It’s not just cricket: India-Pakistan rivalry transcends sport

- Associated Press, LONDON
The intense rivalry has been lopsided recently, though. India have won all of their meetings in global tournaments for the last five years that had critics writing off Pakistan’s prospects for success

Jun 18, 2017-An intense love of cricket is shared by these nuclear-armed neighbors, as profoundly as their deep and mutual mistrust.

The players from India and Pakistan will be cordial before and after the Champions Trophy final in London on Sunday--for that is customary in cricket’s conventions--but there’ll be tension for hundreds of millions of people tuning in across South Asia, where this rivalry transcends sport.

Cricket, bequeathed to India and Pakistan by their British colonial rulers, is usually one of the few things the countries can agree upon. Matches have previously been opportunities for diplomacy and to defuse tensions with rare high-level meetings or to swap friendly remarks. That appears unlikely this weekend, amid escalating tensions as India accuses Pakistan of supporting terrorism and backing separatist rebels in the disputed region of Kashmir--charges Pakistan denies. The countries have fought two 

of their three wars over rival claims to Kashmir, and regularly exchange fire over a de facto border that divides the territory between them.

There has been no official dialogue between the countries since Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party came to power in India three years ago. The scene is set. Broadcasters in both countries are tipping television audience records--more than 300 million across both countries--and social media is buzzing with jingoistic banter. 

Syed Talat Hussain, political analyst at Pakistan’s Geo Television, said that the Pakistan-India final is a “is a softer version of a war.” “Going purely by the commentary on social media, this is going to be brutal,” Hussain said, adding that while the winner could triumphantly hold the trophy aloft “the runner-up will take the defeat as an everlasting wound in the heart. This won’t promote peace.”

The intense rivalry has been lopsided recently, though. India have won all of their meetings in global tournaments for the last five years that had critics writing off Pakistan’s prospects for success. The final is defending champion India’s fourth in the last eight global tournaments. Pakistan, meanwhile, have not hosted a major international match--barring a short limited-overs series against Zimbabwe--at home since a terrorist attack on Sri Lanka’s team bus at Lahore in 2009.

That has eroded the strength of the national past-time, with a generation of fans unable to see their stars playing on grounds in Karachi, Lahore or Rawalpindi. But many analysts believe if Pakistan can upset India, it will spark a renewal. “Cricket’s culture in Pakistan is dying since the new generation hasn’t seen international cricket being played in Pakistan,” Dr Nauman Niaz, director of sports and syndication at Pakistan Television Corp, said. Not only would a win for Pakistan generate more interest at home, Niaz said, it could have another significant spinoff. “It could bring them to a position of strength and pressurise the ICC to bring back international cricket to Pakistan,” he said.

Despite their poor recent record against India, the people of Pakistan have high hopes for their unpredictable team. “We know India is a better team on paper than us, but our heart is not willing to accept that,” said Mohammad Shabbir, a 16-year-old student. “We want to see Sarfraz lift the trophy on Sunday.”

Television and TEN Sports said an estimated 50 million people in Pakistan tuned for the match against India on June 4. “We expect the viewership will be easily doubled on Sunday,” Niaz said. That’s more than half the Pakistan population watching a game. There’ll be more people watching in India, although a lower proportion of the population. Star India said the June 4 match drew a record 201 million viewers, a mark likely to be eclipsed for the final.

Former Pakistan captain Ramiz Raja said Pakistan’s comeback after the early loss boded well for the underdogs. “It’s a fantastic turnaround after the Indian loss and hammers the point that nothing is impossible,” he said. “Such a feat will encourage youth to take to the game and this feel good factor that cricket is able to create will have a positive impact on the psyche of the society. It will also act as a wake-up call for the entire cricket fraternity that Pakistan cannot be side stepped as a cricket force and cries to relaunch international cricket in Pakistan may grow stronger after this performance.”

Published: 18-06-2017 09:26

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