India-Pakistan: When sport becomes war

Last Updated: Tue, Jun 20, 2017 10:12 hrs
India and Pakistan fans watch the Champions Trophy group game side by side (AFP Image)

Every time India plays Pakistan, you know a few things will happen: pictures of the players of the two teams laughing and joking with each other will go viral (and posing with each other’s babies is even handier); videos of fans of the two teams dancing and mock-fighting before the match will be shared; banter on social media will turn steadily bitter; noises will be made about all of us being “one people”; once the match is over, fans of each team will congratulate the winning one and express their condolences to the losing one; the match will be a damp squib.

As someone who does not associate patriotism with sport, and who has no feelings of love or hostility towards either team – I do have a problem with my tax money being used to reward cricketers who are much richer than I because they brought back a shiny trophy – I don’t quite understand the sentiments that surround such a clash.

But it amuses and irritates me in equal measure.

For one thing, the pre-game hype raises hopes of a thoroughly exciting match going down to the wire. But I can count on the fingers of one hand the matches that have actually been decided on the last ball – actually, I can count on the fingers of half a hand. So great is the burden of expectations that one of the teams invariably folds under the pressure. When catches are dropped and chances are missed, the ghost of match-fixing stares down at all of us.

The fact that the two teams only meet in four international tournaments and don’t play bilateral series anymore, in addition to the exclusion of Pakistani cricketers from the IPL, cannot but abnormalise relations between the players of the two teams.

Because cricketing ties between the teams ended in the wake of the Mumbai terror attack of 2008, and Pakistan all but stopped hosting cricket events in the country after the attack on the Sri Lankan team in 2009, the world has trouble dissociating cricket from terrorism.

The toxicity becomes far worse when celebrities with large followings on social media indulge in their brands of jingoism.

Rishi Kapoor, who has become something of an expert at shoving both his feet into his mouth in 140 characters or less, wrote magnanimously that he was all right with the Indian team losing, just as long as Pakistan kept its terrorism to itself.

Virender Sehwag, whose post-retirement antics on social media have lost him most of the respect he earned for his cricketing skill, was vocal too, resorting to his usual invocation of the “baap” wordplay. This time, the match happened to be on Father’s Day, and Sehwag predictably would not let go.

Naturally, both got trolled by hordes of Pakistani cricket fans once the final was over.

In the middle of all the bitterness, PML(N)’s official Twitter account chose to point out that Nawaz Sharif had been the Pakistani Prime Minister both during the 1992 World Cup victory and this one.

But the unintentional comic relief hardly made up for the acrimony that preceded the match.

And acrimony has preceded every match between the two sides.

Before their World Cup clash in 2015, the ad “Mauka Mauka”, pointing out India’s victories against Pakistan throughout the tournament’s history, played constantly.

Having watched cricket through the Nineties, I remember the rage that would greet cricketers of each team when they lost against the other – their houses would be picketed, even tarred; fans would scream angry slogans in the street; their families had to go into hiding.

And when they won, you would think each member of the squad had individually saved the world from alien invasion.

Morons across the country to which the winning team belonged would burst firecrackers through the night.

Perhaps it’s a good thing they don’t play each other too often anymore.

No one should have to deal with such extreme emotions that every mistake on the field is interpreted as evidence of match-fixing.

When a sport becomes a quasi-war, it loses all appeal.

And for all the show of generosity by the fans of the losing team, and the graciousness by fans of the winning team, to the neutral observer, the camaraderie seems forced.

Perhaps it would help if the fans remembered that the men battling each other are wearing team jerseys, not army uniforms.

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Nandini is a journalist and humour writer based in Madras. She is the author of Hitched: The Modern Woman and Arranged Marriage. 

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