India-Pakistan is same old story, only action replay | Cricket

Each time India – Pakistan play cricket a familiar story line unfolds as if someone has hit the repeat button. Same tired hype about the big game, and the usual remarks about ‘outside noise’ as distraction.

India's Virat Kohli (2L) talks with Pakistan's players at the end of the Asia Cup 2023 one-day international (ODI) cricket match between India and Pakistan at the Pallekele International Cricket Stadium(AFP)PREMIUM
India’s Virat Kohli (2L) talks with Pakistan’s players at the end of the Asia Cup 2023 one-day international (ODI) cricket match between India and Pakistan at the Pallekele International Cricket Stadium(AFP)

But noise and hype matter, both are part of the modern game because adrenaline-infused promotion is par for the course. Cricket is a sport and high-stakes commerce and economics demands that the available commercial opportunity is maximised, hit for a six. India versus Pakistan is an event that combines sport and entertainment: it is cricket’s ultimate box office, what film people would describe as a blockbuster release that demands a huge ‘opening’.

No wonder the broadcaster who (literally) has skin in the game having paid a fortune to acquire the rights, goes OTT with manufacturing interest. A cricket match is presented as a contest involving countries, national pride and izzat is added to the mix and a match is either to seek revenge or inflict one more defeat on the opponent.

Whether cricket should be contaminated in this manner is a matter of debate but the toxic promotion of a match, going beyond the understandable compulsions of promoting a commercial property, is distasteful. An India- Pakistan game, purely from a cricket perspective, is immensely attractive. Fans love the match-up between ‘ hit man’ Rohit Sharma and Shaheen Afridi and the raw battle between King Kohli and Haris Rauf bowling at 150. When the game is unmissable purely because of cricket’s exciting battles why add faltu spice which leaves a bad taste in the mouth.

Sadly, it’s not only the broadcaster and the sponsor ( both keen to protect their investment) who succumb to cheap hype for an India-Pak game. Ex-players, commentators, anchors have also caught the virus and happily fake excitement about the match billed as the ‘mother of all battles’, bigger than the Ashes.

Do players get caught in this madness and feel extra pressure going into an India-Pak game? Yes, they do, because of the history that stretches back 50 years. They realise it’s a special game and they will be remembered, for good or bad, depending on how they perform. Success can make one a hero, as happened to Hrishikesh Kanitkar and Joginder Sharma and failure can be a permanent scar as happened with some others.

When Ashish Nehra defended 8 in the final over of an ODI in Karachi in 2004, resulting in an India win, his reaction was relief more than anything else. The only thought in his mind in that tense moment was to escape the fate of Chetan Sharma years ago. I remember Sachin saying after his epic knock at Centurion (in the 2003 World Cup when he famously took down Waqar and Wasim) that he’d been thinking of this match for long and could not sleep the night before the game.

Players erect safety nets and defense mechanisms to protect themselves from excessive pressure. Nobody describes this strategy better than Dravid. When asked about an India-Pak game at a press conference he downplayed the contest in his typical steely manner. It’s just another game of cricket, he said, played by eleven players with a bat and ball. Anything special, the journalist persisted, hoping to extract a juicy quote for his copy. But Dravid, not to be tempted by the doosra, presented a straight bat to defend stoutly. No, he responded. We train and prepare the same way for all teams. Nothing different.

Which is not entirely true but players would be happy if the temperature is lowered and the frenzy controlled. Once, when it was suggested that the two teams shake hands before the game, to remind charged fans about treating the match as a friendly contest, one strong voice shot down the proposal. Why do anything special? he asked. Our job is to play and win. We are not the United Nations.

Wasim Akram was on social media the other day, looking forward to another India-Pak game, and pointed out that one team will win, the other won’t. His message, essentially: Treat sport as sport.

Which is such a nice, noble thought. India- Pakistan coming Sunday or anytime, even if it a relatively weak Pakistan with suspect batting. The thrill of India getting 48 from the last three overs, and Kohli hitting the greatest shot ever, in an impossible situation, is unmatched. Who needs extra motivation to watch?

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