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Indo-Pak Cricket: Why The Grass is Greener in Kashmir

 

 

Kashmir shuts down when India and Pakistan play a cricket match, with Kashmiris always rooting maniacally for Pakistan. Syed Zafar Mehdi on the political roots of this attitude

 

Cricket is a fascinating game in more ways than one. It turns faithful friends into hardened enemies and strange bedfellows into intimate partners. It tests your loyalty and fidelity. It spreads love and amplifies hatred. In the Indian subcontinent, cricket is a religion, a creed and an article of faith. Any preposterous remark, wittingly or unwittingly, against a cricketer amounts to blasphemy. Cricketers are worshipped like deities and there are temples exclusively dedicated to them. In India, when a Sachin Tendulkar is tottering at an ominous score of 99, failing to pick gaps and fiddling too much outside the off-stump, ardent fans switch off their television sets and turn to whichever god they can think of. In Pakistan, when the team wins, the sound of firecrackers is deafening in every street corner. When the team loses, houses are set ablaze and the season of mourning sets in. If the opponents are archrivals India, then players have to actually run for cover. In Bangladesh, the day their national team registers a win against any formidable side is declared a national holiday. When a Shakibul Hasan reaches a three-digit figure, the nation comes to a grinding halt. The madness is palpable, and yet it is unfathomable.

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A Kashmiri youth plays street cricket as Indian policemen stand guard during a strike in Srinagar
A Kashmiri youth plays street cricket as Indian policemen stand guard during a strike in Srinagar
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For most young Kashmiris, cricket is a political statement

In Kashmir, the fanaticism goes to another level and assumes a different dimension and meaning. There are no temples or synagogues for cricketers, but the enthusiasm is unadulterated and complete. Cricket is a unifying force that binds people together, irrespective of age, gender, class or creed. For most young Kashmiris, cricket is not just a game. It is a political statement. Their support for the Pakistani cricket team, especially when the team plays archrivals India, has become a part of popular folklore now. It has to be seen and understood in the context of their larger political aspirations and their detestation for anything to do with India.

Whenever Pakistan plays India, Kashmiris madly root for the men in green, not simply because they want Pakistan to win, but because they want men in blue to lose. Their support extends to any team that is pitted against India, be it Australia, West Indies or even Zimbabwe. The memories of the two one-day internationals played in Srinagar’s Sher e Kashmir Stadium in the past – against Clive Lloyd’s West Indies in 1983 and Allan Border’s Australia in 1986 – continues to haunt staunch Indian cricket lovers even today. The Indian team lost both games and faced hostile crowds in the stadium, who vociferously raised anti-India slogans and cheered for the opponents. In the match against the visiting Caribbean side in 1983, the incredible support for Clive Lloyd’s boys made him wonder if it was a home game or away game. No international matches have been staged there ever since, apparently to avoid more embarrassment.

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The support for Pakistan’s cricket team has always been an intriguing socio-cultural phenomenon in Kashmir, cutting across all sections of the society. It’s an elemental part of the overall training and upbringing of a child, just like the craving for ‘freedom’. When I was a small kid, I had a life-size poster of Waqar Yunus hanging in my room. Every morning, I would open my eyes and visualize him running in fast and crushing the stumps of Indian batsmen with that menacing reverse swing and those toe-crushing yorkers. I was also a huge fan of the elegant left-hander Saeed Anwar, and my small diary would be filled with pictures and statistics about him and other Pakistani players. And, every time there was a crackdown by Indian soldiers, I would pull off the poster from the wall and put it safely in the briefcase along with the diary. I still keep them with me.

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I had a life-size poster of Waqar Yunus hanging in my roomI had a life-size poster of Waqar Yunus hanging in my room
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Once, my elder cousin, who never played cricket himself but was a hardcore Pakistani cricket fan, was carrying newspaper cutouts of Wasim Akram and Shahid Afridi when he was intercepted by soldiers while on his way back from school. They tore apart the pictures and tied him to a tree for two long hours, before letting him go with a dire warning. Next day, he got a whole collection of pictures, taken out from cricket magazines, and distributed among all of us. The rebel was born that day.

Those days, everyone in Kashmir would try to imitate Pakistani players. In our mohalla team, players earned some interesting sobriquets for themselves, owing to their fascination with various popular Pakistani players. In our team, we had ‘Akram’ bowling those deadly yorkers, ‘Anwar’ playing those delightful square drives, ‘Saqlain’ bowling the mysterious flippers, ‘Eijaz’ with the safest pair of hands, and ‘Afridi’ hitting every ball with sheer disdain. Many of us that time would fancy playing for Pakistan. We took our cricket seriously and some of us even played at higher levels, but at the U-19 level, I finally realized that it was self-defeating to carry on, since I would only end up wearing a blue jersey. That was a big deal.

It’s no more about cricket, it’s about pride and retribution

Whenever Pakistan plays, Kashmir shuts down. The streets wear deserted looks as everyone is glued to their television and radio sets, gasping for breath after every ball bowled and every shot played. When Pakistan is pitted against India, tensions run high. It’s an almost war-like situation, minus bullets and bombs. It’s no more just about cricket, it’s about pride and retribution. Defeating India becomes a rallying cry in the Indian-occupied territory. Such is the frenzy that even the pro-India ministers and legislators, watching the action in their plush government mansions, in their heart of hearts pray for Pakistan’s victory. Victory of men in green is celebrated with firecrackers, even as the Indian soldiers, peeping irately through the sand bunkers turn red with fury. In the past, they have even shot people for the frenzied celebrations over Pakistan’s victories, but they could not stop the celebrations as they could not stop the mourning of the dead.

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The streets wear deserted looks as everyone is glued to their radio setsThe streets wear deserted looks as everyone is glued to their radio sets
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Like my father, for most Pakistani cricket fans, 1986 was special. My father may not remember that I was born that year but he vividly remembers Javed Miandad’s scintillating last-ball six off Chetan Sharma in the Australasia Cup final at Sharjah. My uncle, a diehard Pakistani cricket fan, had refused to eat anything for two days after Pakistan slumped to 87 all out while chasing India’s paltry score of 125 in 1984 Rothmans Four-Nations Cup at Sharjah. My uncle also recalls that after a match at Eden Gardens Kolkata (then Calcutta) in 1987, Saleem Malik, who smashed 72 from 36 balls and saw his team through, had become an overnight hero for cricket fans in Kashmir. Any player who performed well against India acquired a cult status in Kashmir. That continues even today.

So, those who think the armed rebellion against Indian rule in Kashmir in the early 90s fuelled the Pakistani cricket following in Kashmir are sadly mistaken. People in Kashmir always rejoiced at India’s defeats and Pakistan’s triumphs. They can afford to forgive men in green for losing to minnows like Zimbabwe or Ireland, but they cannot forgive them for conceding the match to India.

My little cousin has all the records of Pakistani cricketers on his fingertips

Memories of a fierce encounter in the 1996 World Cup Quarterfinal at Bangalore are still fresh. The game witnessed many interesting on-field histrionics. When Amir Sohail locked horns with the tall and lanky Venky Prasad, we were glued to our television screens at home, shouting and screaming, waiting for the next cracking cover drive from Sohail. A pall of gloom descended in the room packed with a ‘bleeding green’ battalion of my cousins when Sohail perished. One cousin, the lone Indian supporter in the room, was almost lynched when he tried to scream with joy. After the match, which India won, one Pakistani fan reportedly shot himself after shooting his television.

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Indian police humiliate a youth in SrinagarIndian police humiliate a youth in Srinagar
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My little cousin, a self-confessed cricket buff, has all the records of Pakistani cricketers on his fingertips. He will throw a barrage of statistics at you to prove that Saeed Anwar was a better match-winner than Sachin Tendulkar, Aaqib Javed was more economical than Venky Prasad, Waqar Yunus’s slowest delivery was better than the fastest Javagal Srinath ever bowled, Mushtaq Ahmad’s googly was sharper than Anil Kumble’s, Eijaz Ahmad was quicker on field than Mohd Azharuddin; and Inzamum ul Haq’s son bowls faster than Ajit Agarkar or Joginder Sharma. He knows how long Saeed Anwar held the record for the highest individual score in an ODI (against India) and how long Aaqib Javed held the record for the highest wicket-taker in an ODI (against India). Both records are broken now, but memories are deeply etched in the mind.

These days, IPL is the buzzword in cricketing circles. While the fever has gripped India and many other countries, there is not even a murmur in Kashmir about who’s playing whom. And there is nothing shocking about it. There are no Pakistani cricketers playing, and for Kashmiris, cricket loses meaning when men in green are not in action. Banning them from the IPL is yet another reason for their fans in Kashmir to hate India.

Writer is a Kashmiri journalist based in New Delhi. He can be reached at @mehdizafar

Source: The Friday Times (Friday, May 04, 2013)

http://www.thefridaytimes.com/beta3/tft/article.php?issue=20130503&page=16