India vs Pakistan, a has-been marquee clash

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A rivalry that was fuelled by geopolitical factors and an aspirational patriotism found voice on the cricket field, the India v Pakistan match-up has had all its vibrancy sucked out of it through the siphon of sheer one-sided domination.

The India-vs-Pakistan tussle has done a complete 180 in the recent past. This means you will look stupid if you continue to buy into the traditional hype and passion that has been built around it.

Dear reader, if you’re an Indian cricket fan, unless you’ve been living under a rock you must have spent much of the previous Sunday watching the much-hyped India vs Pakistan match at the 2019 ICC World Cup. The pre-match buzz from both sides of the border drummed up quite a crescendo, but the match itself turned out to be one-way traffic, a dud of a contest. Following the outbursts and self-deprecating remarks from passionate supporters of the Pakistan cricket team reminded me of a time when a bad performance from India would evoke similar emotions in me — not anymore. Of course, it helps that India won this match. After an utterly clinical performance from the Men in Blue, I wondered if it was fair to call it a rivalry anymore, and hence the time is right for reflection.

If you are in the mid-30s as I am, and have grown up watching and supporting the Indian team through the dark days of the 1990s as I have, this might resonate with you. This post is also a departure from the usual commentary and analytical posts that we write up for this portal on a regular basis; this is a post that is more personal in nature — built on recounting how my feelings and attitude towards this rivalry have shifted over time. Right now, in my mind, India-Pakistan matches have lost their traditional potency or relevance, and I have moved on from getting hung up on this match-up.

It wasn’t always like this, of course. Back in the 1990s, when I was growing up, India was clearly the inferior team. Out of the 45 ODI matches played against the neighbour, it won only 17 — a W/L ratio of 0.61 or a Win% of 37.7%, you choose. Although, to strip this contest to mere numbers would be an enormous disservice to the context in which these matches were played.

Although most of my adult life was spent in South India, which is far removed from the horrors of the aftermath of the Partition and subsequent wars, Pakistan was always known as the enemy country — the country that represented so many things that India wasn’t: it had a state religion, for instance; democracy wasn’t a given; and in a cricketing context, on a note of neat symmetry, it had the kind of players that India hadn’t — great fast bowlers. This also has to be seen from the backdrop of geopolitics; both India and Pakistan had gravitated towards the embrace of superpowers on the other side of the Cold war (though both were officially non-aligned).

And for a long time, it seemed as if India, the poster-child of the third world, had chosen the wrong side. India was the underconfident, chubby kid that hadn’t been part of the gang of cool kids in school. Pakistan, the smaller more-nimble nation had its house in order in the 1980s, or so it seemed. In the words of Amrit Mathur, former India team manager and BCCI administrator:

Telephones worked. One could simply pick up the phone and connect cross-country, as if making a local call back in India. Press boxes in Pakistan's World Cup venues were well-equipped with telephones and telexes, and there was plenty of food, because the hospitality in Pakistan is always a notch above that in other countries. There was another first in Pakistan. In the press box at the National Stadium in Karachi, an attendant went about distributing bottled “mineral” water to working journalists. I remember being unsure of whether, as co-hosts, India had progressed that far.

 

Our size seemed our biggest disadvantage. Millions of brains and twice as many hands but as many hungry stomachs to feed. A per-capita income that was much smaller than that of the people next door. But there is an upside to having a neighbour. It gives you a reference point that you can use as a yardstick, a motivating factor; call it sibling rivalry, by another name; or cue in a thousand “Sharma ji ka beta” memes.

 

My father, who only rarely watched television was suddenly motivated to impulsively buy a big TV — in a show of one-upmanship — because he ran into his neighbour who had recently purchased a new TV at the local electronics dealer. We got a bigger and better TV — never mind that I was in the all-crucial tenth standard. Maybe I should have tried to arrange a meeting between them earlier instead of badgering my dad to visit the local dealer to check out the various models?

The cricket on the field was a barometer of the national mood. India was a middling team with one world-class, all-weather performer. And yet, we would choose to berate him for ‘not doing enough’ and failing to take the team across the line. Why? We knew that the others weren’t as capable of moving the needle as he was, so we pinned all our hopes on this one man. And since we didn’t know better and had little else to cling on to, cricket became an outlet for our hopes and aspirations. Watching India-Pakistan matches, especially at Sharjah (that too on a Friday) meant bracing yourself for ritual humiliation.

Period

Matches

Won

Lost

W/L Ratio

Win %

1978-1986

 16

8

7

1.142

50

1986-2003

69

21

45

0.466

30.43

2003-2019

47

26

21

1.238

55.32

 

Much has been spoken about Miandad’s immortal six in 1986, about how it was a body blow to India’s cricketing self-belief and confidence; Pakistan became India’s cricketing nemesis, and looking at the above record, it certainly seemed justified. India’s victories against much stronger Pakistani teams in the World Cups of the 1990s seemed like an aberration — a pleasant surprise, even. And knowing all this, it wouldn’t be hard to understand why Venkatesh Prasad’s reply to Aamir Sohail meant so much to Indian fans; it was a rare occasion on which an Indian player stood up to the opponent and walked the talk — never mind it came from a player who boasted half a dozen more slower balls than a tall, strapping fast bowler would like to boast about. You wouldn’t grudge us for gleefully bursting firecrackers after every (rare) Indian victory. The situation demanded it.

Things suddenly changed on 1st March 2003 when Sachin Tendulkar upper-cut Shoaib Akhtar over third man for six. Though it wasn’t a decisive blow, the hex of Miandad’s six was finally lifted and India have not looked back since. Though India did lose matches and series to Pakistan after that, it didn’t seem catastrophic. And after 2005, India has had a W/L record of 1.8, dominating Pakistan for all intents and purposes. The shoe was suddenly on the other foot — apart from a few high-profile losses (2009 and 2017 Champions Trophy matches come to mind). In fact, India and Pakistan haven’t played as often over the last decade; if they had, I’m pretty sure India would have turned the overall record in its favour from the present 73-55 (in favour of Pakistan).

And suddenly, the point of reference to which we compared ourselves to shifted. We weren’t looking at what the neighbour was up to. We stopped obsessing against Pakistan and focussed on ourselves instead. Not playing matches against Pakistan may have added to this (in the current ODI squad, only Dhoni has played test matches against Pakistan) as they had no point of reference. Virat Kohli’s quote before the match summed up the attitude best:

“We're not focusing on the opposition, so for us no-one's a threat. For us, no one player matters more than the other for us. It's about going into the park as the Indian cricket team and taking on whichever team is in front of us…”

Sure, India will surely lose matches to Pakistan in the future. There are going to be days when the Indian team will be bad. But I am a lot more secure within my own self right now than I was twenty years ago, when I had to use the crutch of a game result to prop up my self-esteem. And just like that, by moving on from the past, the India-Pakistan contest has become what it should always have been from the start — a cricket match.

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