Sports

India-Pakistan Sports Rivalry: Make The Best Enemies On And Off The Field

Speaking of the high-voltage drama that a cricket match between the two neighbours ensues, Suresh Menon tells how sports rivalry is not confined to the Asian archrivals alone. It is rather our version of the England–Australia and Australia–New Zealand rivalries, except that they are not kept alive by politicians and media for political and commercial gains

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Erapalli Prasanna bowling during an India­-Pakistan match in 1978
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Sport is mostly about competition and rivalry. If human beings were not combative, wrote the former England captain and psychoanalyst, Mike Brearley, no one would have invented sport.

Rivalry is stitched into the fabric of sport; you cannot have competition without rivalry. A round of golf or tennis or table tennis at your club or among friends loses all meaning if rules are not followed and if allowance is not made for winning and losing. “I am not letting you win” is as much a challenge among friends as it is, in a more sophisticated way, about professional sportspersons playing for their national teams.

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Cricket has its hierarchy of rivalries. When I was in school in Bangalore, it was Baldwin’s vs Bishop Cotton’s. Hundreds, sometimes thousands, turned up for the inter-school finals. In college, it was St. Joseph’s against everybody else, with matches often attracting international players too.

At club level, it was Bangalore United Cricket Club (BUCC) vs. Swastic Union. The two tea­ms between them had many Karnataka players, as did the State Bank vs. Syndicate Bank encounters in the local league.  And then at the Ranji level, there was Karnataka vs. Tamil Nadu.

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The Ranji Trophy was played as a league in the five zones then, and although in Hyderabad Karnataka had rivals just as tough, it was the Tamil Nadu game that always carried an edge.

This may have been because the teams were led by the two off spinners vying for a place in the Indian team, Erapalli Prasanna and Srinivasa Venkataraghavan. Perhaps, it was because someone at some time did not wish someone else good morning—rivalries have developed from less—the point being that they need not evolve from anything rational or logical.

Context is important, of course. Historical reasons often exist and if they do not, they are easily invented. Successful teams tend to find themselves becoming unpopular among their peers. Choosing a team to support is, for most fans, a matter of hometown familiarity. But the motivation for choosing a specific rival is more complex and not always amenable to straightforward explanation. Not only should the local team do well and, therefore, become deserving of praise and cheer, but also the rival team must be hated with a passion. This behaviour is borrowed from English football. But, to be honest, one sees less of that fervour today.

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Clean Bowled Abhishek Nayar gets bowled out in a Ranji Trophy match between Bombay and Delhi in 2007 Photo: Getty Images

The IPL and its specific rivalries (Chennai Super Kings vs. Mumbai Indians) have made the process of rival-choosing more interesting. Some fans choose teams, while others choose favourite players and support their teams. Sometimes, fans of one team back their opponents just to make a point, as Royal Challengers Bangalore discovered after letting star player Rahul Dravid go. For a couple of matches, the team was heckled at home.

All cricketing countries have myths about playing for specific teams. The most common is that playing for a particular team is an easier way of getting to the next level. Not so long ago, it was assumed that playing for Jolly Rovers (Chennai), Mafatlal (Bombay), BUCC, Sonnet (Delhi) and Mohun Bagan (Calcutta) made career jumps easier and that playing for many of these same Ranji teams brought more focus on those hoping to play for India. As a result, such teams were both worshipped and disliked by those outside the charmed circle and the fans who fed into the prevailing lore.

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Dadar Union and Shivaji Park (Bombay), Madras Club and Delhi Gymkhana Club (Delhi), Kalighat and Sporting Union (Calcutta), Alwarpet and Vijay (Chennai) have traditionally been identified with the game in their respective centres. The entry of corporates into the local leagues has helped players make financial gains, but private clubs still have a sense of adventure attached to them.

Today, with cricket having moved away from the traditional centres to the smaller towns and cities from where many of our recent stars have emerged, we hear less of the bias for the big tea­ms. But stories of the advantages of playing for the ‘right’ clubs, attending the ‘right’ private coa­ching camps or avoiding the current persona non grata amongst officials at a state association provide just enough grist to keep the narrative alive.

