It is only a game – but try telling that to the effigy-burners

Now the anticipation is greater, and the baggage heavier; a loss might be more upsetting than before

Five years ago, the Meerut Police booked some students for sedition for cheering Pakistan’s Shahid Afridi in an Asia Cup match. The UP government later dropped the charges. Yet that initial knee-jerk reaction said something about the times we live in. Things haven’t changed, as we await yet another India-Pakistan encounter, this time at the World Cup.

George Orwell wrote about the “lunatic habit of identifying with larger power units, and seeing everything in terms of competitive prestige”. Thus victory is seen as vindication of a political system, economic status, literary heritage and anything else politicians and fans can think up along the lines of “mine is bigger (and better) than yours”. This manner of arriving at a country’s self-worth through the success of its sportsmen is not unique, but is at its perverse best here.

We need to be prepared for the lunacy — win or lose — on June 16, when the two teams meet in the World Cup. Chants of patriotism and nationalism are one thing, but to act as if the result of a cricket match reflected these is both silly and dangerous.

“After all, it’s only a game,” is how the captains like to characterise their encounter. Virat Kohli said so in England recently; his counterpart Sarfaraz Ahmed endorsed that view. But it’s not the players who are responsible for the baggage, for the belief that somehow a loss diminishes a whole nation and everything it stands for. There are historical, psychological, even geographical reasons for this. Supporters sometimes go the other extreme, stitching the national flags together to show unity and singleness of purpose, but this usually happens on Test tours, not so much in white ball cricket.

To be at a venue — even a neutral one — during a match is to be enveloped by a fervour that is almost religious in its intensity.

Loss to the other has led to players having their effigies burnt, homes stoned, families threatened, cars vandalised, and given rise to talk about match-fixing. The pressure on the players can only be imagined. “The nation would brook no failure,” wrote Sachin Tendulkar of the 2003 match, “It did not matter to them (fans) what happened in the rest of the tournament as long as we beat Pakistan.”

He went on to add, in his autobiography, “This is why I played cricket, to be out in the middle for my team, on the world’s biggest stage, against India’s arch rivals.”

So much for it being “only a game.” This is a player buying into the prevailing narrative, just as fans and politicians and the media all do. It is the commercially sensible reaction, after all; it sells books, gives politicians air time and attracts advertising. The chest-thumping and flag-waving fans unwittingly become pawns in a larger game, contributing to the narrative by bringing their own insecurities into play, and looking for validation.


Two sub-plots have attached themselves to the World Cup since 1992: South Africa’s apparent tendency to choke (unfair but convenient), and India’s unbeaten record (6-0) against Pakistan. Neither seems logical or inevitable, and it is reasonable to assume that the anomaly will be resolved sooner or later, perhaps at this year’s World Cup even. Those looking for patterns in the two cases have been foiled by the absence of any; the best that pundits can do is declare that since it has happened before, it is likely to happen again. But that’s not how sport works.

Thirty-three years ago in Sharjah, Javed Miandad hit the most famous six in an India-Pakistan One-Day International. It came off the last ball of the match, Pakistan won, and India were so traumatised they managed to win only four matches against them in the next ten years, while losing 20. In fact, over the next 17 years till the 2003 World Cup, India had only 29 wins to Pakistan’s 52.

And then came another six — this time by Tendulkar off a Shoaib Akhtar 150kmph express. That seemed to swing the advantage India’s way. The record is 24-21 in their favour since.

Increase in intensity

With bilateral series ruled out, and multi-nation tournaments the only platforms for an India-Pakistan match, the intensity has only increased in recent years. Drum-beating by politicians on either side has contributed to the noise too.

No one has been able to explain, though, the lopsided results over 27 years. India have batted first always, except in 2003 when they won by six wickets. Otherwise the margins of victory by runs have been 43, 39, 47, 29 and 76. Perhaps there is no single reason for this, not even, as one writer has suggested, Pakistan’s inferiority complex (sometimes writers too see patriotism in criticising the other).

There might have been a brief period when the teams played each other regularly when it was only a game. Now the anticipation is greater, and the baggage heavier; a loss might be more upsetting than before. The players are aware of this but in sport you cannot win to order. That is its charm.

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