Playing Ball

TELIt has been more than three years now but an eyewitness swears that it was the most emotional bear hug in sporting history. Kapil Dev and Wasim Akram embraced one another in a room in a Chennai hotel. Tears welled up in Akram’s eyes as his wife, Huma, had been admitted in a critical condition in a city hospital after the air ambulance flying them to Singapore had to make an emergency landing since her condition had worsened.

As the former all-rounders spoke emotionally, in chaste Punjabi, the onlookers were convinced they were watching a human drama without borders. They were two Punjabis, divided only by a barbed border, opening their hearts out. Indeed, the larger picture of our sport and sportspersons living in a paradoxical coexistence of brotherhood and rivalry was captured in that one tender moment.

Brotherhood and rivalry, do I hear you exclaim? Indeed, for people living on a land mass as an exuberant civilization for 5000 years, have been hostile to one another since Partition in 1947. Come to think of it, if people on either side of the fence could ignore their religious leanings – and perhaps the different roles the military plays in the two nations – they would realise that little separates them. After all, they are from the same stock, their commonalities – cuisine, music, languages, lifestyle and not the least being their shared passion for cricket and cricketers – surely outweighing their differences.

The two young nations with a rich heritage have often allowed 11 men from their lands to manipulate a whole gamut of their collective emotions – from hope to despair, from anger to anxiety, from delight to disappointment. Cricketers as similar and magical as Hanif Mohammed and Sunil Gavaskar, Gundappa Viswanath and Zaheer Abbas, Imran Khan and Kapil Dev, Abdul Qadir and Anil Kumble, Sachin Tendulkar and Inzamam-ul-Haq, Wasim Akram and Zaheer Khan, Bishan Bedi and Waqar Younis have held the two nations in thrall.

Come to think of it, given the fact that there is a shared history – cricket took root in the sub-continent thanks to the British army personnel and players from the region represented India until Partition happened in 1947 – the similarity in cricketers from India and Pakistan as far as style and approach are concerned is not matched by any other pair of nations. Australia and New Zealand are divided by more than just the Tansman Sea. Why, if you look closely, you will notice significant differences between cricketer from various countries who come together and play for the West Indies

Then again, it is probably these very similarities that sometimes drive a wedge between the cricket fans of the two nations. We may have been better off playing cricket in one another’s soil rather than indulge in off-shore contests. The rivalry in neutral territory did not do India-Pakistan cricket any good. I was in Madras – as good old Chennai was then known – when Javed Miandad hit a last ball six off Chetan Sharma in 1986 – but in the years that I covered cricket in Sharjah it became clear that the India-Pakistan matches acquired different overtones. It did not help that India lost 14 of the 15 games in a decade between November 1985 and April 1996. It was tough for even us journalists to venture out without being needled by men of Pakistani origin.

It is not as if Indians and Pakistanis have always been on opposite sides of the table. They have come together to host the World Cup in 1987 and 1996 (along with Sri Lanka). The ICC Cricket World Cup in 2011 would have been the third such instance but the attack on the Sri Lankan team in Lahore took Pakistan as a co-host out of the equation and left India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh to provide the venues for the big event. I also remember being on the fringes of a meeting of the Commonwealth Games Federation in Delhi where the representatives of the Pakistan Olympic Association were fiercely vocal in their support of Delhi as the host of the 2010 Games, going to the extent of seeing themselves as co-hosts. Tennis players, Bangalore’s Rohan Bopanna and Lahore’s Aisam-ul-Haq Qureshi have played 11 doubles finals on the ATP Tour, winning four titles and emerging as ambassadors of peace in their own way.

Curiously, cricket – and all sport – has been used to either build bridges or to convey various other moods. The India and Pakistan XI was a combination of some amazing talent that came together to play a game before the 1996 Cricket World Cup to express solidarity with Sri Lanka as Australia and the West Indies forfeited their games by refusing to play in the island nation. I also remember the key message that the then Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee shared with the Indian team before it went to Pakistan in 2004. “Win Hearts,” he told Sourav Ganguly and his team members.

