having the Maharaja of Baroda as our manager. He was exceptionally popular in Pakistan. He would often have the privilege of two adjacent suites, with “DND (Do Not Disturb”) signs outside both, and the man would not be inside at all. Such were the vagaries of our highly protected social interactions.

We had never experienced anything like that on tours elsewhere. There were social “do’s” just about every evening, but did we ever see a charming feminine face? Our lads quickly became disillusioned with their macho images. And on the cricket field we were destined to be even more disillusioned.

There is no doubt that we were up against a better and more determined home team. What took us by a much greater surprise was extreme hostility from the public and the media — and the umpires, if I may say so.

Lest I sound like a bad loser, let me assure all and sundry that we were comprehensively beaten by a much superior team. If the overall cricket environment did not suit us or our frame of mind, well, it was not supposed to. Much was expected from the spin quartet but sadly, we bowled below par collectively.

Not for a moment would I like to take away the brilliance of Zaheer Abbas, Javed Miandad and Imran Khan, who were all peaking gloriously against a listless Indian unit.

I reckon we might have taken our PM Morarji Desai’s dictum of “goodwill” a shade too seriously.

But I do remember after the Sahiwal fiasco, telling the Manager that he should invite Morarji bhai to lead the Indian squad in Pakistan. It was well nigh impossible to keep politics away from our cricket conversations and much to our chagrin, Pakistanis looked down upon us with utter disdain. We had never experienced such all round scorn on a cricket tour before.

Meeting General Zia

My personal plus was getting to know Gen Zia-ul-Haq from close quarters. He was as grim a dictator as they come, but I was able to strike a humane understanding with him with sheer humour.

I met Gen. Zia many years later in Jaipur. He had piled himself on the Indian government in the name of cricket diplomacy. I was sitting in the press box when I got a call to see Gen. Zia in his crowded security cordon. He hugged me warmly and then remarked, “Bedi Sahib, you have greyed so much.” To which my response was fairly spontaneous — “Gen., you must grey when you grow old unless you happen to be the President of India.”

I’ve seen quite a few India-Pakistan series subsequently, both in India and in Pakistan, but I can’t think of one which did not have the blessings of the political bosses. That to my mind is the biggest drawback cricket must suffer now and for as long as the game is dependent on political clearances. There is no such constraint in an England-Australia cricket contest. Hence, my vote to the Ashes for being a far superior sporting encounter.

(Bishan Singh Bedi was India’s captain on the 1978 tour to Pakistan.)

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