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June 03, 2017

Why Are We At Our Most Patriotic During An India V/s Pakistan Match?

Text by Anjali Doshi. Illustration by Tanya Eden

We elevate sport beyond finite numbers, beyond the limited significance of runs or records, to the point where it becomes about more than the game

April 9, 2004: wearing a pistachio-green Pakistani suit, I step into Gawalmandi in Lahore around 8 p.m. The bustle of the old city, the smell of fresh meat on tandoors, moustachioed figures stirring karhais, rows upon rows of tables and chairs lining the streets, latticed overhanging balconies bearing witness to various men and women tucking into kebabs and haleem on New Food Street make the night come alive. Guiding me on this cultural tour of her city is one of my closest friends.

Thirteen years later, it still feels like a dream. I had travelled to Pakistan alone for the first time: 25, and a correspondent for a news weekly. But it wasn’t a journalistic assignment that had brought me here. It was the urge to be a part of history. And this was no ordinary history. It was the tale of a country torn into two by Partition. And these two parts were now facing off in a bilateral Test and limited-overs series in Pakistan for the first time since 1989. It was the Indian cricket team’s first proper tour since the tensions of the Kargil war, the growing threat of militancy in Kashmir, and much animosity over allegations that Pakistan was shielding India’s most wanted terrorist — Dawood Ibrahim.

This was as much a cricket tour as a diplomatic mission, played against the backdrop of a peace initiative by the then Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Pakistani General Pervez Musharraf. There had been much trepidation among the Indian cricketers who feared for their life. But, as the series progressed, both cricketing and diplomatic history was made. India won the Tests 2-1 and the ODIs 3-2; and, during the tour’s 39 days, more than 11,000 Indians crossed the border. The bloodbath of 1947 could be briefly forgotten. India’s captain Sourav Ganguly later said: “I know there were a lot of things attached to this tour, but for (the) 20 of us in this team, it was (about) winning. And winning the series, both series, is the biggest memory we will take back with us”.

Ganguly’s single-mindedness was almost certainly a defence mechanism to deal with the pressure and maintain his team’s focus. But for cricket fans and political pundits, this series was about much more. Players are rarely the best judges of their achievements’ place in sporting and cultural history, since their focus has to be on scoring the next run, winning the next point. Win a game, win a set. Win a match. Win a series. In this bubble they exist. But as spectators, we have an inherent need to imbue sport — and life — with a deeper meaning. We elevate sport beyond finite numbers, beyond the limited significance of runs or records, to the point where it becomes about more than the game. Fans were treated to some unforgettable cricket: the thrill of a nail-biting five-run win for India in Karachi, Virender Sehwag’s triple ton in Multan, and Yuvraj Singh’s century in the Lahore Test.

But, what I will always remember from my all-too-brief visit to Pakistan is the food at Gawalmandi, the generosity of the shopkeepers and rickshaw drivers who offered discounts and free rides when they discovered we were from India; I will never forget being adopted for a few hours by a Pakistani family in Sahiwal en route to Harappa, the barrage of questions as I took my place in the stands of the Gaddafi Stadium among Pakistani fans, and their warmth and love as they embraced all the visitors from across the border. Back in those heady days, this love between the people of two nations — who have so frequently misunderstood each other — forged a new bond and showed us what is possible when we give each other a chance. Politicians come and go. Governments change. But for those who experienced the love of the Pakistanis first-hand, those memories will stay forever.

***

To contemplate any question about the power of sport, we must ask: what is sport beyond the obvious? Is it entertainment, George Orwell’s war minus the shooting, a vehicle for jingoistic rabble-rousing, or is it a soft power to enable political diplomacy? Why do we connect to it so deeply — to its stories of failure, success, competition, fighting the odds, stories of decrying the naysayers, learning to both win and lose and pushing body and mind? The power of sport is about many things. It is about a nation which receives the message that apartheid will not be tolerated through a sporting boycott. It is about an island ravaged by civil war, where citizens turn to sport to escape from a miserable reality; a gladiatorial contest between two men with ageing limbs who unite tennis fans around the world, regardless of their nationality; a man who discovers his father is dying of cancer and flies him to Antigua to watch a couple of Test matches to cheer him up; a father-daughter duo who learn to express their love for each other as they watch and talk cricket. And more, much more.

The power of sport lies in the men and women who capture our imagination. In them, we see our younger, fitter, more dedicated and accomplished selves. We identify with their struggles. Out in that arena, they make us believe that fairy tales do come true, that it is not foolish to dream. We identify a greater good in their pursuit of excellence. They remind us that we are all stronger than we know. They inspire belief in the tenacity of the human spirit — that the remotest possibility is possible, that nothing is out of reach. They make us jump out of bed in the small hours to catch all the action in a distant land, nibble at our nails, clasp our hands tight, cling to the edge of our couches, and swat away our loved ones who have the gall to ask us mundane questions as we will Federer on to his 18th Slam.

As a young Indian girl who grew up watching Dominique Moceanu and her teammates win the gymnastics gold for the USA at the 1996 Olympics, I was mesmerised by gymnasts and figure skaters. I never imagined though, that gymnastics could hold a future for any young Indian. And yet, 20 years later, here was a wisp of a girl — all 4 feet and 11 inches of her —from Agartala, making my fantasy her reality. Dipa Karmakar became the first Indian gymnast in over half a century to qualify for the Olympics. And I, like no doubt many others, could only fervently wish that her dreams would come true, partly because we hadn’t even attempted to fulfil ours. In a deeply patriarchal nation — where the gender ratio is 940 females to 1,000 males — Karmakar had grown men rooting for her and crying openly when she finished fourth, missing out on an Olympic medal by 0.15 of a point.

Three years from now, a nation will be watching again to see if she can qualify for Tokyo. The odds aren’t in her favour, but when have true sport lovers trusted the odds? The realist in us would defer any day to the idealist, the romantic. In the current political climate, the odds are also against another bilateral cricket series between India and Pakistan. Post 26/11 (and the prevailing diplomatic tension between the two countries), as well as the attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore in March 2009, it may be a while before Indian cricketers travel to Pakistan again. But I dream of the day we will cross the border to watch a Test at the Gaddafi stadium, partake in the culinary delights at Gawalmandi and, to paraphrase Maya Angelou, learn that we — the human family — are more alike than unalike. For, above all else, sport teaches us this.

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