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India vs Pakistan: Virtual war

The venue: The Wanderers, Johannesburg. The occasion: The World Twenty20 final. The scene: The post-match press conference. Half an hour after India and Pakistan have wound up another satisfying cricket potboiler — three packed hours of compelling twists, suspenseful turns, a nerve-wracking finish and an India win — Pakistan skipper Shoaib Malik is asked an enigmatic question by an Indian journalist: “Are you more happy that Pakistan made the final or more sad that you lost to India again in a World Cup?” Malik shoots back: “Aap movie bana rahe ho (are you making a movie)?”

The packed room bursts into laughter but the question isn’t as out of place as the sarcastic retort suggests. The reporter persists, and Malik gives in: “Definitely I’m happier that we made the final. India-Pakistan is just another game. That is the way players have always approached it. We have a job to do on the field.”

For the millions watching, though, it often hasn’t been that simple. Cricket between the two countries has always been associated with jingoism, yet it has made for some of the greatest on-field encounters the sport has provided.

Unfortunately, there have been many disconcerting incidents at grounds and political relations have all too often impacted spectators. But there’s still no better barometer for changing cultural processes than a fierce Indo-Pak cricket match. And gradually, attitudes appear to be evolving.

It’s remarkable how, post-Kargil, and following India’s ice-breaking 2004 tour to Pakistan, a soothing of public antipathy has helped Indo-Pak cricket grow. For example, Test matches now produce more results. Hanif Mohammad’s assertion that many matches had been drawn in the past (notably the dreary 1954-55 and 1960-61 series) because players were afraid to lose doesn’t hold ground anymore.

On the spectator front, passions have cooled but the appeal has increased. The excitement in both countries during the T20 final was unparalleled in recent memory. But Malik’s controversial statement after the game thanking all Muslims for supporting Pakistan didn’t generate as much public frenzy in India as it could have a decade back. This time, thankfully, the issue died the early death it merited. So on this tour, there’s no ‘Tebbitt test’, or should we say ‘Thackeray test’, for anyone: cricket might be the winner.

There were signs last time too. On Pakistan’s previous visit here in 2005, during the fifth ODI in April, a section of the Green Park crowd in Kanpur was needlessly raising anti-Pakistan slogans, and flinging chappals at a special enclosure for spectators from across the border.

Suddenly, Shahid Afridi, who eventually scored a 46-ball 102, decided to launch a furious onslaught. A flurry of fours and some booming sixes later, the same section was applauding, the hooting had stopped, the focus had shifted back to the game. It didn’t matter that Afridi was taking the game away from India. It was a knock too good to miss.

These are the sort of incidents which make India-Pakistan matches special. Players seem to raise their game, and spectators their attention spans. Everyone has their own ‘aha’ moment etched into memory: It could be Javed Miandad’s last ball six at Sharjah, it could be Tendulkar’s upper cut off Shoaib Akhtar for six at the Centurion World Cup game, it could be Hrishikesh Kanitkar’s winning run at Dhaka or Sunil Gavaskar’s mesmerising knock on a devil of a turner at Bangalore in his last Test.

Pakistan fans, of course, have more to choose from: for the best part of a rivalry dating back to 1952, they have dominated.

As another series looms, it’s cricket’s time to break down the wall again.

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