x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

India v Pakistan in UAE would be a hit

Hordes of expatriates from both sides of the border are guaranteed to sell out whichever UAE ground they play at.

At the height of a chess confrontation that drew comparisons with the Cold War of the time, Garry Kasparov was asked what he thought of Anatoly Karpov, his rival. "Do the [New York] Yankees like the [Boston] Red Sox?" was his answer.

That one quip tells you all you need to know about the nature of sporting rivalries. When Barcelona played Real Madrid off the park last Monday night, you did not need to look up at the bedlam in the stands to understand that it was more than just a game.

When Sachin Tendulkar tells you seriously that he did not sleep for nearly a fortnight before India played Pakistan at the 2003 World Cup, you know it is not just for effect.

Certain contests quicken the pulse more than others, primarily for reasons of geography.

Many rivalries involve a border (India-Pakistan and Brazil-Argentina), others religion (Rangers-Celtic, the Glasgow giants in Scotland) and some are all about local bragging rights (Everton-Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur-Arsenal).

Each is so intense that factors such as form and ranking count for little when the teams go head-to-head.

Much has been said in recent times about keeping Test cricket relevant in the modern age.

All sorts of solutions - a Test championship, and day-night games - have been mooted, but if we are really serious about finding an answer, we need to look to Asia, where Test attendances have been plummeting.

Any talk of reviving interest in the region is pointless until and unless administrators (and the politicians who control them) can find a way to get India and Pakistan playing again.

Cricket already has one of sport's epic rivalries, the Ashes series between England and Australia. Even in the mid-to-late 1980s, when both teams were downright mediocre, the crowds still thronged venues, drawn by tradition as much as anything else.

Though they first played each other as long ago as 1952, India and Pakistan have been unable to build a similar narrative.

A 17-year hiatus between 1961 and 1978 - during which time there were two wars - did not help, and over the past two decades they have played just 15 Tests.

A generation of all-time greats - Tendulkar, Wasim Akram, Inzamam-ul-Haq, Anil Kumble, Waqar Younis and Rahul Dravid - hardly played one another, and there has scarcely been a contest that will live for eternity like the Ashes matches at Headingley, Leeds, in 1981 or Edgbaston, Birmingham, in 2005.

Political realities mean that India and Pakistan are unlikely to be able to host each other any time soon, but three years after the last bilateral series, it is time that both boards considered the possibility of playing at a neutral venue.

Before the sour end to Pakistan's summer of cricket in England this year, that would have been the perfect choice, with hordes of expatriates from both sides of the border guaranteed to sell out whichever ground they played at.

If England is no longer an option, then perhaps they can play in the UAE. It was India and Pakistan that inaugurated the Zayed Cricket Stadium more than four years ago and provided it can come up with a slightly more sporting surface than the one on which Pakistan and South Africa played out a drab draw recently, it would be an excellent backdrop in which to resume cricketing ties.

Local derbies are special because they usually come along just twice a year. India and Pakistan have played just 59 times in 58 years, most of them dire contests dominated by the fear of defeat.

As they watch the Ashes unfold in Australia, fans on both sides of the Radcliffe Line will hope that the time soon comes when they too can play ball. Politics permitting.

 

sports@thenational.ae