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By Suresh Menon
Sport is regularly called upon to stand for something other than itself. Nearly seven decades after World War II, England continue to replay the action with Germany on the football field. Cricket (and in the days when their teams mattered, hockey) is the substitute in the case of India and Pakistan who have fought four wars against each other.
No one says, with the conviction of a Gertrude Stein, that a cricket match is a cricket match is a cricket match (she was speaking of a rose, of course). And with good reason. Already the Mohali semifinal has been anointed with a significance beyond its status as a sporting encounter thanks to the presence of the Prime Minister of the two countries, one of whom will have to go to bed disappointed.
And what of the players? They will be coached on the art of diplomacy, on minding their manners, on good behaviour and the need to be politically correct at all times. Asked on a television show about his reaction to the presence of the dignitaries at the match, the former India wicketkeeper Syed Kirmani thought for a moment and said, “I would like to avoid these political questions. Ask me anything you want about the cricket.”
He was speaking for the players of both teams, who have the kind of relationship that professionals anywhere have with their rivals, but who are sometimes expected to be overly aggressive and jingoistic for commercial purposes. The media demand a macho image, and build their advertising budget based on that!
An encounter like this shows up the strain between the demands of commerce and politics. What is politically correct need not be commercially so, and vice versa.
Over the years, it has become impossible to discuss an India-Pakistan match in purely cricketing terms. Cliches abound. There is talk of temperament. There is the rather silly notion of countries defining their nationhood, manhood and womanhood through the activities of a bunch of often under-educated sportsmen in a game that is so dependent on chance.
It has long seemed to me thoroughly illogical that two sovereign nations should seek validation by victory on the sports field.
When India play Pakistan, everybody – the players, the media, the politicians, the big business, that beast known as the man in the street – everybody assumes the stand he is expected to. Over the years I have probably written variations of this myself. This is the true joy of an India-Pakistan cricket match. It gives all of us an opportunity to slip into our pre-determined roles.
In 1996, when Pakistan lost, their national television played mournful tunes. Wasim Akram, who missed the match with injury received death threats. A cartoon in a newspaper, gave a twist to the promise of a ‘plot for every player’ if Pakistan won, showing freshly dug graves.
In India we felt smug and superior. It lasted till the next match, which Sri Lanka were awarded following crowd agitation. We were brought down to earth quickly. We were genuinely brothers under the skin, unable to take defeat with grace.
“The Indian mood swing, from elation in Bangalore to enraged despair in Kolkata, would be categorised by psychoanalysts as a symptom of paranoid schizophrenia. And the virulent manner in which the erstwhile gods of Pakistani cricket were turned upon by their devotees displayed the same syndrome,” wrote Mike Marqusee who also pointed out that two suicides were reported – one in India and another in Pakistan as the respective teams bowed out.
Sport carries a heavy burden when it is so pregnant with symbolism that the ordinary is often brushed aside. This seems unfair, whatever its effect on the bottom line might be.