Contrastingly, by sending back the Pakistani hockey players even before they could turn up in any of the inaugural Hockey India League and by not making any Pakistan cricketer play in the Indian Premier League since the opening season, India has also used sport to convey extremely negative sentiments. Whether we like it or not, sport (and more specifically cricket) has come to be used to signal our political and social moods. There seems to be so little anyone can do to stop cricket from becoming the medium to convey messages – either as a confidence building measure or as a tool to show a lack of confidence.

Far away from the politics of the relationship between the two nations, I have made some wonderful friends from across the border. For instance, when our paths cross during the Indian Premier League, former Pakistan captains Wasim Akram and Rameez Raja and I have conversations like long lost friends. To cite another example, ICC Communications Manager Sami-ul-Hasan goes out of his way to help some of us Indian media persons because of a bond that was forged in 2004 when he was Media Manager of the Pakistan side.

That brings me to one of the most outstanding stories from my life. Back in 2004, nearly five years after the Kargil War, the Indian cricket team embarked on a Test tour of Pakistan after more than a decade and a half. Some of us scrambled at the last minute to be on that trip. I went as a freelance journalist, writing for a website and other publications. It meant that four of us were unable to secure hotel bookings in some places like Peshawar where a one-day international was to be played and Multan which was to host the first Test. We were able to resolve Peshawar without much fuss but, with a day left for us to reach Multan, we had not been able to make any bookings.

I made a frantic call my friend Aneela Khan, a film and TV producer in Karachi and described the situation. She told me she would do the best to help me. She called me within an hour and told me she had arranged for a family to host me, with independent access to the room and vegetarian food too. However, I reminded that the four of us were travelling together and that room was going to be inadequate. Without a murmur, she said she would do her best but would need some more time and promised to call the following day.

We hadn’t heard from her even when we left Lahore for Multan and, as we approached the famed seat of Indus Valley Civilisation, I called Aneela and asked her if it would make sense for us to take rooms in Harappa and drive down to Multan and back each day of the Test. I had not heard a more firm “No!” She was clear that we should proceed to Multan. “You will neither find a place to stay there not will you get even a horse-cart to take you to Multan and back every day,” she warned. We did her bidding, unsure of what awaited us.

None of us would have imagined the reception we got at the Daewoo Station in Multan. There was a group of 25 people, many with thick rose garlands, at hand to welcome us in the ancient city. There were slogans renting the air, too. When he saw the warmth that the four of us was showered with, a fifth Indian journalist decided he would come along with us. Before long, each of us was hosted in a separate car and taken in what seemed like a royal cavalcade. There was not much communication in some of the cars since four of us could not speak Punjabi and our reception committee could not speak much English or our brand of Urdu. But the mood seemed pleasant until my cell phone buzzed with an SMS from one of the Indians in another car.

“Are you sure these are your friends?”

There was little I could do but try raising Aneela’s phone. As luck would have it, it was switched off. And before I could respond to that SMS, I got a text message from another Indian. “Are we being kidnapped?”

I counselled patience and kept trying Aneela. After a half-hour drive alternately in poorly-lit areas and in darkness, we turned past a domed-structure and halted. Though there was some light pouring in from indoors, it was quite dark. More garlands and more slogans later, we were ushered into a large drawing room. Even as I crossed the threshold, I could smell a variety of flowers and fruit – and that is saying something for the quality of fruit since I have poor olfactory sense. Those who drove us in the cavalcade made themselves scarce, leaving the five of us with a couple of men who offered us Kahwah. I must admit there was some hesitation in sipping it because none of the locals was at hand. Cricket was far from the minds of the group of Indian journalists and the conversation focussed on the strange events of the evening.

After about 15 minutes, a tall, bearded man knocked at the door and asked if he could come in. The words were music to the ears since we had not heard any English being spoken by the locals. “May I come in please? I am Jafar Shah Gardezi, owner of this house,” he said. “I am sorry I was not around to welcome you. Actually, I had gone to drop my wife at the Daewoo Station so that she could go to Lahore and I could throw open our farmhouse to you.”

