It’s not difficult to imagine that cricket’s multi-team tournaments exist simply to enable India and Pakistan to play a mini-series within these. The 50-over and T20 World Cups, Asia Cup, Champions Trophy are about India playing Pakistan, and then some teams playing some other teams. Exaggeration? Perhaps.
At the 50-over World Cup in 2007, India and Pakistan, placed in separate groups, failed to qualify for the Super Eight league. Television in particular and the administrators in general felt it would be unwise to take such chances in future.
India and Pakistan are now usually placed together thus ensuring at least one meeting, and with the possibility of a second in the following round. At the Asia Cup in the UAE it could mean yet another contest on Sunday if the teams make it to the final. That’s a three-match series (now tied 1-1) between the Asian giants — it’s as if the other teams are merely the supporting acts in the grand opera that is an India-Pakistan series.
What a mouth-watering prospect for television, the administration, the public, advertisers and the media! Monetising passion is television’s way of paying a tribute to sports.
India (world No. 1) and Pakistan (No. 3) are the top two sides in Asia. They might have been fielded in different halves, as happens in Wimbledon tennis, for example, or any number of other tournaments. The top two are generally seeded so they meet in the final, but that’s seen as old-fashioned in cricket with its many leagues of three or four or six or eight teams at various stages in a single tournament.
Having an India-Pakistan encounter a couple of times before the final means that a tournament is guaranteed a couple of peaks, and no matter the troughs. The matches themselves might not amount to much — although at the Asia Cup they have been closely-fought — but the idea alone is sufficient for a buzz to accompany the tournament.
It is not the sort of buzz that an India-Sri Lanka encounter or an Australia-South Africa one carries. There are historical reasons for this, as well as contemporary political ones. An India-Pakistan encounter fosters the feeling that the winning side is superior in all ways — in politics, culture, religion and in the way rogan josh is cooked. Politicians on both sides of the divide encourage such notions. It is a useful weapon in their armoury.
Impact of history and politics
Sporting contests have an edge when history and politics are intertwined with them. The West Indies great Viv Richards has spoken often about how he felt he was speaking for the Blacks when he played. In the 1976 series, England captain Tony Greig said he would make the West Indies ‘grovel’, which was especially derogatory coming from a player born in South Africa (then under apartheid rule). Richards took that personally, and made over 800 runs in the series including two double centuries. And a phalanx of fast bowlers was unleashed on England.
When Australia play England in the Ashes or a white-ball series, they are a former colony trying to make a point about being as good as if not better than those who once ruled them. New Zealand taking on Australia are conscious of a smaller neighbour trying to match up to one which has been condescending to them and even dismissive.
Perhaps there is an element of that in the India-Pakistan rivalry too. One of the greatest New Zealand-born cricketers, Clarrie Grimmett, played for Australia. Former India captain Gulabrai Ramchand was born in Karachi (before Partition).
Things change, feelings of inadequacy or superiority dissipate with time and more interaction, while political and economic churnings take away (or add to) some of the emotions in any exchange.
India, once the least favourite country for cricketers to tour, is now the most exciting and the richest. Pakistan, once characterised by all-rounder Ian Botham as the country to send your mother-in-law to, have had bigger problems than Botham’s sense of humour (or lack thereof) to deal with.
For political reasons, India and Pakistan play each other only in multi-team tournaments, thus investing their matches with an edge that comes from lack of regular meetings. Emotions pent up for longer than usual find release on the occasions when they do meet.
To act as if four teams are in the tournament just to make up the numbers is both unfair and untrue. But that’s what the India-Pakistan obsession does. Dropping a catch or giving away runs is seen as a national disaster as Arshdeep Singh found out in the last game and Mohammed Shami did in the World T20 when India lost to Pakistan last year. They were trolled mercilessly, their patriotism called into question.
There’s something about an obsession that destroys perspective. Indications are we are stuck with this for a while yet.