Even though the 2015 Cricket World Cup is just now moving into the quarter-finals, it has already served as a stage to the biggest sporting event in history: to wit, the India vs Pakistan match played at South Australia’s Adelaide Oval.
Most Westerners assume the Olympics or the FIFA World Cup are the world’s biggest sports fixtures. Yet the last India vs Pakistan Cricket World Cup game, played in 2011, was watched by an estimated 988 million people. The audience figure eclipsed that of both the 2012 London Olympic Games Opening Ceremony and the 2010 FIFA World Cup Final (figures for the 2014 Final have not yet been released).
If you’re seriously asking yourself, “What about the Superbowl?”, or worse, quietly estimating viewer numbers for baseball’s hilariously-named “World Series,” all I can say is please take the red pill and welcome to the Asian Century. Sunday’s India vs Pakistan game is estimated to have been watched by over 1 billion people!
To be fair, you’d be far from alone. Even in Australia, host nation for the 2015 World Cup, the match was not broadcast on free-to-air TV. To put that in perspective, if Australia were ever to draft its own Bill of Rights, free summer cricket broadcasts would probably come in at #6 or #7.
Yet on Sunday, Australians’ usual cricket channel preferred a home renovation reality show. On the network’s second channel, we were treated to a gripping episode of The Great British Bake-Off. Admittedly, one can only be impressed that they managed to produce an entire episode called “Advanced Dough.”
It seems that as with world politics, so with sport: anything that doesn’t involve white people generates a collective yawn from the media.
The Sydney Morning Herald argued that administrators including Cricket Australia’s James Sunderland were hyping audience estimates, saying, “Even the four-yearly [FIFA] World Cup final does not verifiably have a billion watchers.”
Yet of course, that Cup is decided in a sport predominately played in Europe and South America, two continents with a combined population less than that of India. And that’s before we start with the 360 million people in Pakistan and Bangladesh (formerly known as East Pakistan), the 50 million in Sri Lanka and Nepal, and the millions of South Asian migrants in South-East Asia and Western nations.
Reuters too came to the seemingly erroneous conclusion that the FIFA World Cup Final is “the world’s biggest sporting event.
It seems an instructive diagram is in order:
India and Pakistan are the world’s two most obsessive cricketing nations. This image, taken during a wedding ceremony in India last Sunday, gives you a hint of it:
Indian captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni is his country’s biggest celebrity by endorsements, pocketing US $26.5 million. Dhoni is also an honorary lieutenant-colonel in the Indian army, as well as Vice-President of India Cements and former director of Air India.
Meanwhile in Pakistan, former captain and all-time cricketing great Imran Khan is now his country’s most important opposition politician. As a cricketer, Khan’s fame was such that after having retired in 1988, he was personally asked by President Mohammed Zia-ul-Haq to return and captain Pakistan in the 1992 World Cup. Khan obliged and Pakistan ended up winning the World Cup for the first (and only) time.
Khan calls for the implementation of an Islamic welfare state in Pakistan, arguing that the Europeans borrowed the idea from the Muslim world. “We need to bring our culture back to our own land,” he told the press in 2012. Khan is also a leading critic of US drone warfare in Pakistan.
Even cricketers from overseas are hugely famous on the subcontinent. Former Australian fast-bowler Brett Lee featured in a Bollywood movie. Aaron Finch, an Australian batsmen from the rural town of Colac, has been offered $662,000 to play in the six-week Indian Premier League (IPL) tournament. And current Australian team coach Darren Lehmann, who was only briefly a fixture in the national side as a player, was even then recruited as a famous face to sell Pepsi in Pakistan.
Meanwhile in Australia, even while hosting the World Cup, the only games broadcast free-to-air are those in which Australia is playing.
India vs Pakistan: Proxy War by Cricket
However, it’s not just the cricket but the broader rivalry between the two countries that makes India vs Pakistan a unique phenomenon in global sport.
The British partitioned colonial India into the two nations of India and Pakistan in 1947, in seemingly reflex adherence to the strategy of divide and rule. Until this date, British monarchs actually called themselves emperors and empresses of India.
The partition was a disaster. Hundreds of thousands were killed in pogroms and rioting and tens of millions became refugees as Muslims fled India for Pakistan and Hindus and Sikhs fled Pakistan for India. The two countries have since fought three wars and engaged in a nuclear arms race.
