No point having India-Pakistan series if Sri Lanka has to host it

Playing in front of empty stands is akin to taking the heart out of a contest of such stature.

 |  Thinking Deva  |  5-minute read |   24-11-2015
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What is an India-Pakistan cricket rivalry without the raw, and often unrestrained, passion? What is it without the frenzy, the cacophony, the madness! It is one rivalry that beats all others, and players from either side crank up a gear or two whenever the two teams square off. They just hate to lose to one another! And not without a reason. Such has been the history of acrimony between the two countries at the political level that it is but natural for it to have spilled over to the realm of culture. Indeed the rivalry is so ingrained in the minds of the two sets of people that India versus Pakistan at any fora is bound to elicit a strong sense of belligerence, almost bordering on jingoism. It is always India "versus" Pakistan, seldom, if ever, India and Pakistan.

This being the case, an India-Pakistan cricket series being held in Sri Lanka is bit of a dampener. Can the series now elicit the same kind of craze that makes an India-Pakistan clash what it is? The answer you immediately get is a resounding "no". A series where the host country is absent may not enthuse the local populace much, and in Sri Lanka, particularly, matches not featuring the home team have often been met with near-empty stands. In fact, even when the home team had turned up, the fans chose not to. This was reported to have been the case during the Test series between India and Sri Lanka a few months back. Even the prospect of it being the last hurrah of one of Sri Lanka's greatest cricketers, Kumar Sangakkara, apparently could not prod the Sri Lankan cricket-lover. Granted, it was a Test series, and people do find it difficult to maintain the same level of interest over five long days, unless there is more than ample reason to keep them hooked (This is perhaps the reason former Australian captain Mark Taylor had suggested four-day Tests).

But, if an India-Pakistan contest is to be played out in a near-empty stadium, it would be the greatest disrespect to the rivalry between the two sides, though the fact that the two sides would be playing limited overs series could bring more people to the stadia than a Test possibly would.

However, we might as well not have an India-Pakistan series at all, than having one where the players are left sparring in a deserted colosseum, if a proper venue can't be arranged. 

Could they raise their game to the level which saw a Sachin Tendulkar almost single-handedly battle a fearsome Pakistani attack comprising the likes of Wasim Akram, Waqar Younis and Saqlain Mushtaq, battling severe physical pain, turning out a tragic hero in the end? Yes, I am talking about that famous Test at Chennai in 1999. That match was a rollercoaster ride for the fans and players alike, oscillating between hope and despair. It was the same Sachin Tendulkar who, again single-handedly, destroyed Akram, Younis, Shoaib Akhtar and company at the Centurion in the World Cup of 2003. That again was one of the greatest India-Pakistan matches of all time. Then the last-ball six by Javed Miandad in an ODI against India in 1986 that gave Pakistan the win is part of folklore now. Could one forget the two venomous Shoaib Akhtar yorkers that cleaned up Rahul Dravid and Sachin Tendulkar one after the other at the Eden Gardens in 1999? These and many other such moments make what an India-Pakistan cricket contest is: Special.

Playing in front of empty stands is akin to taking the heart out of an India-Pakistan contest. Would the players themselves be able to raise themselves to a level that befits the stature of this rivalry?

However, what other options were we left with? Playing in Paksitan is out of question, especially after the deadly attack on the visiting Sri Lankan team in 2009. The Indian board (BCCI) is opposed to playing in UAE - Pakistan's adopted home since 2009. India might as well avoid playing in the UAE given that it is known to be the home of betting and match fixing. The Indian government, following the Hansiegate betting scandal that rocked cricket at the start of the 21st century, had, in fact, barred the national team from playing in Sharjah - a venue in UAE which used to host international matches quite regularly. The Pakistan board (PCB) is, on the other hand, not keen to play its "home" series in India, as suggested by the BCCI.

Let's be clear on one point. An India-Pakistan bilateral series should happen. Political reasons, tensions at the border should not be hindrances. In 2004 too, when the Indians toured Pakistan for a full series, there were misgivings. But once the tour started and the battle between bat and ball took the centrestage, all those apprehensions vanished, and what we witnessed was a humdinger of a Test series first, and then an equally good ODI series. Remember, it was the tour in which Virender Sehwag scored that epic Test triple century. What's more, it brought the peoples of the two countries closer. In an admirable gesture, Pakistan allowed Indian fans to travel across the border to cheer their team. Staying away from each other is no way to solve a strained relationship. You have to talk to each other, engage each other, and the stength of culture - be it in the form of cricket, music or art - can't be denied.

What the Indian and Pakistani boards could have done is to have a better neutral venue for a contest of this stature, a venue where there would be considerable support for both teams, and the enthusiasm would be close to that in India or Pakistan. After UAE, a country which fits the bill is Bangladesh. We have had India versus Pakistan contests in Bangladesh and the craze there had been massive.

Staging an India-Pakistan contest in Sri Lanka is a huge compromise. It amounts to a desperate attempt to bring the two countries to the cricket pitch, by hook or crook, with no regard for the passion the contest generates. If there is something a cricket connoisseur dreads is an India-Pakistan match in front of vacant stands. Sri Lanka seems to be a bad option to host such a marquee contest.

Writer

Debdutta Bhattacharjee Debdutta Bhattacharjee @debduttab10

He is a journalist with DailyO

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