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But the fact that playing for some teams guaranteed better facilities, greater exposure and more matches means that there are good non-emotional reasons for the apparent bias. This is not peculiar to India, where the Bombay vs. Delhi rivalry has solidified over the decades into something approaching a fact of life. Rivalry among individual players saw the fans line up behind one or the other, with each generation passing on its slurs, imagined and otherwise, to the next. Thus was a tradition born and sustained by fans.

The India–Pakistan rivalry is destined to be with us for a while yet. It is our version of the England–Australia and Australia–New Zealand rivalries, except that in these cases, they were not kept alive by politicians and television executives for political and commercial reasons, respectively. Australia are always happy to show England how far better than the mother country they are in cricket, while New Zealand, long denied regular tours by Australia, had the psychological issues of being a small country neighbouring a larger one. Both these, and then a few more including cultural, religious and soc- ial issues, figure in the famous Asian rivalry too.

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Master Blaster Sachin Tendulkar playing the inaugural IPL match in 2012 Photo: Getty Images

Sometimes, it seems as if World Cups are held just to ensure that India play Pakistan multiple times since they are unlikely to meet in their respective countries. No one seems to mind, however, because a tournament would rather have 90,000 people watching a match and a few million talking more about it than almost anything else.

The pre-Independence domestic pentangular tournaments with teams picked on religious lines, gave a preview to the India–Pakistan rivalry, which was a reason that Mahatma Gandhi opposed it. Later on, politicians saw an opportunity where he saw an approaching calamity.

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But famous rivalries below the international level have existed in other countries, too. Some grew organically as teams consistently finished at the top over long periods. This was both an aspiration and a challenge for other teams, and although the intensity might have reduced, it could pick up at any moment.

In recent years, however, traditional rivalries seem to have become less important, even less commented upon—the exception, of course, being India–Pakistan.

New South Wales (Australia), Yorkshire (England) and Barbados (West Indies) produced some of the finest players of cricket. Thus were legendary rivalries born: New South Wales vs. Victoria, Yorkshire vs. Lancashire, Singhalese vs. Nondescript (in Sri Lanka), Barbados vs. anybody else. In team sport, as in individual contests, there is need for ‘the other’ to test competence, skill and temperament against. A Borg needed a McEnroe to become fully realised, an Ali needed a Frazier to grow into the best version of himself as a boxer. Great rivalries tease out the best in competitors.

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However, rivalries do not happen in a vacuum, as they need crowd backing. Speaking about the matches between Yorkshire and Lancashire, Neville Cardus says, “The great game must have pageantry about it and bring forth variety of a man’s nature, especially humour of national character. The crowd must take it to heart and get upset and brood during the week upon its ups and downs. It must at times lay heavily upon the minds of the people and render them gloomy.”

Ravichandran Ashwin’s first thought on scoring the winning run against Pakistan in the T20 World Cup was, “Thank God, now they won’t stone my house.” Defeat weighs heavily upon the minds of the people, who simply express their gloomy feelings in different ways, violently in some cases

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England’s former poet-laureate John Betjeman began a poem with the following (probably false, but that is another story) memory of Gloucester­shire playing Sussex in Cheltenham:

I composed these lines when a summer wind
Was blowing the elm leaves dry,   
And we were seventy six for seven   
And they had C B Fry

It is the one memorable verse about a club rivalry in cricket. Most others are less literary and more scatological.

In recent years, however, traditional rivalries seem to have become less important, even less commented upon—the exception, of course, being India–Pakistan. An attempt to build the India–Australia rivalry into something historic and significant has not been quite successful, because commercial greed alone is not enough. Shared history is a crucial element too.

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Thus, when Ireland beat England or New Zealand beat Australia as it happened at the current World T20, it is as much about cricket as about righting the wrongs, perceived and otherwise, on the cricket field elsewhere. It is much the same if Pakistan beat India.

Neighbours make the best enemies, as cricket has shown from the club level to the international.

(This appeared in the print edition as "Hooked on Rivalry")

(Views expressed are personal)

Suresh Menon is a sports columnist

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