Off-pitch bonhomie makes India-Pakistan matches special

From Gavaskar-Imran to Kohli-Babar, it’s been about giving their all on the pitch and having a life off it

Virat Kohli and Haris Rauf share a warm exchange during a practice session before the India-Pakistan game in Asia Cup 2023. (photo: @mufaddal_vohra/ X)
Virat Kohli and Haris Rauf share a warm exchange during a practice session before the India-Pakistan game in Asia Cup 2023. (photo: @mufaddal_vohra/ X)

Gautam Bhattacharyya

When Virat Kohli got an inside edge to a screamer from Shaheen Afridi rattling his offstump at Pallekele on Saturday, 2 September, one’s memory jogged back to a photo around the same time last year. 

The lanky Pakistan paceman, arguably the best left-arm quick in the world right now, was then down and out with an injury and sat with his leg in a metallic cast at the ICC Academy grounds in Dubai at his team’s practice session ahead of the Indo-Pak clash in Asia Cup 2022. Kohli came over to him directly from the India team bus for a pep talk, soon followed by Rishabh Pant as the two engaged in banter. 

Cut to this year’s ongoing Asia Cup in Sri Lanka — the scene of Kohli and Haris Rauf hugging each other on the eve of the big game has gone viral now. There could well be a mention of Rauf being clobbered by Kohli for two sixes in their T20 World Cup league game in Melbourne last year, but then that was a memory left on the pitch.  

The first of what could be a number of clashes between them in the Asia Cup, and then the eagerly awaited one in World Cup next month, ended in a bit of anti-climax on Saturday. The September rains in Lanka forced an abandonment as Pakistan could not start their reply to India’s modest total of 266, built on a valuable fifth wicket partnership by young Ishan Kishan (82) and Hardik Pandya (87).

Is the players’ bonhomie emblematic of a softening of the competitive edge between players of India and Pakistan, at a time when the edgy political relationship between the neighbours have put paid to any hopes of bilateral series between them? Not quite, for those who have followed the history of their cricketing rivalry know that much as they played hard on the pitch, some of them remained friends for life. 

The equation between Sunil Gavaskar, the original 'little master', and charismatic allrounder Imran Khan is one of the earliest examples of such bonhomie when bilateral cricket resumed between the two countries in 1978. A famous cola ad featuring the two greats still remains etched in memory, and what’s remarkable is the mutual respect they still have for each other as practitioners of their craft. 

Another shining example is the ‘Shaz & Waz’ duo, the larger-than-life combo of Ravi Shastri and Wasim Akram. In a recent interview, Shastri opened up on his enduring friendship with Akram, saying he missed the latter’s visits to Shastri's farmhouse in Mumbai's Alibaug. The two friends, incidentally, area part of the expert panel for the ongoing Asia Cup.

In fact, mutual respect is the phrase which holds the key to these relationships through the chequered history of the two countries. The best example in recent times has been the ‘Virat Kohli or Babar Azam’ debate over who is the greatest batsman from the sub-continent, which gave the media ample fodder to chew upon. Any Indo-Pak clash in recent years, ever since the Pakistan captain continued to blossom, has included the Kohli vs Babar theme as a key sub-plot, though the duo remained unaffected by it. 

The former Indian captain, now 34 and been there and done that, recently termed Babar as the best ‘all-format player’ in today’s game. A huge compliment that, though Babar has not shied away from acknowledging that he has learned a lot from the Indian on the job. 

‘’When I met him in 2019, he was at his peak. He’s still at his peak. I wanted to take something from his game. I learned a lot from him. He gave detailed answers to all my questions,’’ Babar said at a pre-match conference on Friday, 25 August. 

Even more heart-warming was the Pakistan batter’s social media post a couple of years back, when Kohli was going through a rough patch and had to wait for three years to break his drought of international centuries. ‘’This too shall pass,’’ Babar had tweeted. 

This is what makes the cricketing rivalry between the neighbours so unique!   

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