How they took away the spirit of my game - Hindustan Times
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How they took away the spirit of my game

Oct 05, 2023 09:56 PM IST

For a genuine cricket romantic, the toxic atmosphere in an India-Pakistan match has robbed the sport of its purity

War Minus the Shooting” is the rather prescient title of a fine book on the 1996 cricket World Cup by an American journalist, Mike Marqusee. Twenty-seven years later, India-Pakistan cricket is more “war-like” than ever before. At least in 1996, three sub-continental nations — India, Pakistan, and eventual surprise winners, Sri Lanka — jointly hosted the World Cup; today that’s an unthinkable prospect. Instead, the build-up to the India-Pakistan cricket match is tied into ever-escalating competitive jingoism on both sides of the border.

Ahmedabad: (L-R) Bangladesh's captain Shakib Al Hasan, Sri Lanka's Dasun Shanaka, South Africa's Tembba Bavuma, New Zealand's Kane Williamson, India's Rohit Sharma, Pakistan's Babar Azam, England's Jos Buttler, Australia's Pat Cummins, Afghanistan's Hashmatullah Shahidi, and Netherlands' Scott Edwards pose for photos with World Cup trophy during the Captains' Day event ahead of ICC Cricket World Cup 2023, in Ahmedabad, Wednesday.(PTI)
Ahmedabad: (L-R) Bangladesh's captain Shakib Al Hasan, Sri Lanka's Dasun Shanaka, South Africa's Tembba Bavuma, New Zealand's Kane Williamson, India's Rohit Sharma, Pakistan's Babar Azam, England's Jos Buttler, Australia's Pat Cummins, Afghanistan's Hashmatullah Shahidi, and Netherlands' Scott Edwards pose for photos with World Cup trophy during the Captains' Day event ahead of ICC Cricket World Cup 2023, in Ahmedabad, Wednesday.(PTI)

That the marquee match-up of the World Cup is being held in Ahmedabad is a sign of the times. This is a city whose politics has been dominated by the sangh parivar over the last three decades, where Hindu-Muslim riots in 2002 deeply scarred and divided communities, where religious identity has created visible “borders” within a metropolis. Ahmedabad has the biggest cricket stadium in the world named after Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi, a leader who has come to symbolise muscular Hindutva nationalism. In the worldview of many strident Hindutva nationalists, Pakistan is the arch “enemy country”, one that must be isolated and defeated at all costs.

Not surprisingly, in the decade since the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power at the Centre with a majority of its own, India has consciously chosen to limit sporting contact with Pakistan. The official line is clear: Cross-border terror and cricket cannot go together. Interestingly, it was a BJP PM, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, whose coalition government green flagged an Indian tour to Pakistan in 2004, a hugely successful visit on and off the field. In the six years that Vajpayee was in power, the two countries went to a bloody war in Kargil, there was an audacious attack on the Indian Parliament and no let-up in terror activities in the Kashmir Valley. Yet, Vajpayee was willing to take the risk of an Indian cricket tour to Pakistan in the hope that sporting ties might bring a semblance of “normalcy” to a very complex relationship with a hostile neighbour.

The Modi government lives under no such illusions. After the PM’s surprise invite to his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif to attend his swearing-in ceremony in 2014 and then an unplanned visit to Lahore in December 2015, terror attacks in Pathankot and Uri in 2016 signalled the end of “jhappi” (hug) diplomacy. By abandoning a long-held policy of strategic restraint with the post-Uri surgical strikes to boasting “ghar mein ghuskar mara” (we hit them in their home) after the post-Pulwama Balakot operation, the Modi government’s approach to Pakistan has moved now from belligerence to a frozen status quo of minimal engagement.

If Pulwama was the last straw for New Delhi, then the decision to revoke Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir in August 2019 prompted Islamabad to downgrade diplomatic ties and suspend trade relations. Cricket has predictably been caught in the crosshairs since. When Pakistan hosted the Asia Cup this year, the Indian cricket board made it clear that the men in blue would not travel across the border. Initially, Pakistan threatened not to travel to India for the World Cup as a retaliatory step, only to eventually agree to a “hybrid” model by which the two teams played each other in Sri Lanka and now will face off in Ahmedabad.

The outcome from this fracas reveals the asymmetrical nature of the power equations between the two countries. The cash-rich Indian board calls the shots in world cricket while the Pakistan cricket board, after years of international ostracism following a terror attack on a Sri Lankan team bus, has little choice but to fall in line. Moreover, the Asian Cricket Council is headed by Jay Shah, the son of Union home minister Amit Shah, who has strong-armed the Pakistan authorities into accepting his terms. In a sense, the Modi government’s imprimatur on Indian cricket is obvious in the board’s tough-on-Pakistan line.

Which is also why the much-awaited Ahmedabad match-up will be as much a political battleground as it is a cricketing one, driven by mutual antagonisms. The recent week-long encounter with Lashkar terrorists in Anantnag is a stark reminder that the Pakistani army-ISI deep State has not abandoned its support to terror groups. That the Pakistan board chief, Zaka Ashraf rather undiplomatically referred to India as “dushman mulk” (enemy country) won’t help ease tensions either. Nor will recent incendiary anti-Muslim slurs unleashed by a ruling party Member of Parliament.

Against this backdrop, when the 22 players take the field, they are almost being pushed into the role of uniformed soldiers rather than cricketing heroes: Their willows are their guns, the white ball a bullet bowled in anger. In an ideal, more civilised world, this would be a classic cricket contest between bat and ball, between a Virat Kohli and a Shaheen Shah Afridi, a Jasprit Bumrah and a Babar Azam. Tragically, we live in more ominous times where a great game is trapped, as the high decibel TV promotionals suggest, in a gladiatorial-like atmosphere for “badla” (revenge) and “jung” (war) above all else. For a genuine cricket romantic, the toxic surround sound in an India-Pakistan match has robbed the sport of its purity. I, for one, won’t be travelling to Ahmedabad to watch it.

Postscript: Earlier this week, I saw a happier India versus Pakistan game where the Indian hockey team defeated Pakistan by a record 10-2 margin at the Asian Games. Having endured painful teenage memories of Pakistan thrashing us at hockey in the early ’80s, this was a moment, dare I say, of “sweet revenge”. Sports nationalism, even with its occasional dark sides, will always strike an emotional chord.

Rajdeep Sardesai is a senior journalist and author. The views expressed are personal

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