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The Rivalry of Titans

A veritable contender amongst history’s most intense and long-standing feuds is the one between India and Pakistan; not in war, but in cricket. Both in India as well as Pakistan, cricket is treated by a large part of the population as a religion more than a sport. Having acquired such reverence amongst the populus, cricket has played a much stronger role in diplomacy between the two countries than any other conventional approaches towards peacekeeping.

After the two countries achieved their independence from the British, there was a war over Kashmir which ended inconclusively due to a UN ceasefire. Subsequently, the two nations focused their energies on other aspects such as the development of their nation and the formation of a strong cricket team. The sparks of the Kashmir conflict fuelled the two countries’ passionate competitiveness to create masterful competitors who would test their mettle against each other on the cricket field.

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The first ever test match between India and Pakistan was held in the year 1951. Pakistan lost the first, held in Delhi, but won the second one in Lucknow. India’s loss in the second match brought about an angry reaction from the home crowd. And though the Indian team won the third match, both teams played the rest of the series under intense pressure and thus there was no clear victor. This set the tone for tours in the future such as India’s tour of Pakistan in 1955 and Pakistan’s tour of India in 1961, both of which ended as drawn matches. In every test match, there is a huge amount of pressure on both sides to win, so it is not surprising that out of the 59 test matches India has played against Pakistan, 38 have ended in a draw or have had no result.

After 1961, no cricket was played between the two countries owing to the wars they fought in 1965 and 1971. It wasn’t until 1977 that India and Pakistan resumed their cricket ties. These were suspended again during the Kargil war in 1999 and the Bombay Terror attacks in 2008, which Pakistan had allegedly orchestrated. Regardless, the fan base in both countries has been ever-growing. An India-Pakistan cricket match has always been one of the most anticipated matches in a tournament. The average viewership for such a match is something north of 200 million. It is estimated that the 2011 World Cup semifinal between the two teams attracted 988 million viewers.

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While cricket had a hand in shaping diplomacy between India and Pakistan, diplomacy itself has swayed cricket ties between the two countries. After tensions between the two countries simmered down in 1977, the countries resumed their regular routines of playing matches with each other but politics had a profound role in the games played between India and Pakistan. Bilateral ties were frequently suspended between the two countries whenever a political incident took place. For instance, the Indian tour of Pakistan was cancelled midway in 1984 after the assassination of Indira Gandhi.

There has been a sharp rise in domestic terrorism in Pakistan in the recent years thus preventing Pakistan from hosting any cricket matches. This issue has constantly affected relations between the two countries. While there has been growing support for cricket in India, the enthusiasm towards Pakistani participation in cricket has been undermined owing to the constant threat of a terror attack on the cricket players. Recently itself, there have been many allegations made against Pakistan, accusing it of being a State sponsor of terrorism. In relation to cricket, The Minister of Sports, Vijay Goel, commented on the ‘terror culture’ of Pakistan, saying, “We have clearly stated that terrorism and sports cannot go side-by-side. As long as Pakistan doesn’t stop cross-border terror and (instigating) trouble in Kashmir, then there is no chance for a bilateral series.”

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The constant diplomatic breakdown with Pakistan has caused growing dissent amongst the Indian populace directed towards the Pakistanis. The Indians’ general mistrust and aversion towards the Pakistani people finds its roots in the Partition of 1947 and has continued till today. Whenever India loses a match against Pakistan, the public takes to violence and blames the players’ abilities as the cause for its loss. For example, after India’s recent loss against Pakistan in the Champions Trophy, the news channel ‘Aaj Tak’ accused Virat Kohli of being born in Pakistan.

Pakistan’s recent victory in the ICC Champions Trophy, which was the first of its kind, has bolstered the will of aspiring cricket players in Pakistan to push forward their dream of becoming national cricketers with greater zeal. Surely, the future of cricket for both countries is fertile with opportunity for attesting their capability and also a platform for cultivating stronger and more cordial ties between both countries. The Indo-Pakistan rivalry, grown out of simple jealousy between local village boys, has now come to transcend not just cricket, but sport itself.