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'Gentlemen, Play!' says GenNext

By Vinutha Mallya & Zebunnisa Hamid in London
February 28, 2003 20:21 IST
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Vinutha Mallya, 25, and Zebunnisa Hamid, 23, are students of MA Journalism at Goldsmiths College, University of London.

Vinutha left Bangalore, India, where her family lives, to study in London six months ago. Zebunnisa comes from Lahore, Pakistan, where her family resides.

They are born to the post-Partition generation and reflect the hope that historical and political baggage can be left behind in order create a more peaceful subcontinent for the future.

India and Pakistan will face each other in a much-anticipated World Cup match on Saturday. The event will allow people from both sides, who have been deprived of Indo-Pak cricket for almost three years, to express their love for the game and their animosity for each other.

Shortly before the clash of the sub-continental rivals at SuperSport Park, Centurion, Saturday, the two friends chatted online about the game, and the need to separate cricket from politics. Excerpts:

Vinutha: Are you ready for the big India-Pakistan match on Saturday? What do you think will happen?

Zebunnisa: Whichever team is having a good day will win. They both share the subcontinent's knack for collapsing in a moment and rising above the call of duty in the next. You guys have the batting, we have the bowling.  Hey, put them together and you have an unbeatable team!

Vinutha: I wish we could play that way. But we can't – not in cricket and not in politics.

Zebunnisa: Let's just hope that the game stays friendly. Not so much on the pitch but among the supporters.

Vinutha: What do you mean?

Zebunnisa: There is a lot of pressure on the teams to perform. For Pakistan and India it's not just another World Cup game. It's THE game.

Vinutha: The way our countries perceive each other percolates into the pitch.

Zebunnisa: People from both sides love to see our teams go for each other. Because of the politics, but also because of their talent and the fact that both teams know the other's flaws and skills really well.

Vinutha: After all, we were the same country once upon a time!

Zebunnisa: Think about it – other than English-speaking teams, which other teams or supporters can swear at each other in their native tongue? That has to count for something!

Vinutha: There is a lot of politics at play on the field.  There is the pressure to defeat the Pakistanis - whether in cricket; or war; or atomic bombs. Don't our political tensions put unnecessary pressure on the boys? Especially the young ones like Parthiv Patel?

Zebunnisa: Sadly it does. However, there are also those who are in it for the love of the game, those who love to see India and Pakistan play each other because of the atmosphere it creates, to see the players on the same pitch.

Vinutha: So the love of the game combined with the fact that India and Pakistan play each other with a vengeance on the field makes it more special?

Zebunnisa: If we do win, the country will go insane with euphoria – celebrating as if we've won the World Cup. 

Vinutha: We have more people supporting the team than you – one billion!

Zebunnisa: True, but it is quality not quantity that counts!

Vinutha: I wonder sometimes, if India and Pakistan made peace, would the character of cricket between the countries change?

Zebunnisa: Cricket will change but I think it is well worth it! The worst was when we stopped playing each other. Cricket was an outlet and another way of communicating – having a link away from politics. Sharjah was our own mini World Cup. People came to see players like Tendulkar and Dravid against Akram and Waqar Younis. It was one of the most anticipated events of the year, but we haven't played in almost three years. In just this one match all that pent up energy – and even anger maybe – will probably come out. There has been a lot of bad blood between the two countries since we last faced each other on the field. Then again, look at England and Australia. They aren't at war but when they play the tension and rivalry is still there.

Vinutha: Yes, that is the difference between us and England and Australia. Their rivalry is historical, ours is both historical and contemporary. Don't you think by living abroad, away from the homeland, we tend to be more understanding and open minded about each other? If we weren't in London, we'd never imagine actually sitting down and watching the match together even if we could.

Zebunnisa: On the day of the match, no matter how good friends we both are we will want to see our own teams to win and win well. For that moment all our new-found awareness that comes from being abroad will go out that window!

 Vinutha: We are definitely more critical of our countries' politics and futility of diplomatic tensions when we meet and become friends with people from Pakistan, at least in my case.

Zebunnisa: The more interesting question would then be: why are we watching the game together?

Vinutha: Because we have managed to put things in perspective. We can both speak the same language and we realise how much fun that is being away from home. Culturally, we connect…

Zebunnisa:  And being away from home this is the closet to home! Ironic, isn't it?

Vinutha: And why do we support out respective teams?

Zebunnisa: National pride.  It's painful to lose a World Cup match. It's a matter of pride.

Vinutha: If you were playing England I would not support Pakistan. Perhaps I would now, because I know you. So, more than national pride, it is patriotism for most people really.

Zebunnisa: Pakistanis feel the same way. Our countries love to play each other but we just do not like to see each other do well. But that's the good thing about going abroad and meeting people from across the border.  The masses turn into individuals and hardened stances become softer.

Vinutha: One would think that we would want the subcontinent to do well as a whole but we can't get past the ill-will that has been passed down to us from birth.

Zebunnisa: Who do you think will win?

Vinutha: If you asked me whom I'd want to win it has to be India.

Zebunnisa: I don't think averages, statistics, past performances or any of that matters when Pakistan plays India. The team that can handle the pressure of having the entire subcontinent's eyes on it will win.

