In times of hate, the spirit of cricket triumphs

Srinagar: It was a night of celebration, one that would be etched in our memories for ever. Stories of Pakistan’s victory over India in the ICC Champions Trophy final, and the jubilation that poured onto the streets in Kashmir, will be remembered through ages, passed on from generation to generation, baptising millions of new cricket fans.
My baptism took place in 1986, when one afternoon in the spring of that year, Javed Miandad hit Chetan Sharma for a six at Sharjah. I was eight, and at my age, I could not jostle my way through the crowd of people packed in the ground-floor living room of my neighbour who happened to have a TV. I had to make do with watching the last over of the game through the wire-mesh window – my hands acting as blinders to block the light for a better view. From the images beamed by the black-and-white TV placed at the far end of the room, one could hardly see the cricket ball. But that did not matter.
The images of how the room erupted, as the TV commentator announced a six, are engraved in my mind like yesterday.
I turned into a voracious cricket fan. Many a time, I would find myself on the tin roof of my home, fixing the antenna for better picture on the new colour TV we bought that year. Wasim Akram bowling his bouncy outswingers to Chris Broad in the Australia tri-series, Abdul Qadir’s last-over sixes against West Indies to add to his leg spin, and Salim Malik’s innings at Calcutta that snatched the match from India’s claws, were part of my collection of cricket memories.
By 1992, when Australia and New Zealand hosted the World Cup, the fan in me was backing Pakistan to avenge the semi-final loss of 1987. I was hoping Pakistan would have the honour of bringing the World Cup to south Asia. To my surprise, I learnt that India had done it in 1983. Pakistan, which made a habit of beating India, had come closest in 1987 – the fact was unacceptable, but a fact nonetheless.
On Sunday, as I sat at my friend’s home in Srinagar, we had the company of six kids, all 10 or younger. My friend’s son and daughter, his niece and two nephews, all supported Pakistan, leaving his 6-year-old niece, Talia, alone to support the Indian cricket team. Where did the kids pick their preferences was not hard to tell – for the majority, the loyalty was inherited, but for Talia, it was the blue uniform. As the Pakistani batsmen hit the Indian bowlers to all corners of the park, kids let their excitement show in loud outbursts of jubilation. In between fours and sixes, they would tease the 6-year-old India supporter – “Indian bowlers are afraid of bowling now, they want to run away.”
Soon the Indian fan base in the room dwindled. Halfway through the Pakistani innings, Talia switched her loyalties. Amid the ‘madness’ that cricket is, Talia found herself alone over the other side of the line, just like my friend Imtiyaz Khan had. At the Jawahar Navodhaya Vidyalaya, a school sponsored by the Government of India, he was the only one among 24 students to support the Indian cricket team. As fresh batches of students joined each year, Imtiyaz did not relent despite being outnumbered, 200 to one. By the time Wasim Akram sent Lamb and Lewis back to the dressing room, Imtiyaz had already had second thoughts. Our teasers usually draw smiles when we bring up his support for Indian team over cups of tea on idling days.
On days when India and Pakistan meet on the cricket field, passions run high. The situation is ripe for politics to take over – reasoning sent packing and emotions allowed to take control. We have seen it happen over and over again. I can trace several instances – Miandad’s six or Aamir Suhail’s dismissal are typical examples, when passions are allowed to pour into our daily lives. From news anchors to analysts, former cricketers to commentators, all join to make cricket look like a war that the two teams fight for the “pride” of their respective countries. Aided by sophisticated tools of communication, the build-up to every India-Pakistan game bombards every cricket fan’s mind with the sense that the pride of the two countries would suffer if their cricket team lost. Add to it the communal tinge, and the pride brigade finds the handle that turns sports into a battle to save the national honour.
In the build-up to the Champions Trophy final, the concern was visible on our faces in this office. A few of us thought Pakistan was out to lose a second time against India. But that was not our worry – an even deeper concern was how the situation in Kashmir would turn out in case Pakistan won. The fans in us wanted Pakistan to beat India, the newsmen in us feared the next day’s headlines. From the friendly teases of Indian fans that mainly consisted of Kashmiri Pandits, we had slipped into a dark corner where lives could be lost to provocations following a victory or defeat in a cricket match.
But Pakistan’s victory was not just rejoiced in a historic street party, sports defeated the hate mongers outright. Barring a few publicity hungry fans, people in India reacted with responsibility. Sportsmen prevailed over bigots who wanted us to draw swords every time the cricket teams step feet onto the ground.
The International Cricket Council released a Spirit of Cricket video after the India-Pakistan final. Virat Kohli, Yuvraj Singh and Shoaib Malik shared a joke at the boundary line while waiting for the award ceremony. It must have sent the haters packing.
Every situation has its good, bad and the ugly. The two cricket teams shone with goodness, making the bad like Virender Sehwag look really small, and letting the ugly like Aamir Liyaqat and Gautam Gambhir make a fool of themselves. Cricket, I believe, will triumph over the hate that politics wants to fill our lives with.