India’s heart-breaking loss to Australia in the 2003 World Cup final had at least one perk — no calls from office the next day and time to explore Johannesburg. Shahid Hashmi, a seasoned reporter from Pakistan, had been a fellow traveller on the month-and-a-half-long journey across South Africa — sharing media-box space, late night cabs, takeaways and press conference quotes. He too was finally faarigh. Free.
With him wanting to shop for his sons, we ended up at a crowded merchandise outlet where heavily discounted official World Cup team shirts were flying off the shelves. I cut through the crowd first, and almost instinctively, turned to Shahid bhai and pointed to the Pakistan section with green jerseys. He moved towards the hangers with India blues, and said, “Kyon bhai, hamare bachche Tendulkar ki T-shirt nahin pehen sakte (Why? Can’t our kids wear Tendulkar T-shirts?).”
No amount of essential reading on Pakistan, and certainly not the narrative back home, would have prepared me for the reaction. On the last day of my very first foreign assignment, I got to know our neighbours better and saw through the farce played out in the lead-up to the games between the two great cricketing nations.
On big India-Pakistan match days, like today, when most news channels in both the countries turn into war rooms, and some walk the extra mile to hold dog-fight debates at Wagah border, the Shahid bhais of the sub-continent go unrepresented. Even former players, rivals but friends, indulge in juvenile one-upmanship.
It’s also when foreign correspondents in Islamabad and New Delhi file mood copies with lines such as: “The fierce nuclear rivals who have fought several wars are a melting pot of noise and colours of all hue.” In distant non-cricketing lands, these dispatches — invariably headlined ‘War minus guns’ — further underline the cliche called the subcontinent. Peacocks, carpets, rugs, Taj, butter chicken, pashmina and neighbours who can’t stand each other.
Having been at several of these much-hyped games for close to two decades, I can say that the bitterness and toxicity that the millions are fed don’t emblematise the behaviour of the thousands in the stands and the 22 on the field. The scenes at the stadium are very different from the ones scripted, second-guessed and transmitted from the television studios.
Those pre- and post-match stadium vox populi, the staple for all channels and the alleged mood-meter, are a scam. A day before the 2015 India-Pakistan World Cup game at Adelaide, a fellow-reporter and I had hung around the venue. A biggish group of fans asked if the cricketers were still training. Few wore India colours, others had Pakistan written on them. They seemed like family friends on an outing.
The eager bunch couldn’t believe their luck, when they got spotted by cameras. Soon they were neatly divided into two groups based on the shirts. To our amusement, in a matter of minutes, the happy bunch turned into blood-thirsty fans letting out battle cries. Once the cameras were off, they all got into one big van and were busy calling home, in India and Pakistan, to inform their relatives about the telecast timing of their act.
Even during the game, without the spotlight, the stands stay mostly civil. There is rigorous flag-waving, sometimes finger wagging, rarely any further transgression.
Much as TV channels want the stadium to be a tinderbox, on the ground, the India-Pak matches have the same intensity of any Sunday tennis ball cricket game — few tiffs, few abuses and lots of laughs.
The one picture that dispelled many myths was from the 2017 Champions Trophy final. It was the game where Pakistan thrashed India. At the trophy ceremony, Virat Kohli, Yuvraj Singh, Shoaib Malik and coach Azhar Mahammod seemed to be having a collective bout of laughter. Here were old friends with common culture, language and humour cracking up on a Malik joke. In contrast, angst-ridden fans of the two nations were drawing red circles — labelled “mujrims (culprits)” — on the cricketers who were treating a game of cricket the way it needed to be. The bonds between the nations that were undivided are too old and strong.
During the 2015 World Cup, after interviewing Pakistan wicket-keeper Sarfaraz Ahmed, I asked him to pose for a picture. “Achha kheenchna, India mein mere maamu rehte hein, dekh kar bahut khush honge (Click a sharp picture, my uncle stays in India, he will be very happy to see it),” he had said. He would share the maamu’s number in Etawah.
Over the years, the maamu has stayed in touch, but on India-Pakistan days, he remains confused about what to say.
When cricketers from across the border are made to look like enemies at the gate, even their relatives on this side, or genuine cricketing fans of world cricket’s unpredictable but entertaining team, can’t even afford to stay neutral.
At the stadium, it’s different. It’s a bubble where a cricket nut can be non-partisan without being judged. Unlike political sparring, the cricket games are evolved engagements. If only our politicians were statesmen, they would have worked towards preserving this clear line of communication.
When the AAP’s Atishi Marlena and AIMIM’s Asaduddin Owaisi joined a few second-rung BJP politicians urging India to boycott the Pakistan game, you feared mixing sports and politics was finding a dangerous consensus.
You thought these sharp young politicians — one academically rich and other a one-time university pacer — would know better. India-Pakistan are no Serbia-Croatia football games of the past where ultras burn flags on terraces and the violence would spill onto streets. Fans from the sub-continent don’t turn up for cricket games wearing leather gloves lined with pointed pellets or baseball clubs wrapped under flags. Trust me, it’s mainly tasty theplas and paranthas rolled in a silver foil.
P.S: 18 years later, Shahid bhai’s son still treasures the Tendulkar jersey, and like always, he will be supporting Pakistan today.
📣 The Indian Express is now on Telegram. Click here to join our channel (@indianexpress) and stay updated with the latest headlines