It's just cricket, not a matter of life and death

NEW DELHI: “Bhaijaan, yeh bhi le loon (Brother, May I have this too?).” Younis Khan was pleading like a fan. Having grabbed a bat and a pair of new gloves, he was now eyeing a T-shirt as souvenir! Rahul Dravid parted with his valuable stuff most generously.

This was soon after India and Pakistan finished a hard-fought series (winning 4-2), braving crowd trouble at the Ferozeshah Kotla. The match was watched, among others, by Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf.

The acrimony was restricted to the ground. At the hotel, the Indian and Pakistan players were darting from one room to another, busy exchanging cricket gear and gifts. There may have been moments of harsh exchanges on the field like Javed Miandad's ‘frog jump' act to ape Kiran More during the World Cup encounter at Sydney in 1992 or Venkatesh Prasad showing Aamer Sohail the route to the pavilion in the World Cup tie in 1996 at Bangalore. These incidents will still be remembered by the fans, but the bitterness is rarely carried by the players involved.

No animosity

“We never harboured any animosity towards them,' said Maninder Singh, who played 13 Tests against Pakistan. “On the 1989 tour, I spent most evenings with Wasim (Akram), Waqar (Younis) and Salim (Malik). I can never forget Zaheer (Abbas) bhai taking me home for dinner at Karachi.

“All this pressure or tension was more in the stands. Of course, we would feel the tension sometimes, but then it was the cricketing pressure to perform. Personally, we have always got along well,” he added.

For Mohinder Amarnath, it was simple. Perform when it matters and perform to bring joy to the nation. He seemed to reserve his best for Pakistan.

Mohinder was the architect of India's win at Quetta when the teams met for the first time on Pakistan soil in 1978. The Asia Cup encounter at Dhaka in 1988 and Sharjah the same year were the other occasions in which Mohinder did the star turn for India.

All about self-belief

“The important thing is to have a strong belief in oneself. You should know your inner strength. My mindset was clear. I knew we could beat them, but then, one had to play above the established standards. You may have the talent but you have to play above that when facing Pakistan. I always looked at playing exceptional cricket against Pakistan and upsetting their rhythm,” said Mohinder.

An Indo-Pakistan encounter has always attracted global attention for a variety of reasons. “Do well against Pakistan and become an overnight hero,” was how off-spinner Rajesh Chauhan put it. “There is extra delight in beating Pakistan.”

There's no doubt that any Indian cricketer who played at Sharjah and won against Pakistan would vouch for that. An Indian victory would signal celebrations not just in India but all over the United Arab Emirates. Restaurants would offer huge discounts, depending on who owned it and which team won.

Navjot Singh Sidhu always relished an encounter with Pakistan despite the pre-match tension and expectations that were exacting. “The expectations were sometimes unrealistic because you can't win every match, can you?” asked Sidhu. He has an interesting anecdote to share from the Bangalore encounter. “I did my soliloquy in the room, visualising an Indian win as I played some great shots. I had avoided public contact because everyone had some wisdom to offer and increase the pressure.

“Late into the night, before sleeping, I ordered water melon juice. This guy came, got the bill signed, stopped at the door, smiled and said: “Pakistan se mat haarna (don't lose to Pakistan).” I lost my sleep but we won the next day!” recollected Sidhu, another champion when it came to playing against Pakistan.

Eventful journey

Sydney, Bangalore, Manchester, Centurion… and now Mohali! It has been an eventful World Cup journey since 1992. From the time the Indian and Pakistan teams walked along the boundary line at Sharjah in 1995 to remind the spectators that it was just a “cricket match” to the unprecedented hand-shaking ceremony ahead of the battle at Centurion in 2003, the players have been quite mature while handling the pressures and expectations.

The current players, appalled at the pre-match media hype, are treating the contest as a very important one and not as a matter of life and death. The Pakistan camp is doing what the Indian players have done throughout the World Cup campaign — keeping the television shut. The players on both sides are looking to Wednesday's match to extend their survival in the game's most prestigious competition. They will be battling to win, not fighting a war.

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