Vinutha: Pakistani players are very aggressive. When I see Akram or Shoaib I think they could be swearing into my face!

Zebunnisa:  As fast bowlers, they have to pump themselves but I think the same thing about Ganguly.  We will probably see a lot more of that on Saturday. Despite the aggression and rivalry, people in Pakistan were upset when India refused to play Pakistan even on neutral ground. It was supposed to be some sort of punishment; it wasn't for the politicians, but for cricket lovers.

Vinutha: Yes, a sport should not be mixed with politics and turned into a proxy war. True cricket lovers on both sides were upset about that. Do cricketers have to carry the burden of politics on their shoulders?

Zebunnisa: Every country in the world associates pride with some sport. It is natural for India and Pakistan to put their energy into cricket. It is a healthy distraction.  For that one day both Indians and Pakistanis are focused on the same thing; expectations will differ but there is a link, however brief; there's a dialogue, a dialogue that does not threaten nuclear annihilation; that does not have words such as terrorism in it. A dialogue that we desperately need. 

Vinutha: Use cricket for a dialogue of peace? But would that not be getting political again?

Zebunnisa: No. We have to face facts here. Unfortunately, we are literally at war with each other. So personally I would much rather see a fierce Shoaib Akthar facing an aggressive Ganguly than our politicians staring down each other.

Vinutha: So we fight a war through cricket?

Zebunnisa: Would you rather that we didn't play cricket at all?

Vinutha: We should play it as a sport and not war.

Zebunnisa: We are not the only ones to do that. Many countries play like this. For example, England and Argentina in the Football World Cup. I don't think that by stopping cricket altogether we'll solve the problem or by playing we'll bring peace, but it is a step forward.

Vinutha: But why use sport to display national identity and resolve political crisis?

Zebunnisa: It does unite people though. I don't think its right to put the entire country's hopes on our players. It is not right to expect them to restore our pride, to prove who is better, or to win some sort of weapon-less war.

Vinutha: Especially since political decisions are not taken by them but by some one else. They're just like soldiers not part of an army.

Zebunnisa: Unfortunately they will have that pressure on them when they go on to the field. A battle of cricket is better than a battle with guns.

Vinutha: No battle is good.

Zebunnisa: In a perfect world there would be no rivalries and therefore no real teams and we wouldn't care less if we won or lost. But we don't live in a perfect world.

Vinutha: So how does that affect us? How can we carry on being friends when both our countries are at war and our cricketers are its mascots? Where does that leave us?

Zebunnisa: Do you think our cricketers aren't friends? On the field they play each other like enemies, but off the field I'm sure they're friendly. Whether you win or we win, you and I will still be friends.

Vinutha: Our generation is very tired of this animosity between our countries now.

Zebunnisa: We are. We are fighting a war that none of us were alive to see start. I don't even know what we're fighting for anymore. The sad thing is there were prospects at Agra summit that both governments failed at taking advantage of.

Vinutha: Also, now the Hindu-Muslim divide is growing in India. I think this has increased many peoples' animosity towards Pakistan because it is a Muslim country.

Zebunnisa: But cricket is not a Muslim-Hindu thing. You have Muslims in your team. The issue is about India and Pakistan as a whole. I don't want war with India. I think most people don't want war with India.

Vinutha: Neither would many Indians.

Zebunnisa: We are literally being held hostage by the continuous threat of war. So I say lets leave words of war behind and get on with one game. Let the bat and ball do the talking.

Vinutha: Fight a war through cricket?

Zebunnisa: On March 1, people are going to be thinking only one thing—‘we have to win this match'.

Vinutha: But the burden of Kashmir, of nuclear tests, of failed diplomacy is on the game.. All that builds up the mood, the excitement.

Zebunnisa: But why then are people so excited about this match?

Vinutha: It is because of all that – the burden of history.

Zebunnisa: The excitement is because we haven't played each other in so long and Pakistan wants to finally beat India in the World Cup. India wants to win just as badly.  We've been deprived. It is like an old love becoming more beautiful with anticipation! Old foes do too. What would happen in India if you lost?

Vinutha: It would be much more disappointing to lose to Pakistan than to any other country. How do people perceive India in Pakistan?

 Zebunnisa: What people back home see of India is not what we see. We see each other on an individual level because we're lucky to study together. But most people only have the news and politicians. So if an Indian politician says we can destroy Pakistan, of course people would hate that comment and therefore hate India for making it.

Vinutha: Indians are also upset about the constant infiltration along the border. But all those are results of governments' actions. All the more reason for people from India and Pakistan to meet each other and differentiate people from politics and see the human face behind this awful mess. We both represent the moderate voice from our countries. There are definitely more extreme views.

Zebunnisa: That is why cricket and this match is so important. For that day both Indian fans and Pakistani fans will be in the same stadium sharing something and whatever may happen later, whatever the politicians may say, we are able to see each other on a different level. Yes it may be influenced by politics, but it is also a healthy, normal competition.

Vinutha: To a healthy competition on Saturday then!

Zebunnisa: It is really ironic that we are having this conversation in the first place!

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Vinutha Mallya & Zebunnisa Hamid in London