It is tempting to think that the off-field cricket rivalry between India and Pakistan is a thing of the past, something of the last century.
The two giants of cricket will clash in the Asia Cup on Sunday. If the gods are smiling on the TV moguls, this could be the first of three meetings in the tournament.
The India-Pakistan rivalry has generally been more intense in the hearts and minds of the supporters than the players. Battles are fought on social media by fans who believe that a victory on a cricket pitch is definitive proof that one political system or religion or nation is superior to another.
Over the years, there have been two separate matches whenever the Indian and Pakistani teams have met. The one on the field is a competition between two talented sets of players trying to win, bringing professional pride into the frame. Besides, the game is symbolic of something else. war minus the shooting, to use George Orwell’s memorable phrase.
The last time the teams met, in the World T20 in October 2021, Pakistan beat India by ten wickets. Indian bowler Mohammed Shami, the only Muslim in the Indian team, was mercilessly trolled. He had figures of 3.5-0-43-0, not unusual in a T20 game. But for those looking for scapegoats, Shami fit the bill.
Social media exchanges have been relatively muted in the build-up to Sunday’s match – but it will be a long time before an India-Pakistan match goes from a test of nationalism to ‘just another game’.
On Sunday, Pakistan will be without fast bowler Shaheen Afridi, who has a knee injury. With three wickets, Afridi was the man of the match when the two teams met in the World T20.
“Sahin’s injury was a big relief for Indian top-order batsmen…” former Pakistan team captain Waqar Younis tweeted last week. To this, former India player Irfan Pathan replied, “It’s a relief for other teams that Bumrah is not playing this Asia cup!” Indian fast bowler Jasprit Bumrah has a back injury.
This exchange is milder than what some players and fans have been tweeting lately. If things get a little boring, that’s for the best. But that may be too much to hope for. Many are the players, fans and television executives who lit the fire for personal, professional and political reasons.
But to counter these exchanges, there is one between the top fighters of the two sides.
Last month, when India’s Virat Kohli was going through a rough patch in England, Pakistan star Babar Azam sent him a message: “This too shall pass. Stay strong.”
Kohli’s response was equally warm: “Thank you. Keep shining and rising. I wish you all the best.”
For political reasons, India and Pakistan only play each other in multi-team tournaments outside their respective countries – this gives these matches an edge. Emotions remain for a longer period of time and are released in these situations.
But that’s among the fans. Players show more sense. Pakistan Cricket Bang released footage from the field of players from the two countries greeting each other warmly and asking about each other’s families. For them it is business as usual.
One factor that could explain the lack of usual excitement in the build-up to the first Asia Cup match could be the distraction caused by Kohli’s lack of form. The former India captain and opening batsman has not made a single century in international cricket since November 2019 and has played only four T20 matches out of India’s last 24.
Kohli’s return to the team after a short break for rest and recovery is highly anticipated.
Indian fans are praying for a major contribution from Kohli in the team’s victory. This will be his 100th T20 international, making him only the second player (after New Zealand’s Ross Taylor) to play 100 matches in each of the three formats of cricket.
Kohli’s form has become a top domestic topic, with at least one national magazine analyzing it in a cover story, and others asking experts to comment as well. One website calculated that it has been 1,009 days since he last made a century. None of this will matter if Kohli finds his touch again in the Asia Cup. The story within a story has distracted from the big stories – the India-Pakistan tie and the Asia Cup itself.
The 15th Asian Cup, which was played between six teams in two groups of three each was supposed to be held in Sri Lanka but was moved to the United Arab Emirates due to the economic and political situation in that country. Teams from each group play each other in the ‘Super Four’ and the top two teams there will meet in the final on September 11.