Pakistan and India face off in T20 Cricket World Cup

NEW DELHI – The event will be watched by hundreds of millions of people around the world, on televisions in remote villages, giant screens in crowded cities, telephones in migrant workers’ housing and vacillating monitors in lounges of a diaspora spread across the world’s time zones.

The confrontations on the cricket ground between India and Pakistan, like the meeting expected Sunday in Dubai, are becoming more and more rare, victim of the icy relations between the two neighbors equipped with nuclear weapons. For a match to take place, even on neutral ground, players and supporters must hope that tensions remain close to war and that organizers can resist growing calls for a boycott.

Sunday’s meeting, the first in two years, is part of a World Cup. The growing tensions are linked to a number of factors: repeated militant attacks in India; the disputed territory of Kashmir, where India accuses Pakistan of supporting militant groups; and growing intolerance in the two countries – which have almost entirely wiped out any exchange between two nations that otherwise overlap in a shared history, passions and culture.

But the intensity of passions surrounding Sunday’s game draws from deeper reservoirs, issues of national identity that are shrouded in the fortunes of competing cricket teams.

And despite calls to boycott Indian political leaders after a recent spasm of violence in Kashmir, the game continues. As the Indian cricket organization has made clear, the country cannot simply walk away from an international engagement like this, the T20 World Cup – especially one where its team is favorite to win.

“We have to maintain a link with cricket,” said Ramiz Raja, who heads the Pakistan Cricket Board, after meeting his Indian counterpart. “Our position is, ‘The more politics is cricket, the better. “

But in cricket, a game that can seem overwhelmingly complex to the uninitiated, it is precisely these political fault lines that generate such passionate interest.

Cricket in South Asia is a legacy of British colonial rule – “an Indian game accidentally discovered by the British,” as critic Ashis Nandy once said. The end of this rule saw India divided in 1947, making Pakistan a new nation for tens of millions of Muslims in the region.

Over the next 75 years, the two countries went to war on several occasions and remained at war when they were not fighting. Sometimes tensions have meant that cricket teams haven’t faced each other for a decade or so. Other times, like at the 1999 World Cup, they played a game even as they were fighting a war against Kashmir.

“It is tempting to draw parallels between the history of cricket and the history of India,” said Amit Varma, who hosts the popular “The Seen and the Unseen” podcast, in a recent episode. “We started out unsure of our place in the world, trying to find our feet, hampered by an inferiority complex, seeking pride in little consolations, but ultimately opening up to the world and asserting ourselves.”

“Our cricket has flourished to such an extent that India dominates this game, especially in a business sense,” added Varma.

India has emerged as the undisputed destination for the sport in recent years, with top players around the world looking to play in the lucrative Indian Premier League. The league is among the top five profitable sports leagues in the world, and the best players can earn up to $ 2 million for a two-month season.

But a sign of tense times in the region, Pakistani players are barred from joining the league, depriving them of a major platform to compete with the best in the world – or to cash in on some of the riches. The two countries largely severed bilateral ties after a deadly terrorist attack in Mumbai in 2008 by attackers from Pakistan.

The fact that the casual matches have only been played in neutral venues for a decade has removed a major vehicle of interaction between the two mad cricketing nations.

Indian and Pakistani players have often said that whenever they play in the other country, the intensity on the pitch is matched only by the hospitality there. Vendors in bazaars would decline payments, while host player families would send home-made food to visiting players in their hotel rooms.

“I had the whole Indian team hosted in my house – a full assortment of kababs and everything,” recalls Shahid Afridi, the former Pakistani captain, from a tour over ten years ago. “When they arrived, I found out that they were all vegetarians. I had to rush quickly for the lentils and veg.

Vicky Luthra, who runs a photo studio in New Delhi, is such a devoted fan that he has watched India and Pakistan play four times, including traveling to England in 2017, where the match ticket got him. alone cost around $ 400.

“I can’t paint my face, I can’t do all the drama. I am a public gentleman of cricket, ”Luthra said with a smile. “But I certainly still wish India good luck.”

The game he remembers most is when he crossed the border on foot in 2006 to watch India play in the Pakistani city of Lahore. He was excited to go – his grandparents were from the part of the country that ended up in Pakistan – but his wife insisted she wouldn’t let him travel alone.

“My wife was totally against going to Pakistan,” Luthra said. “But she was surprised how good it was, how friendly people were. It was because of cricket that I got to see these games.

For Pakistan, too, the history of its cricket team sometimes reflects the state of affairs in the country – explosions of genius and talent undermined by mismanagement, uncertainty and lack of opportunity.

Pakistan have been underdog in recent years, with India dominating the World Cup fixtures while compiling an unbeaten record. But in the 1980s and 1990s, Pakistan had the kind of talent that could win bilateral matches frequently, causing grief to the Indian squad’s many fans. The current Prime Minister of the country first made a name for himself in cricket; he led Pakistan to the World Cup crown in 1992.

This year’s tournament comes at a time when the mood in Pakistan is “sagging”, said their chief cricketer, Mr Raja.

Following a militant attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore in 2009, Pakistan went a decade without hosting a single international match. The international teams slowly started to roam the country again. But just weeks before the World Cup, New Zealand abruptly canceled their tour due to security concerns, and England quickly followed suit.

In the Pakistani port city of Karachi, supporters prepared for the T20 World Cup match in hopes their team could finally overthrow India’s dominance.

Cricket has many formats, including a “test match” which can last up to five days and end in a tie. But the T20 World Cup is the shortest, each match lasting about three hours, so the results are more easily influenced by a brief period of glow.

“Pocket Qurans are out, the memorized holy words are recited and hands are raised for prayers,” Ebad Ahmed, a Karachi-based journalist, said of some fans seeking divine intervention. “The idea is to bring God alongside our team.

Whatever the odds for the Pakistani squad, the game will be a publicly shared experience, even for people like Muzamil Ali, a 33-year-old sales professional who has confessed he doesn’t even like cricket. Still, when it comes to India and Pakistan, most people can’t help but watch – and Mr Ali plans to watch it on the big screen outdoors.

“Watching a Pakistan-India game with a crowd is not only fun,” Ali said, “but it is also better to share the grief with others in case Pakistan loses”.

Zia ur-Rehman contributed reporting from Karachi, Pakistan.

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