Trolls failed to cloud sporting spirit shown by cricket fans in Pakistan and India

Indian cricketers have not been to Pakistan after 2006, points out Qaiser Mohammad Ali while recalling the bonhomie he witnessed in Pakistan, where India won the series

Pakistani fans flaunt Indian cricketers' jerseys
Pakistani fans flaunt Indian cricketers' jerseys

Qaiser Mohammad Ali

In the 1970s and 1980s Imran Khan was often featured on the cover of Indian magazines. He was undoubtedly popular for his looks, his Oxbridge accent, his image of a dandy and for his cricketing talent. He and Indian players seemed to enjoy each others' company. But even with him now as Pakistan’s Prime Minister, bilateral relations have not improved. Cricket has not helped unite the two countries or their fans. Indeed, Navjot Singh Sidhu’s alleged friendship with Imran Khan is seen in some quarters as some kind of a security threat to India.

It therefore came as no surprise when Indian trolls singled out Mohammed Shami for his allegedly ‘seditious’ spell of bowling against Pakistan in the T20 World Cup in Dubai late last month, which India lost comprehensively. When Indian captain Virat Kohli came out strongly in defence of Shami, Kohli was trolled too. Journalists like Rajat Sharma attributed the trolling and threats of rape to Kohli’s infant daughter to a Pakistani conspiracy. The attacks continued even after fact checking websites confirmed that threats to Kohli were issued by Indian handles.

Pakistani fans for once were amused. They merrily shared pictures of Pakistani fans wearing the Indian colour, blue, while happily waving Pakistan’s green flag. Some put out photographs of cricketers in Pakistan sporting shirts that displayed the names M.S. Dhoni and Kohli himself, daring Indians to wear shirts with the names of Pakistani cricketers.

But as police and a section of authorities in India went overboard in sacking a teacher who exulted in Team India’s defeat or in expelling Kashmiri students who had allegedly rejoiced at Pakistan’s win, TV news anchors fuelled the fire.

Genuine cricket fans were left untouched by the bigotry and hate. Asked why he looked happy, an Indian coming out of the stadium in Dubai shot back, “Why shouldn’t I be happy? It is good that Pakistan played better today and won. It is good for the game.” Fans in both countries have enjoyed the rivalry on the field and good cricket despite TRP seeking TV anchors and politicians vitiating the air.

In Pakistan to cover the Indian team’s tour in 2004, I remember walking into the hotel room of Virender Sehwag. I found a guest already sitting with him. Sehwag introduced me to his Pakistani guest, a carpet merchant who had come from another city to present him a carpet that was still lying folded in the room.

This was not an isolated instance. Everywhere the Indian team went, players were mobbed and showered with food, gifts and above all, affection.

India’s 2004 tour of Pakistan is a brilliant example of how results do not influence genuine cricket fans. There was not one instance of fans, either Indian or Pakistani, reacting negatively on India’s 45-day tour of Pakistan although the Sourav Ganguly-led Indian team won both the Test and the One-Day International (ODI) series.

On the contrary, Pakistani fans, both young boys and girls, particularly in Lahore, came decked up for the matches. They wore specially stitched shirts that displayed bonding and bonhomie. One side of the shirt front was actually the Indian tri-colour and the other sported the Pakistani flag. Many fans painted their cheeks in the colours of the national flags of the two countries. Some carried the Indian and Pakistani flags stitched together as one piece.

Indian cricketers were also taken to the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, out of bounds for the common people, when they were in Peshawar.

Indian players were dissuaded from accepting private invitations. In Islamabad, Indians frequented the markets in the twin city Rawalpandi.When there was no opportunity to visit the market, the shops would come to them. When Indian players expressed the desire to purchase the famous Peshwari jutis (shoes), the dealers brought their ware to the team hotel for the players to look and feel them.

The bilateral series had resumed after an almost 15-year hiatus and followed the Kargil conflict and the attack on India’s Parliament. Pakistan granted around 8,000 visas to the Indians to watch the matches. But not all of them went to watch cricket matches though. A Sikh gentleman from Vijaywada in Andhra Pradesh went to Faisalabad just to see if his ancestral home was still there. “I went to see my ancestral home and found it was intact. There is also no change to the staircase from which I once fell down and broke my arm,” he recalled as he wiped tears in the hotel’s lobby.

When the Pakistan team toured India in 2005, Punjab Cricket Association hosted a dinner at Mohali for around 10,000 Pakistani fans. People in Mohali and Chandigarh hosted Pakistani fans at their home despite the hosts and the guests being complete strangers to each other. They had only two things in common: their love for cricket and love for their language, Punjabi.

When busloads of Pakistani fans crossed the Wagah border and reached Chandigarh’s Sector 16 Stadium on the eve of the match, hot jalebis, milk, snacks and tea were waiting for them. Former Pakistan captain Hanif Mohammed, the original ‘Little Master’ who was very fond of chewing betel leaves and nuts (paan), came with his wife and went shopping.

The final Test at Bangalore was Inzamam-ulHaq’s 100th Test match. The Karnataka State Cricket Association presented him with a gorgeous 47-piece handcrafted, customised cutglass dinner set. With the bat, Inzamam made it an unforgettable outing as he hit a century that helped his team win the match and draw the three-Test series 1-1.

Players share bonds that extend beyond cricket. Zaheer Abbas, called ‘the Asian Bradman’ for his batting exploits, has close bonds with India. He is married to Samina (nee Rita Luthra) from Kanpur and they regularly visit India, without any fanfare. The two, by the way, have been happily married for more than 30 years.

Before Zaheer Abbas was ‘bowled’ by Rita Luthra, an interior designer, former Pakistan cricket captain Mohsin Khan had acted in Bollywood films, fell in love with actress Reena Roy and married her. A few years later, another Pakistani sportsperson, Faisal Qureshi, a former Pakistan No.1 golfer in the early 1990s, married India No.1 Nonita Lall. And, in 2010, Indian tennis ace Sania Mirza married former Pakistani cricket captain Shoaib Malik. More recently, Pakistani pacer Hasan Ali, now playing in the T20 World Cup, tied the knot with Samia Arzoo from Haryana.

Indian and Pakistani sportspersons have also partnered each other and competed in international tournaments. Indian tennis stalwarts Leander Paes, Mahesh Bhupathi and Rohan Bopanna have famously partnered Pakistan’s Aisam Qureshi in doubles. Ace Indian golfer Shiv Kapur, who follows cricket closely, partnered Pakistan’s Shahid Javed Khan for the 2003 Bonallack Trophy, an amateur team competition played between Asia/Pacific and Europe.

Sportspersons of low-profile disciplines visit each other’s country without attracting much attention. Athletes, golfers, wrestlers, shooters etc. compete and return to their home country without getting much of a mention in the media – and certainly no opposition. This March, for example, Pakistani horse riders competed in the World Cup tent pegging qualifiers in Greater Noida and returned without a fuss.

The 2004 tour of Pakistan was made even more memorable because of the chance to visit the ancestral homes of Bollywood legends Raj Kapoor, Dilip Kumar and Shah Rukh Khan in Peshawar, all three within walking distance of each other. It was at Shah Rukh Khan’s home that I had my first ever taste of Qahwa, a delicious tea, offered by his cousin.

Pakistan last visited India in 2012-13, for a short, limited overs series. India has not played in Pakistan after 2006. While the bilateral series has been stalled, India and Pakistan have been playing against each other in International Cricket Council (ICC) tournaments; because not playing would not just mean a loss of points for forfeiting the game but also invite other sanctions.

Cricket and fans are the losers.

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