Passion, politics, intensity: Is India v Pakistan bigger than a FIFA World Cup final?

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Harsha Bhogle, the voice of Indian cricket, thinks India versus Pakistan might be the biggest sports event of all. Before you footballistas rush to your keyboard in splenetic indignation, yes there is the World Cup final, but the audience for that, though passionate, is mostly neutral.

India v Pakistan at a World Cup ignites passions like no other contest.Credit: Chris Hopkins

When India play Pakistan at cricket, more than 1.6 billion people notionally are invested in the two teams before you get to the day-trippers and the sightseers.

“I wonder if there is another sporting encounter that engulfs so many people,” said Bhogle. “There are people flying in from all over the world just for this. With a huge digital audience, you can measure viewership fairly accurately. Our generation looks upon TV audiences as a benchmark but digital viewership has surpassed TV viewership already. The mobile phone is the TV set!”

You could compile figures for likely viewers and probable betting turnover when these south Asian titans meet in Ahmedabad on Saturday, but they would be like infinity, so vast as to become meaningless. Know this, though: the volume of betting advertising on Indian TV makes Australia look like a nation of Quakers.

The Narendra Modi Stadium will be packed to its 134,000 capacity, though we’ve been told that before. What is certain is that there will be very few Pakistanis there. A welter of fans has been refused visas, as have about 50 already accredited journalists.

Prominent TV presenter Zainab Abbas has gone home – deported or fled, it’s not clear – after a ruckus about a couple of four-year-old tweets that an Indian lawyer claimed were “derogatory and provocative” about India.

Almost in the same breath, charges were flagged against Booker prize-winning Indian author Arundhati Roy, a prominent critic of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, because of a speech she made in 2010 advocating the secession of Kashmir, which is still disputed territory between India and Pakistan. The aggressively Hindu nationalist agenda of Modi and his ruling BJP party is hardly an official secret.

Even the Pakistan team was baulked for visas until 36 hours before departure, which meant they had to cancel a mini-training camp in Dubai en route. They went via Dubai because there are no direct flights between India and Pakistan.

India and Pakistan play rarely. They’ve not met in a Test match since 2007 nor a Twenty20 or one-day international in either country since 2013. They play only in tournaments, never bilaterally, and only in neutral venues. Last month, for instance, they met in the Asian Cup in a match that should have been in Pakistan, but because of India’s refusal to travel there was played in Sri Lanka.

Virat Kohli played an unforgettable innings when India beat Pakistan at the MCG in the T20 world cup.Credit: Getty

But when they do play, the ground shakes. Australia sampled this last October when more than 90,000 filled the MCG to the point of jeopardy for eardrums for India-Pakistan in the Twenty20 World Cup. Fifty-year MCG veterans still shake their heads in wondrous memory of what some think was the most extraordinary thing they’ve ever seen at the ground. It was much the same at the Adelaide Oval in the 2015 50-over World Cup.

Pakistan’s director of coaching, Mickey Arthur, an international veteran, says size alone puts India-Pakistan beyond compare. “It’s the scale. It’s the passion. It’s the intensity. It’s bigger than anything I’ve ever witnessed, it’s just beyond the realms of your imagination.

“As a coach, it’s hard to build up as just another game. You want to, but you can’t because the scale of it is just too big.”

In this landscape, one thing is clear: India and Pakistan enjoy a unique style of love-hate relationship. By and large, the players and fans love and the politicians hate.

Since Pakistan was divided from India in 1947 by a line arbitrarily drawn on a map by a British peer who had never set foot there previously and precipitated bloodshed on an unimaginable scale, they’ve fought at least three wars and many other skirmishes and at best only have periods of détente. Both have nuclear weapons, working as a monkey grip.

When they played one another in the World Cup in Bangalore in 1996, it was against a backdrop of vivid threats by the stridently Hindu supremacist, anti-Pakistani Shiv Sena party to disrupt the match with violence, even to dig up the pitch. It was of no apparent consequence that the Indian captain then was a Muslim, Mohammad Azharuddin.

As flares lit the stands that night and the atmosphere heated up to a point that one report at the time said was “teetering towards anarchy”, Pakistan star Saleem Malik was pelted with fruit in the outfield.

In the prelude to that tournament, India and Pakistan had cheerfully joined forces to play in a so-called solidarity match in Sri Lanka, thumbing their dual noses at Australia who had refused to play in Colombo after a massive bomb attack there. In the World Cup opening ceremony in Kolkata a few days later, the biggest non-India cheer was for Pakistan. That tournament, incidentally, was jointly staged. They just didn’t mention the war.

Mohammad Rizwan steered Pakistan to a record run chase against Sri Lanka.Credit: AP

Now as then, when Pakistan touched down in Hyderabad to begin their tournament last week, wicketkeeper batsman Mohammad Rizwan said it was as if they had come home to Karachi or Lahore after winning a World Cup.

As Rizwan made a slashing century to lead his team in a record World Cup run chase against Sri Lanka, the crowd chanted “Jeetega Pakistan”, meaning “Go Pakistan”. “The way the crowd gave us mohabbat [love or adulation], it was amazing,” he said.

People welcomed people, a town welcomed a team. Of course, it will not be so on Saturday, nor would Pakistan expect garlands as Australia would not expect cheers in England. But it won’t be war in anything other than a metaphorical sense.

“The players are passionate and want to win, but the noise comes from the outside, the players actually get on really well with each other,” Arthur said.

At the level of state-versus-state, the relationship is as taut as ever. And yet subtly, it is different. In 1996, the political bellicosity was specifically directed towards the presence of the Pakistan team in India and faded with Pakistan’s defeat. Now the nationalist sentiment is widespread and growing. Modi flexes his country’s new muscle at every opportunity. Expat Indians returning for this tournament notice it keenly. In this scenario, Saturday’s cricket match is almost – but not quite – an incidental.

Bhogle says that such martial rumblings as may be heard mostly were for effect. “The networks play it up with their choice of words, with the war parallels, but they do it largely for their own ends,” he said. The climate may be somewhat tense still, but the real and tragic wars are elsewhere.

Bhogle puts it down to a quarter-century shift of the world on its geopolitical axis. In 1996, India was not the political and economic powerhouse it is now, and its cricket board was chiefly known for muddling along. Pakistan’s stature was greater then than now off the field, and on it, they were reigning World Cup champions until dethroned that night.

“In 1996, India was nowhere near the power it now is, and Pakistan hadn’t slid as alarmingly as it now has,” Bhogle said. “This is probably the only front on which Pakistan can now beat India.”

There are still tensions. In July, it was speculated that this latest Indo-Pakistani clash might have to be moved from Ahmedabad for security reasons. At government level, the animus is still alive.

Still, Bhogle thinks the visa stand-off is pollie hate trumping people love. In his circles, he senses only admiration from Pakistan for India. “On a person-to-person level, you will still find warmth, curiosity and, increasingly, a sense of awe at what India has managed,” he said. “But then again, this is my personal view, borne out of conversations with friends and reading the views of many others in Pakistan.”

Nonetheless, security at Ahmedabad will be like every other metric on Saturday, off the charts. More than 11,000 police will be deployed from four agencies. Whatever the political premium on the occasion, it’s still India and Pakistan and cricket.

But one man who won’t be on Saturday night is Bhogle. Like Shubman Gill, he has dengue fever and will be counted among the many millions watching remotely, but hardly at a distance.

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