Sports events, wrote George Orwell, can amount to “war minus the shooting.” Few moments exemplify that aphorism more clearly than when India and Pakistan face off on the cricket field. The two countries became independent in 1947, when Britain withdrew its empire — but left behind the complex ritualized combat of bat and ball which remains the safest form of battle between the sibling states separated at birth, and which have fought three major wars since then.
“This is world sport’s fiercest local derby,” wrote the great (and perhaps only) American cricket writer Mike Marqusee, who passed away earlier this year. “It arouses the greatest passions among the greatest number of people, and is over-stuffed with political, cultural and religious connotations.” The contest will be resumed Sunday, at cricket’s quadrennial World Cup in Australia. Over 1 billion people are expected to watch the game on television, bringing a ghostly quiet to many of South Asia’s notoriously crowded and bustling streets.
No analogies can accurately convey the significance of Sunday’s game on the subcontinent. In countries suffused with a devotion to deities, passion for cricket rivals religious fervor. No living politician or cultural figure in India can match the exalted status of the country’s greatest cricketer, Sachin Tendulkar. And in Pakistan, Imran Khan has for over two decades ridden his fame as the country’s only World Cup winning captain to become its leading opposition politician, and its sole global celebrity. Passion for cricket in both countries overrides ethnic, political, class and religious fault-lines, providing a source of rare national unity.
And their diasporas love to get involved.
India and Pakistan are two of the few teams who can muster hundreds of supporters at virtually every major cricket venue anywhere in the world, sometimes overturning the host team’s home-ground advantage. On Western university campuses, students gather to watch together, beating folk drums as they let out menacing chants. In India and Pakistan, separatists use the occasion to cheer the other team. At the last World Cup, some Kashmiris cheered for Pakistan while Baluch fans rooted for India.
For the Indian and Pakistani players, the stakes are also higher when they meet. A defeat against the neighbor will leave them with a taint that takes far longer to efface than when they lose to Australia or South Africa. If they beat the old enemy, they will be doubly rewarded. In the past, when Pakistan has lost to India, they would often return home to be assaulted by fans hurling choicely worded imprecations. But when they pull off a surprise win, such as when Pakistani batsman Javed Miandad hit the rough equivalent of a home run on the last ball to clinch a victory in 1986, they can spend years basking in the resultant adulation.
On the pitch, the cricketers are infamous for their war-like exhibitionism. In 1996, Pakistani batsman Aamer Sohail taunted Indian fast bowler Venkatesh Prasad, vowing to dispatch the next ball he faced to the boundary for four runs. He was immediately bowled out and forced to make a slow, ignominious retreat back to the dressing room. Miandad was famously partial to trash-talking. During one match, he kept asking an Indian bowler what his room number was. “Why do you want to know my room number?” the bowler finally asked in a fit of exasperation. “Because,” Miandad explained, “I want to send the ball there.”
Despite their deep divisions, they two sides have much in common. Unlike the other teams, they communicate with each other in a language other than English. On the pitch, the microphones occasionally catch them joshing with each other. Off the pitch, they are feted as celebrities in the neighboring countries. “The love I’ve received in India,” Imran Khan once told me, “has not been matched in any other cricket-playing country.” There were well-aired rumors of Pakistani cricketers having affairs with Bollywood actresses. In 2010, Pakistani cricketer Shoaib Malik married Indian tennis star Sania Mirza — whenever Malik makes a mistake on the cricket field now, Indian fans proclaim him “a good son-in-law”.
The politicians have seized on the sporting rivalry, too. Last year, India called off talks with Pakistan after Islamabad’s envoy to New Delhi met with Kashmiri separatist leaders. On Friday, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi called his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif to tell him that New Delhi’s top diplomat would be visiting Islamabad soon. Modi also wished Pakistan luck in the World Cup. Sharif, a cricket enthusiast, reportedly regaled Modi with tales of how he once helped the Pakistan team warm up for an earlier World Cup.
Cricket diplomacy has a long tradition in the subcontinent. In 1987, Pakistan's Gen. Mohammed Zia-ul-Haq, who was then a military dictator, invited himself to an India-Pakistan match in Jaipur, India. The decision is credited with having tamped down fears of a cross-border attack at the time. And in 2004 and 2005, leaders from both countries traveled to cricket matches across their sometimes-volatile borders as hostilities over the disputed territory of Kashmir eased and quiet backchannel negotiations got underway.
In recent years, the two countries have taken very different trajectories. Pakistan has suffered unprecedented levels of internal violence, while India has basked in unprecedented economic success. One of the few arenas where the two countries still meet as equals is on the cricket field. But while Pakistan has traditionally won more matches, its team has lost key players. And, as a provocative ad on Indian TV recalls, Pakistan has never won a World Cup game against its fiercest rival.
But the Pakistanis are nothing if not unpredictable. Their opponents often wonder which Pakistani side will turn up – the one that will collapse in short order, or the scrappy insurgency that somehow manages to pull off surprise wins. For a team that has suffered its share of scandals, from match-fixing, to drug-taking, to ball-tampering, and much else, a win against India on Sunday would defy the odds but bring much-needed cheer to a country that has had little of late.