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War And A Piece Of Willow

A clash that in the summer of 2017 has assumed more controversial proportions than ever before.

18/06/2017 12:56 PM IST | Updated 18/06/2017 1:06 PM IST
Reuters Staff / Reuters
Britain Cricket - India & Pakistan Nets - The Oval - June 17, 2017 Pakistan's Sarfraz Ahmed and India's Virat Kohli pose with the trophy Action Images via Reuters / Paul Childs Livepic EDITORIAL USE ONLY.

In another land, in another era it was Chinese General and strategist Sun Tzu who vocalized that The Supreme Art of War is to subdue the enemy without fighting. Today, the very same philosophy is epitomised in that mother of all battles: an India-Pakistan cricket match.

A clash that in the summer of 2017 has assumed more controversial proportions than ever before.

On the one hand there are some who feel the two nations should not come face to face period. And there are many who abhor the very metaphors of war being linked to what is essentially a sporting clash. That too a game that was once the bastion of mild-mannered, tea-sipping gentlemen. But given a potent cocktail of political volatility and religious undertones, it's very difficult not to visualise London's Oval Cricket Ground as a Kurukshetra on the Thames.

An India-Pakistan cricket match is a war that transcends cricketing formats. Cricketing Form. And Geography.

Courtesy Gautam Bhimani
Holding MS Dhoni's champagne bottle (that I still have on my bar at home) after they beat Pakistan in the T20 World Cup Final.

I have witnessed these battles in partisan home conditions, in the oil rich oasis in the Arab desert, a few miles from South Australia's most famous Barossa Valley wineries, adjacent to the Gold mines of the South African Highveld and in the midst of the sub-continentally populated industrial midlands of Great Britain. But no matter what the setting, the fervour, the following and fanaticism remain eerily identical.

My first brush with this mania came as a wide-eyed schoolboy, where I had been tutored that even when I played book-cricket or bashed the tennis ball against my garden wall, a loss to Pakistan was simply unacceptable. Just days later (the perks of having a celebrated TV commentator for a father) I came face-to-face with like likes of Imran Khan, Javed Miandad and Sikandar Bakht devouring Kolkata's iconic biryani at our dining table. While I was thrilled to bits, my first question was, why is the enemy at home? That was my first lesson that this rivalry is indeed confined to the field of play, and once over the line, the gladiators and fans alike find more than just common ground.

Courtesy Gautami Bhimani
Getting Pakistan's "chacha" and India's most ardent equivalent fan Sudhir together before a key India-Pak clash.

Underneath the surface of the barbed wire-like barriers that are projected are some lifelong bonds and friendships. No better example of this than the spontaneous bonhomie of the Indian and Pakistani Teams who came together to play Holi (yes, there too, I was a willing "victim") on the lawns of the posh Taj West End hotel in Bangalore on the rest day (remember that concept?) of a memorable Test Match in March 1987.

At the 2003 World Cup in South Africa, the two teams met on the outskirts of one of the nations three capitals, Pretoria. The travelling fans appeared to outnumber the population of the sleepy township of Centurion. The sheer volume of beer consumed over 100 overs would have filled the nearby Centurion Lake twice over! I had some fun company to watch the game. Bollywood stars Nana Patekar and Suneil Shetty had travelled to join this day long party. It was a fierce battle on the pitch. The going was tough and the tough came to the fore. A Saeed Anwar hundred was match by a blistering Tendulkar 98 against the most hostile bowling Pakistan could serve up with Akram, Younis and Shoab Akhtar. The post match celebrations saw Nana Patekar and Suniel Shetty shed their stardom and bodyguards to turn into common India fanatics, singing under the stars, dancing with the tricolour. No scripts. No rehearsals. They lifted me on their shoulders as if I somehow had contributed to the win. All I had done was pointed a camera in their direction for a post-match reaction. These emotions are truly inexplicable.

Four years later, a brand new format of the game was unleashed to the world. India was a reluctant participant. Sending a team minus Tendulkar Ganguly or Dravid. Led by a fearless young warrior, complete with flowing locks, a calm exterior and of fearless disposition. In the summit clash, it was India and Pakistan at it again at an arena aptly nicknamed the Bull Ring. India's last gasp win did more than affirm another must win scenario against the neighbours. It would change the game forever with the birth of the cash rich extravanganza the IPL just months later. I had lucked into a seat on the Emirates 777 going back with the team and the ticker tape reception they got in Mumbai was an indication of the sheer impact of the win. For many, it was about having beaten their arch rivals twice in the tournament.

Courtesy Gautam Bhimani
A rare picture of an almost shy MS Dhoni savouring his World T20 triumph on the flight back from Johannesburg to Dubai.

The 2011 World Cup semi final in Mohali was a similar tale of Pakistani fans savouring Punjabi hospitality, though it was on the sidelines of what appeared to be a political summit on many levels. Security on the day was unprecedented. My most endearing memory was walking in through high level security with a bunch of Pakistani fans led by "Chacha" only to have one couple Bilal and Samina be firmly stopped at one barricade. Three items were seized and not returned....three delicious Keema Paranthas that the gun-toting Sardar security guard simply could not resist. The AK-47 was put aside. Culinary tales and hugs exchanged.

Irrespective of the result, London 2017 will be a similar tale of camaraderie over combustibility. Did I just say irrespective? I take that back. The friendships may continue for a lifetime, but the result DOES matter.

To paraphrase Bertrand Russell, "War does not determine who is right. Just who is left....holding the Champions Trophy on Sunday night in London!"

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