Since the attacks by religious fanatics in Mumbai in 2008, bilateral series between India and Pakistan have ceased altogether.
This gives matches between the two nations a unique intensity. Past clashes have borne witness to heated verbal exchanges between players, a type of behavior rarely seen thanks to cricket’s insistence on at least overt adherence to “gentlemanly” ethics.
At the Adelaide Oval on Sunday, the excitement bubbled over even before the first ball was bowled.
“We Indians are crazy,” I was told by a jovial, white-bearded man among the eager crowd. “We dance like this without even having a drink.”
He was right too. I’ve never seen a queue at the bar during a sports match in Australia as short as the one on Sunday.
Yet amid the dancing, drumming, and Bollywood tunes, there was an undeniable tension in the air. As I walked past a group of chanting Pakistani fans, one of them switched to the Australian cricketing chant, “Aussie Aussie Aussie,” a wisecrack comment on the fact that I was the only white Australian in sight not in a police uniform.
“We don’t have very good chants, do we?” I replied.
“What do you mean?” the young Pakistani fan said, irritated. “We have good chance. Just as good as India.” Then he returned to shouting, punctuated by the line, “God is great.”
Indian captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni won the coin toss and – on a sweltering 37°C day reminiscent of summer in his native state of Bihar (population 103 million) – elected to bat first.
Indian openers Rohit Sharma and Shikhar Dhawan began slowly in the face of hostile Pakistani fast bowling. In dry conditions favorable for batting, and on a flat Adelaide pitch that is perhaps the most similar to Indian pitches of any of the major grounds in Australia, the batsmen played with a caution that suggested the enormity of the occasion was weighing upon them.
This didn’t deter the Indian fans. Outnumbering the Pakistanis some 8:1, they cheered every early run as though it meant victory itself.
Pakistani giant Mohammed Irfan, who stands at 7’1”, could easily have had Dhawan out with his aggressive short-pitched bowling. Dhawan missed or miscued three deliveries from Irfan in the early overs, as he frantically sought to evade the 140km/h short-pitched missiles that Irfan directed at his throat.
For the benefit of those unfamiliar, hitting the batsman is not only allowed in cricket, but encouraged. Cricket is a mental game, as they say, and a key part of the mind-games is fear and intimidation.
As it happened Dhawan survived. Luck was on his side as a number of his shots flew in the air just past Pakistani fieldsmen and to the boundary rope.
It was in fact Sharma who was dismissed early. A skilled but impatient batsman, Sharma grew frustrated with the accurate fast-bowling of Sohail Khan and mistimed an attempted slog off a full-pitched delivery, hitting an easy catch to Pakistani captain Misbah ul-Haq.
Yet as much as Pakistan needed that wicket, it brought the even more dangerous Virat Kohli to the crease, India’s premier batsman. After calmly defending a few balls as he accustomed himself to the pace, Kohli began to cut and drive cleanly through the off-side and pull the short-pitched deliveries with trademark aggression.
Soon the fans were shouting “Kohil, Kohli, Kohli,” interspersed between the regular chant, “India No. 1”:
The run-rate seemed to increase over by over, particularly when Pakistan turned to the spin bowling of Yasir Khan and Shahid Afridi. Ironically, the dismissal of Dhawan for 73 runs from 76 deliveries only worsened Pakistan’s plight by bringing Suresh Raina out to the middle.
Raina’s powerful leg-side hitting took him to 74 from 56 deliveries, combining to add 110 from the next 92 balls with Kohli until the latter was dismissed for 107.
Along with some late hitting from MS Dhoni, including one huge strike into the crowd, India ultimately scored exactly 300 runs from their 300-ball (50-over) innings.
The atmosphere was rapturous in the innings break. The Indians had seen solid performances from Kohli and Dhoni, their two favorite sons, and Pakistan were at long odds to chase down India’s total.
Pakistan kicked off their innings in almost the worst possible way, losing renowned batsman Younis Khan in the fourth over with only 11 runs on the board. Younis attempted a cross-bat shot off a short ball from Mohammed Shami, but the ball was upon him too quickly, andawkwardly struck the bat handle, ballooning up where it was caught by wicketkeeper MS Dhoni.
With Haris Sohail now at the crease with Ahmed Shehzad, Pakistan managed a partnership of 68 runs. However at times, as when facing Indian off-spinner Ravi Ashwin, the batsmen struggled to hit any runs at all.
