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Riding the Brandwagon

By Suresh Menon
February 28, 2003 18:22 IST
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In 1971, India was at war with Pakistan while Indian and Pakistani cricketers played for the World XI against Australia. Sunil Gavaskar, a member of that team, told me just before the India-Pakistan clash in the 1999 World Cup that "The two sets of players spent time together and gave one another strength."

Seven years later, the countries resumed cricketing relations after a break of nearly two decades. Incredibly the rival captains, Bishan Bedi and Mushtaq Mohammad, were teammates at Northamptonshire. When Gavaskar hinted at retirement in '86, Imran Khan called him up and asked him to keep playing till at least the series against Pakistan so he could have one more tilt at the champion batsman. Javed Miandad might be a gadfly on the field, but off it he mixed freely with the Indian players. Wasim Akram was open in his admiration of Sachin Tendulkar. Rameez Raja was as popular with the Indians as Srikkanth was with the Pakistanis.

So where did it all change? When did an India-Pakistan encounter become something more than a cricket match? When did healthy rivalry give way to the kind of narrow jingoism where beating Pakistan is all that mattered, even in the context of a bigger tournament? And who was responsible?

Let us take the last question first. I have no doubt in my mind that the responsibility for the intensity must be laid at the door of the media-marketing combine. Excessive patriotism sold toothpastes, cars and refrigerators. It meant, simply, that more people watched or tuned into an India-Pakistan encounter thanks to all the emotions poured into it by the media. And the media got onto the bandwagon because it sold newspapers.

When India won the World Cup in 1983, there were only a handful of Indian reporters present to record the event. In four years' time, the World Cup came to India, the media-sponsor nexus began to be established, and the numbers grew. The numbers which watched the sport, the numbers which turned on the television or opened newspapers to experience it through journalists, and the number of journalists who began to follow the Indian team around the world multiplied.

At the '92 World Cup in Australia, the number of Indian journalists reporting had grown to a couple of dozen. By the time the caravan moved to England seven years later, there were nearly one hundred journalists. India's growing influence on world cricket saw more sponsors, more money, more television time, more newspaper space and more journalists at the World Cup. In between, there was Sharjah, Canada, Singapore to keep the flame of the India-Pakistan rivalry alive. Sponsors were willing to pour in more money for a tournament if these two countries were present.

And it wouldn't do to have them portrayed as essentially friendly people who saw cricket as just another game. That would ruin everything. Friendly rivalry had to make way for intense enmity. And so it grew. In Sharjah, no Indian dared wear a green T-shirt on a match day (green being the colour associated with Pakistan). While reporting for the Dubai newspaper Gulf News, I wrote after a match that Pakistan taught India a lesson (a cricketing one, to be sure). I still occasionally receive hate mail for that – and it happened nearly ten years ago. Letter-writers threatened to blow up my car, wanted to check the colour of my passport, and in many cases were abusive describing what I thought were impossible physical manoeuvres. I took telephone calls from ladies whose jewelry I could hear clanging in the background, most asking me to return to the hole I came from.

Mohammad Azharuddin, the Indian captain, thanked me for deflecting the kind of abuse that the Indian team usually got if they lost to Pakistan.

Two years earlier, he had led India to a splendid win over Pakistan in a World Cup match in Sydney. Two years later, he was to do it again in Bangalore. If Tendulkar was the hero the first time, Ajay Jadeja with 40-odd in the last four overs when he carved into Waqar Younis made the difference now. Then at Old Trafford in '99, Venkatesh Prasad claimed five wickets, and that was that.

After the Bangalore match, Wasim Akram's house was attacked (he didn't play the match), and there was national mourning in Pakistan. "Theirs is not an evolved society," we told ourselves. A few days later, India lost to Sri Lanka in Kolkata, and similar things happened in India. Now we were not an evolved society.

Public reaction to victory and defeat is an offshoot of the media-marketing combine. Patriotism is a useful marketing tool, and the media quite shamelessly appropriates it to sell their newspapers with as much lack of feeling as the sponsors do. If India wins, then for Pakistani fans the reason is clear – their cricketers took money to throw the match. ‘Paisa khaya' is the phrase that is popular on the circuit. If Pakistan win, Indian fans think ‘paisa khaya', too. Bowlers and batsmen are seldom given credit. There is bound to be trouble one way or another. That is the tragedy of an India-Pakistan match.

The Western media still think in terms of an ‘Ashes' rivalry. Outside Old Trafford four years ago, I was interviewed by a BBC man who kept asking if this was an England-Australia type of rivalry. He would have been happy had I said ‘Yes', it would have confirmed his own pet theory. But of course it isn't anything like that. India and Pakistan are two nations divided by a common culture. Politicians keep their seats by pointing fingers across the border; sponsors sell their wares by doing the same; likewise with the media. They have ensured that an India-Pakistan encounter will remain more than a cricket match.

Psychologists talk about Pakistan's Big Brother syndrome – and their players resolve to beat the mother country, as it were, to show their own manhood. For India, in recent years, religion has entered the equation too -- not for the players, but for the fans. Nearly six decades ago, George Orwell wrote, "At the international level sport is mimic warfare. But the significant thing is not the behaviour of the players but the attitude of the spectators: and behind the spectators, of the nations who work themselves into furies and seriously believe that running, jumping, (handling a ball or bat) are tests of national virtue."

On Saturday at Centurion, Tendulkar might exchange pleasantries with Akram, Ganguly and Inzamam might share a joke -- but they will feel the enormous pressure of expectations. The teams are much closer to each other than the spectators are likely to be. It is sad that one's Indianness or Pakistani-ness is sought to be defined on a sports field – but it will remain that way because that is the way the politicians, the sponsors and the media want it. It is an attitude that might put votes in the box, bums on seats, and money in the bank.

 But it is artificial – and till we acknowledge that, we will continue to live in an unreal world. Fanatics on both sides do not realize they are being taken for a ride. A moment's reflection will help them to understand the source of their madness.

But who has time for that when it is so much more cathartic to throw stones at Akram's house or deface Rahul Dravid's posters?

(Suresh Menon is the Editor-in-Chief of 'Vijay Times' in Bangalore. He has covered four World Cups in three continents)

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