For a week, the five of us lived in the lap of luxury, eating the choicest food and being driven in an SUV to the Multan Cricket Stadium and the buzzing bazaars, to the tombs of saints and a highway dhaba in the dead of a night. I have never known such unconditional warmth and hospitality from people I was meeting for the first time.

Later, towards the end of that tour, I was invited to be on a show on PTV in Islamabad from midnight to 3 am. The first response was an incredulous question: Who on earth will be up to watch a show at that time of the night? I was in for a few surprises. During the three-hour show, featuring two journalists and media managers of both teams, the two anchors not only fielded questions from viewers but also got the pop band Strings to perform the title track of its new album Dhaani live. Most callers were eager to know how the tour had been received back home and had no hesitation in calling us home to have a meal with them.

When I returned on the tour of 2006 – this time as a representative of a news weekly – I was keen on also writing about Pakistani bands that had become immensely popular in India. One of those I was intent on meeting was Shafqat Amanat Ali Khan, who had caught the imagination of music lovers in India with the album, Saagar. A phone call to Ali in Karachi set the ball rolling and barely an hour later, Shafqat himself was calling me and setting up a meeting for the same evening at the hotel in which my photographer colleague Atul Loke and I were staying. For someone who said he had but 15 minutes, Shafqat stayed back for an hour. The flipside was that since it was the month of Moharrum, there would be no photographs. Atul was very disappointed but enjoyed listening to this seventh-generation Patiala gharana master sharing his philosophy of music. Though the man called the Rockstar Ustad has gone on to be a celebrated artiste in the Hindi film industry, Shafqat has stayed in touch. It is another matter that I have not been able to keep my promise of taking him to Patiala that is perhaps his spiritual home.

I believe my Pakistani friends define mehman nawaazi. I cannot, for instance. forget Hanif Tayyab Hassan’s generous hospitality in his Lahore home. Having first met him and his father in 2004 and being aware of his massive love for music, I asked him what he would like from India. He did not hesitate a moment and asked for the bhajan, Raghupati Raghava Raja Ram, sung by Hari Om Sharan. One of the highlights of the evenings at the Tayyabs’ residence in 2006 was the meetings with the earthy man behind the film star Shaan Shahid. There was none of the trappings that you would associate with folk from the silver screen and Shaan, as he is popularly known, would sit down to discuss life in the two nations.

Speaking of love and respect for one another’s talents, I cannot but help recall an incident from India last Test Tour of Pakistan 2006. An India journalists XI was playing against a media team from Karachi that included former Pakistan hockey captain Islahuddin Siddique. He is Meerut-born and it was easy to strike a conversation with him during the game. He asked for a bat from Rahul Dravid’s collection since he admired the elegant Indian’s batting. When I mentioned this to Dravid, the Indian captain did not bat an eyelid and said “Islah is such a big game and it is an honour to be asked to give a bat to him. I will give him one at the end of the tour.” True to his word, Dravid sent for me after India lost the final game in Karachi and handed over a bat to be given to Islahuddin.

Ironic as it may sound, it is when I recall such warmth between sportspersons of the two countries that the paradoxical sight of brilliantly-lit barbed wire fencing on the border between India and Pakistan also springs back to mind. I remember seeing that from a chartered aircraft that was flying some of us from Chandigarh to Lahore for the Wills World Cup final in March 1996: I also recall the thought which surfaced at the time: If that line didn’t exist, many sporting conquests would have been notched up, I told myself.

The romantics will have no doubt that sport, specifically cricket, can be the balm that can soothe wounded sentiments but the realist will point out that the rider that there must be political will to facilitate this role.  The reality is that apart from politics, the commerce of TV rights will not allow the fielding of a joint cricket team. Would we not be denied the unforgettable sight of a whole stadium in Chennai giving the Pakistan squad a standing ovation after it beat the Indian team by a handful of runs 1999? Or, of the National Stadium in Karachi erupting in applause when India won a humdinger of a one-day game by a wafer-thin margin of five runs in 2004 and setting the tone for what will go down as one of the most memorable tours undertaken by the cricket team?

This piece was written for The Equator Line magazine (January-April 2013).