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Saturday, May 08, 2021

India vs Pakistan: A song of ice and fire… or water?

Buoyed by the recent head-to-head record and strong side, India’s mantra is ‘keep calm and carry on’. Under pressure Pakistan, however, will be psyched up and going for the jugular. That is, if the heavens permit the money match in Manchester today

Written by Sriram Veera | Manchester |
Updated: June 16, 2019 6:33:10 pm
Groundstaff cover the Old Trafford Cricket Ground in Manchester on Saturday before the India vs Pakistan clash on Sunday (AP Photo)

Former Pakistan pacer Aaqib Javed narrates a story about bowling to Viv Richards for the first time. It’s a rave about Imran Khan’s captaincy, but also reveals Pakistan cricket’s ecosystem. Sensing Aaqib was nervous, Imran told him, “Maaro b******d ko bouncer”. The effect on Aaqib was startling: “After that I started to feel like a lion”.

Conventional wisdom says that you need to stay calm to handle high-pressure games. Pakistan don’t do such banality. Therefore, Mickey Arthur, Pakistan’s South African coach, has told his players: “It doesn’t get bigger than this, doesn’t get more exciting. I am telling the players that you could be a hero tomorrow. Your careers are going to be defined by a moment in the game. You do something incredible; you will be remembered forever.” Basically, talking up the game, using pressure as an inspiration. Arthur knows that all that piffle about trying to keep them calm isn’t the Pakistan way.

No wonder, in their last game against India in an ICC tournament — the two teams have played each just once after that — when Hasan Ali tried to be calm and subdued in the 2017 Champions Trophy final, thinking it would help, Sarfraz Ahmed shouted at him: “Calm sab chodd de, bhaag!”

There is a story how MS Dhoni told his team-mates not to celebrate after beating Ricky Ponting’s men in Australia. He even coached Rohit Sharma how to shake hands with the Aussies — firm, don’t show joy, stay calm. The idea was to show the Australians this wasn’t a big deal but just another day at work. No wonder then that a day before the biggest game of the World Cup, Virat Kohli went the opposite way to Arthur. “It’s to understand that the game starts tomorrow at certain time and it finishes at a certain time, so it’s not going to last a lifetime for you, whether you do well or you don’t. The tournament doesn’t finish tomorrow.”

Arthur talking about a moment lasting a lifetime; Kohli saying the world doesn’t end tomorrow. Extremely different ways of handling a pressure game; effectively tailored to each team’s philosophy. The Indians staying calm suits their team, Pakistan ratcheting it up suits their psyche.

Read | India vs Pak: People across border united in biggest worry: will weather hold?

For all the firebrand presence of Kohli, India are a pretty calm and collected unit. Dhoni gets excited only in advertisements (or, lately, in IPL matches). Mumbai Indians’ captaincy has calmed Rohit Sharma and matured him a great deal. KL Rahul, unless he is on a chat show, likes to keep a lid on his emotions. Vijay Shankar, the possible middle-order inclusion, isn’t the over-the-top kinds. Hardik Pandya comes with a combustible tag, but he is one of the more composed big-hitters out there. Perhaps, he thinks it’s cool to be like that. Hit and swagger down the track. In other words, this team should be okay on Sunday. Serenity, now, is India’s way, and it makes sense to try to continue living in that bubble.

Pakistan, on the other hand, are different. They can get too mellow and almost self-defeating if they try to play things down. Hence, Arthur’s urges to go for the jugular. As for us, the Indian watchers, how have India-Pakistan matches turned in character in the last few decades? There was that Miandad six moment in the ‘80s, of course. But for someone from that generation, the last straw that broke the camel’s back, the one that dispelled any notion that Miandad’s game might have been one-off and matches against Pakistan don’t have to be fretted about, came when Salim Malik pulled off an even bigger heist.

Malik’s robbery came after Miandad’s, and it happened at home, in Kolkata. Malik carted, carved and sliced India to a loss. Those two games combined to make the ‘80s generation look at the ‘90s warily. That premonition wasn’t misplaced as until nearly the end of that decade, an Indian win retained surprise. Things rapidly changed in the 21st century. Captured perfectly by Wasim Akram’s jest about the highlights of games shown on Indian television during his frequent recent visits to India: “Hum ney bhi bahut jeete hain, bhai! They only show the recent years!”

Pakistan coach Mickey Arthur has told his players that Sunday’s match against India is an opportunity for them to enter cricketing folklore. AP

The complexion of the teams changed. Pakistan lost quite a few big names and India surged ahead not just against Pakistan but in world cricket. Where the ‘80s and ‘90s games against Pakistan prepared you for rejections, the subsequent triumphal decades delivered abundance.

It’s a sentiment that’s shared by Pakistani fans in England. “India ka palda bhaari hai,” they say about India’s dominance. But of course, they all believe that Pakistan retain that indefinable part in their psyche which can push them to create magic.

“That unpredictability tag always sort of hangs around that makes us very exciting. I don’t particularly like when commentators talk about, oh it depends which Pakistan team turns up today, because as coach we prepare these guys exceptionally well every time. But we are exciting,” Arthur said.

Would the weather allow us a game, though? Friday afternoon was dry, infusing hope in one and all, and it only rained later in the evening. Saturday too dawned bright and dry, but there was drizzle in the afternoon. There is forecast of light rain with sunny spells on Sunday, but the possibility of an ironical end to the much-awaited game remains.

Not that it has dampened the fans’ mood. As a Pakistani cabbie put it: “Theek hai na, baarish hua toh hua, (if it rains, it rains, its fine). Maybe the two teams can meet in the final.”

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