India-Pakistan sporting rivalry is the stuff of legends. And another chapter in its story unfolds this week...
Waqar was bowling really fast and hit Sachin in the face. I heard the blow and flinched even though I was 22 yards away. -- Navjot Singh Sidhu
India-Pakistan love-hate links in sport come with their very own flavour. The relationship that exists on either side of the border, the shared (if divisive) history, political ups and downs all have their unique part to play and nowhere is this better reflected than on the cricket field.
So, will things be different when Pakistan land here this week to play a short series of two Twenty20 matches (at Bengaluru and Ahmedabad) and three ODIs (at Chennai, Kolkata and Delhi)?
Pakistan are very much in the international doghouse after the murderous attack on the Sri Lanka team in Lahore by terrorists four years ago.
Their “home“ matches are in fact being played in places like England and the United Arab Emirates, and the team are in transition.
India, too, are on the downslide, having just lost a home series to England after 28 long years. The captain, as well as the senior most member of the team are under attack. To counterbalance this, the Men in Blue are still a formidable side and were good enough to win the World Cup last year, 27 years after Kapil Dev and his men did at Lord's.
For all the recent ups and downs, the India Pakistan sporting rivalry is the stuff of legend.
Careers have been made and unmade in the course of a single series; the cricket is intense -often bordering on open antagonism and animosity. Yet, great friendships exist too, as well as the excitement that surrounds one of the world's great sporting rivalries.
So there is thrust and counter-thrust, mental -sometimes physical -games being played out. The pressure on the cricketers is immense, and every advantage, edge, nuance, is eagerly sought to be driven home.
One little incident, at the very start of the 2004 “Friendship Tour” will suffice as an example.
India captain Sourav Ganguly walked into his first press conference on Pakistani soil at the imposing Pearl Continental Hotel in Lahore with a sea of faces awaiting his thoughts.
It was a much-anticipated visit after years of open and covert hostility that had eclipsed cricketing ties, and the India captain's thoughts were eagerly awaited. He was after all, for that moment, effectively representing his country on inimical, if not openly hostile soil. Sourav, though, had set things up well in advance with the large Indian Press pack. It was going to be a series pitting Pakistan's aggressive pace attack led by Shoaib Akhtar against India's formidable batting strength and almost the very first question to him was, “How do you plan to deal with the Rawalpindi Express (Shoaib's nickname)?“ Pat came the answer.
“We'll just pull his chain and derail him” (referring to the emergency braking system most Indian trains use).“ The hall exploded with laughter, and it set the trend for what would go on to be remembered as a truly epic series, with India coming away victors in both Test and One-Day International cricket on Pakistan soil for the first time ever.
On the flip -just a few days later -was this exchange highlighting the aggressive hostility marking India-Pakistan cricket matches. Once again it involved Shoaib, but this time in person.
In the course of India's mammoth 675 for 5 declared, Virender Sehwag was tearing into the bowling, and taking particular pleasure on targeting Shoaib -then among the world's quickest bowlers -en route to a first ever Test triple-hundred by an Indian batsman (Viru remains the only one to have scored 300-plus runs in national colours, twice).
Having faced, and evaded a series of bouncers from Shoaib, Sehwag became the inevitable target of some pointed barbs.
“Hit the ball na, Viru,“ Shoaib would say every time Sehwag ducked under or avoided yet another bumper that whistled past his head. Having heard this about five or six times, Sehwag responded to the ring of close in fielders, “Abey, is he a fast bowler, or is he a beggar?” For the record, India went on to carve out victory by an innings and 52 runs, the first time they had won a game in Pakistan, ever! Old-timers recall tales of much greater hostility from either side. Under Imran Khan, India were decimated in the 1978 series 2-0, a tour that also brought the curtains down on India's era of spin dominion. Not only were the visitors outplayed in the second and third Tests at Lahore and Karachi, incidents on and off the field continued to rankle relations for long.
Years later, this hostility spilled over into an open attack on Krishnamachari Sri-kkanth, leading India in the four Test series. Though Pakistan threw everything at the visitors, starting with a pace attack that included Imran Khan, Wasim Akram and later Waqar Younis, Srikkanth's side held firm but a sour note had been struck early on when he was attacked while on the field and had his shirt torn.
Reports variously said then that the attacker was from a religious party, and/or had been armed with a knife, but Srikkanth was quickly rescued by security personnel, and carried on with the tour, drew all four Tests and was rewarded with the boot on return home by the then selection committee.
It was incidentally on this very tour that a young prodigy named Sachin Tendulkar would make his debut (first Test at Karachi) in a career that lasts to this day.
Remembers opening batsman Navjot Singh Sidhu, now Member of Parliament, who was at the crease when the teenager walked out to bat, “Waqar was bowling really fast that day, and hit Sachin in the face. I heard the blow and I flinched even though I was 22 yards away.
“The ball hit him in the mouth and Sachin was bleeding, so I asked him if wanted to retire.
`No Paaji, I'm okay' came the quick reply in his squeaky voice and though he didn't make much in that first innings, he came back in the next game and took a half-century off an attack that included Imran, Wasim Akram, Saleem Jaffer and Abdul Qadir.
It said a lot about the boy who has gone on to become one of the greatest cricketers of all time.“
Alongside cricket, hockey is the other sport that has the most resonance with fans and spectators. Just like the willow sport, the stick game has its share of stories, friendships and adversity.
Recalls former India forward and captain Mohammed Shahid, “Series against Pakistan, both home and away, were a regular feature during the 1980s and evoked huge crowd interest.
On the field, we were fierce rivals and moments after the match, it would change to visiting each other's homes and savouring delicious food.”
Adds current India player Gurbaj Singh, “I have travelled to Pakistan twice, once with the junior India team and recently with the Punjab team. The respect and affection showered by the fans is something dif ferent. We were invited to watch many local plays, a spe cial visit to the Nankana Sahib, and several other places.
All this though changes drastically on the field!”