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The India-Pakistan rivalry is perhaps unmatched in any sport for the cocktail of emotion that flows during each game. As India faces Pakistan in the Asia Cup, Arunabha Sengupta looks back at the history of the contests and how they are inseparably intertwined with the histories of the two nations. Also Read - India Were Scared in T20 World Cup Match Against Pakistan: Inzamam-ul-Haq

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There are traditional Derbies in every sport.

Be it Celtics-Rangers, Real Madrid-Barcelona, Yankees-Red Sox, Lancashire-Yorkshire, All Blacks-Springbok — each showdown evokes sentiments and passion among fans that spill out of the normal sporting zone, even drenching the neutral observers with splashes of frenzied excitement.

Never in these encounters are outcomes simply about the points for winning, or advancement to the next round, or even triumph in the tournament. These are battles played as much on the field as in the variegated fan-memories, where the historical associations are relived and adjusted with each moment on the field, where the results determine the sense of well-being of entire groups, communities and nations.

And towering over all such rivalries stand the cricketing encounters between India and Pakistan.

Given the less-than-friendly political relationship between the two nations, divided by a historical tragedy and weaved together by language, culture and geography; it is natural that in the thought-scape of the fans a ball hurled down the pitch often resembles a ballistic missile, and the batsman at the other end conjures up the image of an armed and armoured soldier.

The two countries have accepted cricket as the vehicle for national honour. And with teeming fans passionate and excitable as no other, the atmosphere around the games tends to oscillate between simmering and aflame. For the home side, pressure becomes enormous — losing ceases to be an option. For the visitors, the battle stretches beyond the boundary, even further than the stands and television sets, often played out in the diplomatic high commissions.

Even when they have met in Sharjah, the ground used to be transformed into a fierce cauldron. No wonder the sides have seemed happier when playing in distant neutral venues of Toronto and Singapore, though there is no escaping their fans in those places as well.

The Indian hand in Pakistan cricket

It is perhaps strange to reflect that it was always not so — at least during the initial years when the Partition had already traced a virtual border with hordes of traumatised people migrating each way.

A scarcely known fact is that many still hoped that it would be possible to continue as one Test playing side, much like the West Indies. In fact, the team that toured Australia to play Don Bradman’s men in 1947-48 were selected from ‘undivided India’.

However, soon the communal problems, riots and turbulence made such collaboration impossible. By May 1949, the Board of Control for Cricket in Pakistan was formed. It is another curious fact that it was the Indian Board that pushed for Pakistan’s admission to the Test fold to the Imperial Cricket Conference – as the International Cricket Council (ICC) was then known. The Indian Board went further than that. When the inflexible Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC) resisted the addition of Pakistan as an official cricketing nation, the friendly neighbours ensured that visiting teams to India played unofficial matches in Pakistan. The proposal for admission was submitted again and again, till in 1952 the young nation became the seventh Test playing country in the history of cricket.

Old timers who played the inaugural series in 1952-53 in India and then participated in the reciprocal tour to Pakistan in 1954-55, have often maintained that the stakes were high even in those early days. It is definitely believable, given the immediate history between the two nations at that time.

However, the cricket was unusually defensive, the games often petering out into yawn-inducing draws. The atmosphere remained tense, but the cricketers were treated with dignity and honour, even affection. Cricket, in those early years, was aptly seen as a vehicle for fostering diplomatic ties, and there were proposals for regular tours and even integrated domestic competitions.

It all changed in 1956. The relations turned frosty with the chill emanating from the Cold War. Pakistan, geographically ideally located as the fulcrum of political tensions between the super powers, and with the additional ‘desirable’ attribute of military rule, became an auxiliary allyto the United States. On the other side of the border, India was the leading light of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) and extremely friendly with Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). This sparked at least as much tension as the history of riots and Partition.

The communal tensions were also inevitable. The two countries played out a series of draws in 1960-61. When Abbas Ali Baig failed in those Tests, his Muslim roots were brought into focus and his letter-box was swamped with hate mail. Very similar reactions greeted Syed Kirmani a decade and a half down the line.

Interestingly, when Baig had earlier scored an enthralling half century against the Australians at Bombay, a girl had run into the ground and planted a kiss on his cheek. This act of appreciation between a lady of Hindu origins and an Oxford-educated Muslim batsman was quite a significant event in the Indian history of cricket and country. This is discussed with some symbolic detail in Salman Rushdie’s The Moor’s Last Sigh.

The two countries went to war in 1965. At that time the captains of the two cricket teams, Mansoor Ali Khan Pataudi and Hanif Mohammad, were playing together for a Rest of the World side against England at Scarborough. The two men sent a joint telegram to both their governments: “We wish to express deep regrets at the war between India and Pakistan. We find unity on the cricket field by reaching for a common objective. We fervently hope both countries can meet and find an amicable solution.”

Those were different days when such joint appeals were permissible.

The nations fought again in 1971, and battles on the cricket field remained a distant dream.

