What makes for memorable rivalries? The competition itself, obviously, but that is not the most significant. Competition over a long period is critical too, as is a shared history.
Newspapers in England have the usual Ashes supplements, the usual suspects are on television telling us about the importance of the Ashes series set to begin this week, and the respective captains have been making the usual noises about playing to win. England versus Australia is the oldest rivalry in Test cricket, but is it still the most important?
What makes for memorable rivalries? The competition itself, obviously, but that is not the most significant. Competition over a long period is critical too, as is a shared history. Great rivalries exist between countries separated by a shared history and culture, to adapt what Bernard Shaw said in another context.
Take the six leading teams: Australia, India, South Africa, West Indies, Pakistan, England (Sri Lanka have been playing just over a quarter century, not long enough to form long-standing rivalries). Six teams make for 15 rivalries, but we can eliminate the ones where the teams haven’t played enough. Out go the South African series against India, Pakistan and the West Indies all of which commenced only in the 1990s.
Of the remaining, some have been great rivalries but over a short period. Australia-West Indies in the 1970s, for one. Or Pakistan-West Indies. Neither Australia-Pakistan nor England-West Indies have usually sent the adrenalin pumping hard enough for them to qualify as ‘memorable’, although there have been wonderful matches and unexpected results. England-Pakistan have been notable for political rather than cricketing reasons.
In recent years, a case has been made for the India-Australia encounter to count among the most exciting in world cricket, with off-field shenanigans galvanizing the nations as it did when India were in Australia last. Similarly with Australia-South Africa, two teams with similar attitudes.
But in the end it boils down to two rivalries. Australia-England and India-Pakistan.
We are in the third century of the former which began in 1876-77. Cricketers from both these countries were brought up on the notion that the Ashes was the greatest sporting competition, greater perhaps than the Olympics, greater than world cup soccer. Every Australian’s dream was to play England and vice versa. Other series were important, but this was what they lived for. The media confirmed that; many former Ashes players were writing or broadcasting.
India-Pakistan generates greater passion; the two countries looked upon the competition as war minus the shooting. But in recent years, some of the edge has gone off the rivalry because of too-frequent meetings and too-repetitive stances when they do meet. What has been refreshing is the change in attitude of the rival captains who don’t play for a draw from the first ball bowled, as their predecessors did in the 1950s and 60s. Nor is a defeat considered a national scandal. At least not to the extent it once was.
India and Pakistan began playing to win only from 1978 when the two friends, Mushtaq Mohammed and Bishan Bedi, led the teams. That’s three decades of proper cricket as opposed to the century-and-a-quarter of hard fought Ashes rivalry. The last series in England four years ago was one of the finest every played. Whatever the emotional impact of an India-Pakistan series, from a cricketing point of view, the Ashes is superior.
What makes India-Pakistan special is not so much the cricket as the stories around the series. Of families meeting up in one or the other country after being out of touch for decades. Of fans being allowed to cross the border. Of politicians using the series to make statements. In the end it is not the cricket you remember so much as the human interest stories.
When the artificial enmity created by politicians no longer hold, cricket will hopefully rule. And India-Pakistan can aspire to the Ashes. When shared history is no longer a burden, but an inspiration.