The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- The popular mood around Indo-Pak cricket seems to have changed

In a lifetime as a cricket fan, my most depressing experience was watching the World Cup quarter-final played between India and Pakistan in Bangalore in March 1996. The match itself was thrilling, but the quality of the cricket ' and the cricketers ' was soured by the behaviour of the crowd. This was shamelessly partisan, ever willing to shout and cheer for the home side, but bitterly hostile towards the opponents. Every stroke in a magnificent opening stand between Saeed Anwar and Amir Sohail was greeted by a deafening silence. A lovely cameo by the wicket-keeper-batsman, Rashid Latif ' in the course of which he played two of the finest cricket shots it has been my privilege to witness ' got the same sullen treatment. Evidently, the feelings of the people at the Chinnaswamy stadium were shared by the citizens of the city as a whole. At the match's end, there was a naked display of jingoistic sentiment on the streets of Bangalore, motor-cyclists running round and round waving the tricolour, big bullies stopping cars and forcing their drivers to shout: 'Bharat Mata ki jai!'.

India won that match, but it had been a close-run thing. Although they had posted a total in excess of 280, the Pakistanis made a valiant effort to overhaul it. In the early evening, as Anwar and Sohail were blazing away, the shopkeepers in the heart of the city downed their shutters and went home. This was prudent, for had the home team lost there would have been hell to pay. The crowd would have come out of the stadium and vented their spleen on windows, doors, shops, homes, cars, buses et al. Their behaviour might then have sparked a wider conflagration, perhaps even a religious riot.

Two years later, India played Pakistan again in a one-day match in Bangalore. This time India lost. Fortunately, it was a minor tournament, not the World Cup. Still, the crowd behaved appallingly, raining bottles down on the Pakistani players and stopping play for an extended period. Again, their feelings were apparently endorsed by the citizenry at large ' indeed, some angry louts went so far as to throw stones at Rahul Dravid's house.

In my book, A Corner of a Foreign Field, I explored the passions evoked by cricketing encounters between India and Pakistan. I wrote there at much greater length about the 1996 Bangalore match, as well as of the time the two teams met in the 1999 World Cup at Manchester, while the armies of the two countries fought one another on the snows of Kargil. I spoke of how in both countries cricket had become the prime vehicle of nationalist sentiment. I underlined how sporting ties had become implicated in wider politi- cal controversies, such that Indian fans saw Pakis- tan cricketers as being kin with terrorists in Kashmir, and Pakistani fans saw Indian cricketers as being of the same family as the viciously anti-Muslim sangh parivar.

In retelling the history of Indo-Pak cricket, my conclusions were unredeemingly negative. I complained that Indians had come to see 'cricket matches with Pakistan in military terms'; indeed, that 'a loss to Pakistan at cricket is sometimes harder to bear than a loss on the battlefield'. I noted that on the other side the feelings were the same, that in Pakistan too a mere sport had become captive to extreme nationalistic feeling. I claimed that the cricketing/political rivalry between India and Pakistan had 'produced a destructive passion unparalleled in the history of sport'. I quoted the Sri Lankan political journal, Pravada, which had expressed its shock at the 'crudely militaristic metaphors and imagery used so freely [in the Indian and Pakistani press] to describe what happens on the playground'. George Orwell had once claimed that international sport was 'war minus the shooting'. But, said Pravada, when India played Pakistan at cricket it was 'war minus the nuclear missiles'.

My book was published as recently as 2002. But the words I quoted from Pravada, as well as some of the words I used myself, already seem out-of-date. For the last two cricketing series between India and Pakistan have been played in a refreshingly friendly spirit. In 2004, India defeated Pakistan in Pakistan; a result met with a surprising absence of resentment by the home fans. In 2005, Pakistan defeated India in a test match in Bangalore. Unlike in 1998, no stone or bottle was thrown in anger; on the contrary, the visitors were cheered on and off the field.

What explains this change in the popular mood' Why is it that fans on either side of the border no longer see this as war by proxy, but are willing to accept the result of a cricket match as exactly that, a result of a cricket match' Perhaps the answers lie as much in changes in the political environment as in the purely sporting one. There has been a diminution in terrorist violence in Kashmir, and some serious effor- ts at a peace dialogue. On the other side, the Bharatiya Janata Party is out of power, and the dangers of In- dia becoming a Hindu state have receded.

In this new atmosphere, sporting exchanges can take place more freely than before. Between 1961 and 1978, there were no cricket matches between India and Pakistan. In the Eighties and Nineties, they met more often in other countries ' such as Sharjah and Canada ' than in the subcontinent. But with this current series, the two sides would have played each other thrice in three years ' and in each other's countries. Familiarity in this case has bred not contempt, but intimacy and empathy. When India and Pakistan played at Sharjah, fans saw players from the other side merely as abstractions on the TV screen. Now they see them as human beings in flesh and blood, eating the same food and singing the same songs as themselves.

I think it crucial here that these recent exchanges have involved tests as well as one-dayers. For the limited-overs game provokes extreme passions. When a single missed catch or a poor shot determines the outcome of a close match, the frustrated fan is more likely to demonize the opposition or chastize his own side. But in a drama that evolves subtly over five days, one usually knows that it is the 'better' side that has won. Here, an Indian can appreciate the art in a carefully crafted winning hundred by Inzamam-ul-Haq, or a Pakistani admire the skill and variety of Anil Kumble as he bowls forty overs to claim six wickets and take his team to victory.

The former test cricketer, Sanjay Manjrekar, adds one more reason for the change in attitudes. He thinks that with the economy (or at least the Sensex) booming, the Indian middle-class is more confident now of its place in the world. It no longer judges itself by how its cricket team does against Pakistan. This is an intriguing (if yet untested) hypothesis, although it still would not explain why the Pakistani fan is now better disposed towards Indian cricketers. When other Indian teams touring Pakistan were beaten hollow, how come their victories in the test and one-day series of 2004 were welcomed with grace and good cheer'

Whatever might or might not explain it, the transformation in the popular mood is certainly very welcome. But is it irreversible' My own gloomy portrait in A Corner of a Foreign Field was based on the evidence I saw unfolding before me in the Eighties and Nineties. But historians are not astrologers. Thus I comprehensively failed to anticipate the changes that were, as it were, just around the corner. I will not now attempt to predict how Indo-Pak cricket relations shall evolve in the next decade or so. We may yet be allowed to hope that the friendliness that marked the past two series is carried on through the present one, and beyond.

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