When cricket was resumed between the two nations only in 1978, Bishan Singh Bedi’s side was massacred by the strong Pakistan team. Kapil Dev made his debut in this series. At the time of the Partition, Kapil’s parents had moved to India from Sahiwal. The young all-rounder contacted his distant family members during the visit. According to him, “It was a touching evening, but the next day it was back to ‘war’.” Yes, it was war. The people of both the nations hung on to every ball, national prestige depended on the outcome.

It was at the same Sahiwal that the Pakistan zeal to win was taken to the breaking point. With India requiring 23 from the last three overs to win the One-Day International (ODI) series, Sarfraz Nawaz continued to bowl high bouncers beyond the reach of batsmen and the umpires did not call wide. In spite of the acute diplomatic ties associated with the series, skipper Bishan Singh Bedi called his batsman in and conceded the match and series in a huff.

The following year, Pakistan visited India and were defeated with equal ruthlessness. The visiting captain Asif Iqbal lost his temper. It was the turn of Pakistan’s great all-rounder Imran Khan to sum up the situation as Kapil had done earlier. “From the moment we arrived it seemed as though the entire country had become a huge spotlight, trained solely on us. The relentless publicity, the huge partisan crowds in the jam-packed stadiums, the expectation of our own public — all this was too much for our own players.” After the loss, Imran said, “No Pakistani team has ever had to face such humiliation, collectively or individually.”

It was never just a game of cricket when the two sides played. It would never be.

Sharjah Showdowns

Cricket continued between the nations, and the 1980s saw an exchange as frequent as ever in the bilateral history. And the undercurrents of political and cultural relationships continued their own course. When the young Mohammad Azharuddin was not considered for the tour of Pakistan in 1982-83, it was due to reasons other than cricketing. Years later, Raj Singh Dungarpur confessed, “We felt it might handicap him to make his debut in a country where the culture so matched his own.” He was being shielded from the fate of Abbas Ali Baig and Syed Kirmani. The cricket policies and fans of the two nations had not really come too far from the Bombay Pentangulars of the pre-Independence days.

‘1 Muslim and 10 Hindus vs 1 Hindu and 10 Muslims’

The communal flavour was never too far away whenever the nations met. When India and Pakistan faced off in the final of the Benson and Hedges Cup in Australia in 1985, there were news items that described the two teams as one Muslim (Azharuddin) and 10 Hindus against one Hindu (Anil Dalpat) and 10 Muslims.

Between 1978 and 1990, India and Pakistan met in 29 Tests and many, many more ODIs.

In the Tests, when one side had obvious advantage in resources, as Pakistan did during the 1982 series, they went all out to win the series. However, otherwise, the matches were mostly drab, dry, defensive draws with neither team too intent on taking risks and inviting wrath for a loss.However, the high stakes often hit the diplomatic considerations for massive sixes. In 1986-87, Pakistan visited India on what General Zia-ul-Haq wanted to be an example of cricket diplomacy. However, a day’s play as lost in one of the Tests when captain Imran protested over sawdust sprinkled on the pitch. Aggressive appeals by the Pakistani players resulted in jeering from the crowd. In Ahmedabad and Bangalore there were incidents of missile-throwing at the Pakistan fielders. Life in both the countries came to absolute halt when the matches were played.

It was, however, the advent and importance of ODIs that changed the equation further between the two countries.

The Prudential Cup win of 1983 gave India the stamp of World Champions and reshaped the concept of cricket in the land, making it a symbol of national pride. ODIs were special for both the nations. One flaunted the status of World Champions, the other looked to defeating their arch-rivals in as many matches as possible. In this format there was no safety net of indecisive draws. Matches always had an outcome, with thousands of fans stacked in the stands and millions more looking on, following every delivery through television, radio, news bulletins and print. The contests grew into marquee features.

Not only did they play in the two countries, their regular face-offs in Sharjah were some of the most eagerly awaited moments in the calendar.

When Javed Miandad struck that six off Chetan Sharma’s off the last ball of the Austral-Asia Cup in 1986, the moment was epic on both sides of the border, immortalised through popular culture in both lands. In victorious Pakistan, Saleem Lodhi sang, “Sharjah ja chhakka kar gaye hukka-pukka” while in India, Amul released their new ad which proclaimed “Miyaan ki daad se Sharma gayi”.

It is fair enough to say that while Ashes went down as the biggest rivalry in Test cricket, the first major such rivalry in ODIs was between India and Pakistan. It was while describing these monumental tussles that the word ‘clash’ could be used in its truest sense.

The Wars and the World Cups

The showdowns continued through conflicts, crowd misbehaviour and tension at knife’s edge. Indian captain Krishnamachari Srikkanth was manhandled when the side toured Pakistan in 1989-90. The ODI at Karachi had to be discontinued because of crowd disturbance after Pakistan had been reduced to 28 for three. That would be the last time an Indian team would tour Pakistan for a full Test series till 2003-04.

