If paanwallahs in north India are a signpost for the election breeze, then taxi-drivers in London are often astute sports forecasters. When my London cabbie turns out to be a Pakistani who predicts that his team is heading for a heavy defeat against India in the Champions Trophy, you know the men in green are in big trouble. After all, the one thing that Pakistanis pride themselves on is the notion of ‘junoon’ (obsession) with beating the ‘Big Brother’. All that has changed now which is why the whopping 124 run loss to India in Birmingham should not come as any surprise. The fact is that Team India today is simply a vastly superior side to Pakistan.
It wasn’t always like this. When I was growing up in the 1980s, Pakistan would beat India more often than not. That, of course, was the formidable Pakistan team led by the great Imran Khan. Perhaps, the last ball six which Javed Miandad hit in a Sharjah match in 1986 gave the Pakistanis a psychological edge which they did not relinquish for years. It took the brilliance of Sachin Tendulkar in the 2003 World Cup semi-finals to instil self-belief and end a decade-and-a-half of Indian inferiority. Since then, with every passing year, it has become increasingly apparent that the gap between India and Pakistan has widened to the point where today, with the possible exception of left arm fast bowler Mohammed Aamir, not a single Pakistani player would get into an Indian ODI side. So what has changed?
Rewind to the late 1980s when both the Indian and Pakistani economies were in serious trouble. First Pakistan, and then India in 1991, was forced to turn to the IMF for a bailout to avert a balance of payments crisis. India responded by abandoning its socialist credo and pushed ahead with economic liberalisation, unleashing the energies of a dormant entrepreneurship. Pakistan, by contrast, struggled to get its act together in a critical period, hobbled by corruption and political uncertainty.
Since the turn of the century, India has seen a spell of prolonged political stability nurtured by fine democratic traditions while Pakistan has seen its prime ministers being jailed and assassinated even as the military has maintained its supremacy. In particular, the Pakistan army’s brazen attempt to patronise terrorism against India and Afghanistan has now created a dangerous cocktail of guns and Islamic radicalism within its borders. Where India is now the fastest growing large economy in the world with a much-coveted place on the G20 high table, Pakistan has almost become a pariah state, identified with the global export of terror.
These contrasts are now reflected on the cricket field. Where India with its financial muscle and frenzied crowd support has become the capital of the world game, Pakistan hasn’t seen a test match being played on its soil since 2009 when a Sri Lankan team bus was attacked by terrorists in Lahore. Where Indian cricketers have benefitted from the Indian Premier League and constant exposure to top-class competition, Pakistani cricketers have been forced to ply their trade, for the most part, before near-empty stadiums in the Gulf. Nowhere is the disparity between a highly-skilled and fit Indian team and a mediocre Pakistan side more apparent than in the shambolic state of the Pakistani fielding: Even an average club side would have fielded better in Birmingham.
Which is why this is as good a time as any to play Pakistan at cricket, if only to avenge the defeats of an earlier era. Even today, out of the 128 one-dayers played between the two countries, Pakistan holds the edge: They have won 72 matches, we have won 52 and there have been four no results. Forget the ‘hyper-nationalists’ who would like us to boycott all cricket with Pakistan. India-Pakistan cricket may seem like war minus the shooting to some but it remains eminently preferable to a potential bloody conflict on the border. In the Cold War years, recall how the Communist nations used sport to prove the superiority of their ‘system’. Now, it’s our turn to show the subcontinent in particular that India’s dominance over Pakistan extends to all aspects of society, especially the sport we all are so passionate about.
Post-script: Last week, at a cricket conclave, former Pakistan captain Aamir Sohail asked me why India-Pakistan cricket flourished only when the generals were in power in Islamabad. My answer was simple: When the military rules Pakistan, terrorists are under the control of the army and so less prone to mischief. For once, the otherwise voluble Sohail seemed stumped for a counter-response.