Shehzad had almost played Pakistan out of the match, taking up 73 balls for his 47 runs, before being dismissed by Umesh Yadav. Along with Shami, Yadav appeared 10km/h faster than he had in India’s preceding series against Australia, in which the Indians had failed to win a match.
Once Shehzad was dismissed, Sohaib Maqsood followed immediately, hitting this ball straight to Suresh Raina (#8) at backward point:
When Umar Akmal joined captain Misbah ul-Haq in the middle with the score at 5 wickets for 103, Pakistan were in dire straits. At the same time, you felt a partnership between the mercurial Akmal and his experienced captain was Pakistan’s only chance of scoring the required runs in time.
So it was unfortunate to see Akmal ruled out in controversial circumstances on just his fourth ball. Having been given not out by the umpire following an Indian appeal for caught behind, the on-field decision was overruled after video replays.
The delivery had appeared to pass harmlessly by Akmal’s bat before thudding into the gloves of keeper Dhoni. However the so-called “snickometer,” a sound graph connected to a microphone in the stumps, registered a minute vibration as or slightly after the ball passed Akmal’s bat.
Akmal was ruled to have nicked the ball and been caught, despite the snickometer having reacted far less than it usually does to an edge. Ironically, the electronic review system historically disdained by India helped them put the last nail in Pakistan’s coffin.
In spite of valiant resistance from Misbah ul-Haq, Pakistan never seriously threatened India’s score. Their last batsmen threw their wickets away in the desperate chase and the side was dismissed for 224, giving India a 76-run victory.
When India’s fine batsmen are on point, only the best sides in the world can match them. Unfortunately, due to recent woes Pakistan are not in that category at the moment. The team has been hit by untimely injuries to strike fast-bowler Umar Gul and all-rounder Mohammed Hafeez, a fixture in the Pakistani side since 2010.
Pakistan also recently lost spinner Saeed Ajmal, whose controversial bent-elbow action led to his suspension from international cricket. Ajmal was the foremost exponent of the doosra – Urdu for “the other one” – a deceptive delivery that spins in the opposite direction to what is suggested by the bowler’s action.
The one-sided scoreline notwithstanding, the match was always destined to be memorable for its theater. Before the match, India held a 5–0 record against Pakistan in World Cup matches, despite Pakistan’s favorable overall record against India.
This World Cup history was referenced in an Indian TV advertisement, showing a Pakistani boy in 1992 eagerly awaiting victory over India holding a box full of fireworks, only to disappointingly be obliged to return them to the cupboard to wait another four years. When toward the end of the match an Indian fan held up a Hindi sign saying, “Pakistan, hold the fireworks until 2019,” he was met with a standing ovation from the crowd.
The actor playing the Pakistani fan (aka the #maukamauka guy) has become an instant celebrity. He is said to be asked to pose for 80 selfies per day. The ad’s theme song has become the Indian team’s unofficial soundtrack.
Pakistani television actually responded to the Indian advertisement. The clip showed Pakistani batting legend Javed Miandad hitting a six off the final ball of a 1986 match to defeat India. One Indian news site called the ad “disgusting” and demonstrating “crass taste.”
Another commercial made a macabre comparison between the upcoming match and a gas leak just waiting to be ignited by a spark. Yet the only hint of such hostility on the day occurred when Pakistan’s prodigiously talented Shahid Afridi threw the ball in from the field and struck Virat Kohli in the lower back.
The crowd booed and watched on in anticipation. Kohli winced, but he smiled too, and when Afridi ran over to pat him on the back Kohli grinned and gave him a playful punch with a gloved hand.
Ultimately the fans were much more united by the cricket (and the music and dancing) than they were divided by animosity. Clearly the amicable sentiments were enhanced by the fact that so many of the spectators at the ground were well-off ex-pats living in Australia. The match was doubtlessly viewed amid far more tension in Kashmir and Gujarat than it was in Adelaide. In fact, even Sydney was witness to an incident of brawling between fans of the respective sides.
But for the most part, the day was about coming together to soak in the moment. The Indians were left relieved to have triumphed in a match they were expected to win. All credit, then, goes to the Pakistani supporters for their sporting acceptance of the loss and their ability to appreciate the match for the unique communal spectacle that it was. As the match petered out to its conclusion by the end of the night, the competition between the two nations dissolved into a single party.
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