The Hindutva fundamentalism in the early 1990s and the increasing problems in Kashmir ensured suspension of the sporting ties yet again. In 1990-91, Pakistan’s scheduled tour of India was called off after Shiv Sena activists vandalised the pitch at the Wankhede stadium. The neighbouring nation did not turn up in the Hero Cup hosted in India in 1993. From 1991 to 1994, India did not play in Sharjah – protesting against the growing anti-Indian bias in United Arab Emirates (UAE).

In between, the Pakistan won the World Cup held in Australia and New Zealand in 1992, but for India an otherwise miserable tournament was made memorable because of the triumph over their rivals in the group match. The on-pitch exchange between Javed Miandad and Kiran More remained one of the lasting images of the game.

In the 1990s, the teams met more often in the neutral venues, in Toronto, in Singapore. When the two sides met in Canada they played for the ‘Friendship Cup’. The names hardly helped the relationships across the border. The Kashmir situation worsened. And when the sides faced off in high voltage World Cup matches, the cricketing world stopped to take note.

The build-up to the World Cup quarter final showdown in 1996 at Bangalore reached epic proportions. In Indi, a Hero Honda filled an entire newspaper page with the message, “11 Heroes. 900 million people. One wish.” In Pakistan Shell brought out a similar ad with the words, “The Shell Standard — flying for Pakistan.” The night before the match, one soldier was killed and nine injured in a shootout along the Kashmir border.

In 1999, Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee journeyed on a historic visit to Pakistan. The visit resulted in the Pakistan side touring India for a Test series in 1998-99 — the first time the countries met for a Test match since 1989. Resuming cricketing ties was one of the diplomatic tools wielded to ensure peaceful negotiations. The political focus was severe enough to bring journalists from all over the world to cover the Test match at Chennai. There was even one reporter from Italy — the importance of the showdowns between the two countries had reached far beyond the confines of the cricketing world.

The Chennai crowd reacted in great spirit, cheering the visiting side after they had clinched a heart-stopping 12-run win in the Test. However, the inaugural Asian Test Championship match had to be shifted from Mumbai to Kolkata because of further vandalism of the pitch by Shiv Sena activists. When the two sides met at the Eden Gardens, ugly scenes were witnessed in the stadium after Sachin Tendulkar was given out under controversial circumstances.

The behaviour of the crowd had its roots much deeper than simple dissent at the decision. The literal and figurative flames that were lit around the stadium that day were fanned by plenty of tensions surrounding the current conflicts and age-old equations between the two countries.

The Kargil War brought a halt to the bilateral engagements yet again. The Indian soldiers at the front were elated by the news of India’s win against Pakistan in the World Cup game at Manchester.

The next time India toured Pakistan was in 2003-04, as a direct result of Prime Minister Vajpayee’s peace initiative of 2003. The cricketing ties were resumed after that. Pakistan visited in 2005, India in 2006 and Pakistan once again in 2007 before the Mumbai terrorist attacks of 2008 led to the cancellation of India’s planned tour in 2009. Soon, rising terrorism in Pakistan brought a grinding halt to all international cricket in the disturbed land. The attack on the Sri Lankan side in 2009 was the last straw. They have since then been forced to play their home matches in Dubai and even England.

The disturbances in the country led to Pakistan being stripped off the co-host status for the World Cup in 2011. However, when the two teams faced off at Mohali in the semi-final, the Indian government invited the Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani to watch the game along with his Indian counterpart Dr. Manmohan Singh.The diplomatic strings attached to the games have always been knotty and have created convoluted, conflicting connections between the nations.

As usual the atmosphere remained charged, the excitement unbearable and for hosts India losing was definitely not an option.

After the defeat, Pakistan captain Shahid Afridi returned to Pakistan and wondered aloud why there was such a lot of hatred in his country for Indians. The very next day, he retracted his former statement and issued significant anti-Indian remarks. It was proof enough that the two Prime Ministers could watch the match together to create a façade of fellow-feeling, but public pro-Indian statements were still not permissible on the other side of the border. Yes, the ties between the two neighbours are immensely complicated.

Since then bilateral ties have been resumed in staggered steps with the shorter formats, and future Test matches still seem distant. In the meantime the Pakistan cricketers have been restricted from biting into the financial sweet-spot of the cricketing world in the form of the Indian Premier League (IPL).

For more than half a century, whenever the countries have met down the years, emotions have run in turbulent flows, the pressure has been colossal and the stakes sky high. The fans have increasingly sat on proverbial edges of their seats and the extreme political groups have always had their fingers in the triggers. No sporting match-ups come remotely close in creating such an atmosphere.

Alluding to Britain’s wrangling with the rest of Europe over its beef exports, Mike Marqusee put it eloquently in War Minus the Shooting “Despite the Conservative government’s crass attempt to whip up a ‘beef war’ just before the Euro 96 football tournament, war between Britain and Germany remained laughably improbable. The same could not be said about India and Pakistan.”

Yes, this is a rivalry unlike any other. The situation is fraught in a way that can be only experienced. Flare ups are never away from the cards. The cricketers who emerge on the ground in the blues and the greens know fully well that it is a whole different ball game than the cricket they are used to playing.

The article was originally published on CricketCountry.

(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry).