Sub-continental passion

The sight will be etched in my mind’s eye for years to come. As the captain of the chartered flight ferrying us from Chandigarh to Lahore for the 1996 World Cup cricket final drew our attention to the border thousands of feet below, hundreds of pair of eyes peered out of the windows of the Airbus A-320 to catch a glimpse of the rows of bright lights that dotted the India-Pakistan border. Not a few minds would have fantasised: “If that line did not exist… many sporting conquests would have been notched up.”

Many moons later, as I sit back to ruminate on a century of South Asian sport and the sight of the lit border springs from the subconscious, the heart longs to dwell on the romantic but the persuasive mind over-rides that. For, there is so much to celebrate, so much to lament. So much joy and so much despair. South Asian sport has given us so much ecstasy and so much agony that the romance can wait.

And we can thank the British for that. Truth to tell, Britain’s influence was always evident on sport in its colonies in South Asia. Sports like cricket and hockey, football and tennis and a host of others had not only been introduced to the region by priests, defence personnel, educationists et al in the nineteenth century but also sustained by them through the first half of the twentieth century. For whatever it is worth, the British are worthy of the South Asians’ gratitude for introducing sport.

To be sure, the subcontinent found its soul on the maidans, to the innocent sound of bat against ball, stick against ball, boot against leather spheres, to the roar of a young country that was learning that sport – and sport alone – could forge that chain every link of which spells ‘Nation’. Indeed, sport was welding the country into a whole, cementing the communities together, compelling crowds to think in terms of country, breaking down barriers, nourishing the ideal of a nation.

Of course, it is a matter of regret that the British did not leave the economy of either India or Pakistan in a shape in which sport would be a priority. The state of their economies do not afford any of the South Asian nations the chance to focus their energies on sport but, in the past few years, corporate sponsorship has come in handy to keep them going. Sport may never be a priority but it has always generated much passion, with cricket even acquiring the overtones of a religion.

The cricketers of the subcontinent have been alternately revered and hated, adored and abhorred. They have been raised to the status of demi-gods, as whole peoples bid to bask in the reflected glory of their cricketers. Despite being a rather recent inductee to cricket, Sri Lanka has not been an exception to this phenomenon of reflected aspirations.

Talk of Sri Lanka reminds me that no discourse on South Asian sport will be complete if its recent surge in cricket and track and field is not taken note of. Inspired by the wily Ranatunga, the Sri Lankan cricketers won the World Cup in 1996, pulling the rug from under Australia’s feet at Lahore’s Gaddafi Stadium. The next year, sprinter Susanthika Jayasinghe became the first South Asian medalist at the World Athletics Championship by claiming the second place in 200m.

For all that, when you sit back in your favourite armchair and freeze-frames from a sporting century lash your mind like waves hitting a beach, it is possible that South Asia’s domination of Olympic hockey – India and Pakistan account for as many as 11 gold medals – and the decline of their powers in the sport that was rapidly changing to suit Europeans will occupy pride of place.

While the hockey team was on cloud nine, an indefatigable wrestler called Gama – Ghulam Husain- also did the subcontinent proud by being Rustam-e-Zaman, “champion of the world”. The cricketers, drawn from different regions, were still learning to cope with the demands of Test cricket, learning to play as one. It is for this reason alone that the story of south Asia’s monopoly of Olympic hockey competition will be written in letters of gold, at least as far as the first three-quarters of this century goes. In fact, the decline of oriental hockey in the last two decades comes as a stark contrast.

Yet, when India, its team comprising many Anglo-Indians and Muslims besides the 22-year-old army captain Dhyan Chand, scored 29 goals without reply in winning the gold medal in the 1928 Olympic Games in Amsterdam, interest in the game spread rapidly. Yet, legend has it that when the time came to raise money to send the side to the 1932 Games in Los Angeles and a journalist asked Mahatma Gandhi to issue an appeal to the masses, Gandhi’s reply was: “Hockey? What’s hockey?” The outfit did make it to the Games, duly won the gold again, and paid for its journey back home by playing some exhibition matches in Europe.

In what has been branded the Nazi Olympics at Berlin in 1936, India completed the hat-trick of hockey gold medals. Germany battled hard and conceded but one goal in the first-half but a barefoot Dhyan Chand scored six goals in the 8-1 victory. It was to be the last time that players from Lahore and Sialkot, Quetta and Karachi played for India in the Olympic Games. The trauma of partition was to hurt Indian sport.

When the Olympic Games were staged next in 1948, Pakistan was a separate nation and it finished a creditable fourth. India won the gold for the fifth time in Helsinki four years later when Pakistan retained its fourth place finish. After losing the final to India by RS Gentle goal in the 1956 Games in Melbourne, Pakistan climbed the winner’s podium at Rome in 1960, riding on the strength of a Nasir Ahmed strike in the 12th minute. India regained gold at Tokyo in 1964 and in the boycott-ridden Moscow Games in 1980 while Pakistan was to win again in Mexico City in 1968 and Los Angeles in 1984, when it avenged a loss to West Germany in the 1972 Munich Games.

To be sure, long before Susanthika Jayasinghe surfaced, South Asia had a clutch of good, even world class track and field stars like quartermilers Milkha Singh and Abdul Khalique, hurdler Gurbachan Singh Randhawa and steeplechaser Mubarak Shah, hammer thrower Mohammed Iqbal and the incomparable PT Usha but there is a sneaky feeling that athletics would have flourished if the British influence had lasted a little longer. Indeed, one of independence’s biggest victims was athletics.

It was as evident as in cricket. The long wait before India and Pakistan teams realized the importance of playing together as units amply reflects the fragile nature of the sides. It needed imaginative, selfless leadership by men like the Nawab of Pataudi Jr, Mansur Ali Khan and Imran Khan for the two sides to actualize their potential, despite the odd good result.

Partition was a grim reality. It was hard then for sports fans to get used to mental barriers that had not existed. It was no longer possible for them to think of cricketers Vijay Hazare and Fazal Mahmood turning out in the same colours. Lala Amarnath and Abdul Hafeez Kardar. Bishan Singh Bedi and Zaheer Abbas. Sunil Gavaskar and Imran Khan. Mohinder Amarnath and Wasim Akram. Sachin Tendulkar and Saqlain Mushtaq.

Of course, Mohammed Azharuddin had the unique privilege of leading a joint Indo-Pak team in an exhibition game against Sri Lanka at the start of the World Cup in 1996 when Australia and the West Indies preferred to concede walk-overs to the home side than travel to the tear-drop island. But it was a notable exception and, rather sadly, and India-Pakistan cricket derby provokes more passion than anything else. Ask Wasim Akram and his 1996 World Cup team-mates. Ask Bedi or Gavaskar.

If in the wake of partition, Pakistan has boasted of gifted hockey players like Hassan Sardar and Akhtar Rasool, Salim Sherwani and Mohammed Samiullah, Shahbaz Ahmed, India had its own Mohammed Shahid and Ajit Pal Singh, Ashok Kumar and Surjit Singh, Dhanraj Pillay and Balbir Singh.

Pakistan has also been the object of envy for being the home to a quiverful of world squash champions like Jehangir Khan and Jansher Khan while an Indian badminton maestro answering to the call of Prakash Padukone conquered the world, even if he seemed almost apologetic in doing so.

The subcontinent boasts of a string of world billiards champions like Wilson Jones, Michael Ferreira and Geet Sethi and a world amateur snooker champion, the late Om Agrawal. Of course, one of the best chess players the world has ever known, Viswanathan Anand, is an Indian too while Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi ended 1999 as the world tennis’ best doubles pair.

On the administrative front, if India gave the subcontinent the quadrennial Asian Games, Pakistan conceived the Champions Trophy hockey. Come to think of it, the world’s most powerful amateur boxing official Anwar Choudhury could have helped more pugilists from the subcontinent to win international acclaim than he managed.

For all that, the presence of such sporting stars, not to speak of cricketing greats like Gavaskar and Zaheer Abbas, Kapil Dev and Imran Khan, Arjuna Ranatunga and Aravinda de Silva – to name just a few and risk inviting the wrath of many – has helped the South Asians rid of their inferiority complex. Today, the browns clash against the whites but the code is clear – on equal terms.

Sadly, in the final decade of the century, betting and bribery scandals have broken out in the subcontinent and rocked world cricket like little else has. More importantly, they have forced fans to view cricket from behind tinted glasses – or with squint vision, if you please. And that is the tragedy of modern sport that is increasingly being driven by the commerce of television.

It is this reason alone that will prevent India and Pakistan from coming together on the cricket field like the West Indies as a regional outfit – an amalgam of nations that are bound together mainly by cricket. The Berlin wall may have come down and united the Germans as one but one of modern cricket’s endearing passions will not come to an end.

For starters, consider this dream team that could have been playing in the new millennium had it not been for that dotted line that we got to see during the flight to Lahore: Saeed Anwar, S Ramesh, Rahul Dravid, Sachin Tendulkar, Inzamam-ul-Haq, Sourav Ganguly, Moin Khan, Wasim Akram, Anil Kumble, Javagal Srinath and Saqlain Mushtaq. Awesome, isn’t it? Is it not good enough to take on all-comers? Under any conditions?

Then again, India and Pakistan are so vast and boast of such wonderful talent that their cricket officials may never think it necessary to bring the teams together as one. And, this notwithstanding the fact that they have teamed up to organize the World Cup twice. If you are inclined to brand me an incurable romantic, I cannot blame you, can I? Indeed, I was among those on the chartered trip to Lahore who were on a flight of fantasy as well.

* This essay was first published in Pakistan daily newspaper, Dawn, on January 1, 2000.