India and Pakistan last faced each other in a test match in 2007. Shoaib Akhtar and Sourav Ganguly were still active cricketers. Virat Kohli was still an unknown figure coming through the ranks in junior cricket.
In the 12 years since, Kohli has emerged as arguably the greatest cricketer of his generation and reached unprecedented levels of stardom. Mohammad Amir has since made his debut, served six years for his involvement in a spot-fixing controversy and returned to lead Pakistan’s attack. Both countries have undergone multiple regime changes and have just about avoided a full-blown war at least twice.
The sheer absence of regular bilateral contests between the two countries has kept a whole generation of fans bereft of what was once the most gripping rivalry this sport offered. No active cricketer from either country other than Ishant Sharma and Shoaib Malik has featured in a test involving the two. The neighbours have not played each other in a bilateral one day international series either since 2013.
It’s only the International Cricket Council (ICC) events and Asia Cup where this fixture takes place now. But it is not just the lack of games that has led to this rivalry losing its sheen. In fact, the reduced frequency should ideally add to the excitement and anticipation every time the two meet these days. But that is not the case, primarily due to the clear upper hand India has had over Pakistan for a few years now. The battle is no longer of equals, and only a result other than a cursory Indian win is worth making the headlines.
On Sunday, as the two teams locked horns amid unnecessarily generated hype thanks to the political climate, it was once again a characteristically uninteresting contest as India registered another comprehensive win. The gulf in quality of players is simply too high for Pakistan to be a force worth reckoning with. India has consolidated its position in the top half of the table with the win, whereas Pakistan is now in the familiar territory of having its campaign in complete disarray.
But a gap this big between the arch rivals did not grow overnight. India has been the most professionally run team with the finest resources available for a while now. Pakistan, on the other hand, struggles to put a basic structure in place that produces and harnesses talent. This lack of professionalism reflects in the unathletic build of its players. The team’s fielding standards often feel stuck in a 1990s time capsule. The team continues to carry batsmen in their late 30s, partly because no one from the talent pool is making much of a case for himself. Once again, none of these structural problems are recent.
Ever since the ghastly attack on the visiting Sri Lankan team in Lahore in 2009, Pakistan has been deprived of hosting international cricket barring a few low-profile series. The Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) has been relentless in trying to bring cricket back home, but their attempts at persuading both the ICC and the other member boards have yielded little results so far. This has taken a serious toll on the country’s cricket economy and has slowly had its impact on the quality of the team too.
Of the current squad representing Pakistan at the World Cup, Shoaib Malik and Mohammad Hafeez are the only names an average Indian fan might recognise. Neither has had an illustrious career but are familiar faces nonetheless for having been around for long enough. Mohammad Amir is popular for entirely different reasons, which is unfortunate.
The team’s batting core consists of promising youngsters like Babar Azam and Imam-ul-Haq, but their impressive statistics so far have been amassed largely against lowly ranked teams that an Indian viewer is unlikely to have made note of. Neither being able to step up in a high-pressure game against a strong opposition on Sunday would not have surprised anyone who has followed their career patterns so far.
This is a far cry from the glory days of Pakistani cricket, when Indians used to have nightmares of their team facing the likes of Wasim Akram, Waqar Younis, Shoaib Akhtar and Saeed Anwar. Even the slightly lesser players like Moin Khan and Aaqib Javed were regular features in India’s basic cricketing discourse. Pakistani cricket back then may have been lacking in consistency and discipline, but it thrived on its larger-than-life, in-your-face superstars. The current team, on the other hand, largely plies its trade in front of empty stands in the UAE to very little attention of the rest of the world. From being arguably the most charismatic cricketing force, Pakistan has steadily but surely been reduced to the dungeons of irrelevance.
India, on the other hand, has only grown in its standing in world cricket. In addition to the Board of Control for Cricket in India’s unchallenged hegemony in running the sport, the team too has showed sustained growth over the years. Apart from Kohli, the Indian team boasts of bona fide international superstars in Rohit Sharma, Jasprit Bumrah and Hardik Pandya.
The gap in stature and stardom between the Indian and Pakistani cricketers is perhaps the widest it has ever been. It has come to a point where Indian fans might be forgiven for being ignorant of the names on the Pakistani roster, as opposed to affording them the respect reserved for an equal.
It is exactly against this backdrop that Pakistan’s thumping win over India in the Champions Trophy final a couple of years ago felt so special. Earlier into the same tournament, India had comprehensively beaten their rivals like the customary ritual it has been now for some years. Pakistan beat all odds and handed India a humiliation of the highest order. The wounds of that defeat would have hurt for much longer and Sunday’s edition of this rivalry would have been seen as the perfect setting for India to exact revenge. Except that India already settled the score in the 2018 Asia Cup, beating Pakistan with ridiculous ease. Not once but twice – and without needing Kohli’s services.
The entire buildup to this game relied on artificially infusing intensity and context given the current climate of political tensions. And the host broadcasters and media were too happy to play ball. The two countries were all but in a state of war not too long ago. The Indian media was practically pleading for the team to boycott Pakistan. But that mood had made a significant shift as the game approached closer. Now it was being seen as an opportunity to score some political points.
Nationalist extraordinaire and MP Gautam Gambhir held no reservations hyping up the contest, thanks to his commentary contract. Virender Sehwag and Harbhajan Singh appeared on Shoaib Akhtar’s YouTube channel in a buildup segment for the game. The India Today group, perhaps the most vocal in urging the team to not play Pakistan courtesy the nationalism champions like Rohit Sardana and Gaurav Sawant, recently hosted a cricket conclave in London, the guest list of which included Wasim Akram, Younis Khan and Misbah-ul-Haq.
An entire economy thrives on a battle of two cricket teams that are so unequal in pedigree, they are extremely unlikely to produce a contest worth anyone’s time. And yet, year after year, tournament after tournament, the fans are supposed to feel charged up in anticipation to this game because the two countries are at diplomatic loggerheads.
The only way to ensure this contest is regarded for what it truly is is for India to resume cricket relations with Pakistan. More regular bilateral meetings should convince the Indian fans of the gap that is too big to lose sleep over, and that the jingoistic campaigns in the buildup to these games are simply not worth it.
Strictly in cricketing terms, India has a much more intense, exciting and thriving rivalry with Australia. It may very well extend to England too. India is likely to be greeted with some serious Caribbean aggression later this year when they play the West Indies. There is so much for Indian cricket fans to be captivated by in the period their team is on top of the trade. A periodic encounter with Pakistan, though, is not one of those things.
Parth Pandya is an Ahmedabad-based freelance sports writer.