x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

India and Pakistan have contentious rivalry in cricket matches

Troubled political history adds edge to a cricket match expected to be watched by more than 100m TV viewers in India alone.

Security at the stadium is tight, with both the Indian and Pakistani prime ministers and other VIPs expected to attend the game.
Security at the stadium is tight, with both the Indian and Pakistani prime ministers and other VIPs expected to attend the game.

NEW DELHI // For a year before the India-Pakistan game during the 2003 World Cup, Indian fans pestered cricketer Sachin Tendulkar, wishing him well and offering their strategies for beating Pakistan.

The pressure took a toll. One of the best batsman ever to strap on pads, Tendulkar had insomnia for the 12 nights leading up to the game.

The little magician may have had trouble sleeping since last Thursday, when India beat Australia to set up today's blockbuster World Cup semi-final - India v Pakistan, in the state of Punjab.

These matches bristle with tension. They are much more than sporting contests; they are infused with the decades of animosity between the two countries.

"At these games, the atmosphere is simply electric," said R Swaminathan, an Indian businessman. As a schoolboy, he had attended the India-Pakistan quarter-final game in Bangalore during the 1996 World Cup.

"The stadium was a riot of India colours," Mr Swaminathan recalled. "After India won, there were huge celebrations outside the stadium."

These games attract millions of TV viewers and lure many celebrities to the match itself.

The stadium for today's game - Punjab Cricket Association Stadium in Mohali - holds only 30,000 spectators and tickets were sold out even before India and Pakistan reached the semis.

Among the dignitaries expected today are the prime ministers of India and Pakistan, Manmohan Singh and Yousuf Raza Gilani, the children of the Congress party president Sonia Gandhi, and Mukesh Ambani, India's richest man.

For Indian television, these matches are a bonanza. In the 2003 World Cup, the India-Pakistan game registered a television rating that was 53 per cent higher than the average rating of other India games.

As many as 122 million fans are expected to watch the match on TV in India alone, making it one of the most-watched cricket games in history, according to data from the World Cup gathered by TAM Media Research.

The rivalry has produced heart-break and euphoria for both players and fans.

For example, in the 1986 final of the Australasia Cup in Sharjah, India dominated much of the game and Pakistan needed four runs to win off the last delivery in the match.

Then Javed Miandad, who had already made a century, walloped a full toss into the stands for six, sparking wild celebrations in Pakistan.

A 2004 paper in the British Medical Journal called Mr Miandad's six "a shot heard throughout South Asia and much of the world." In its statistical analysis of more than 50 years of India-Pakistan cricket, the paper concluded that Pakistan started winning far more frequently after that game.

Sreeram B Iyer, a Chennai-based engineer and cricket aficionado, noted that "from 1986 … every third match or so, India would get into a winning position. Then something dramatic would happen … and Pakistan would win".

India finally began to recover in the 1990s. Mr Iyer described the shift in momentum as "liberating … One suddenly realised that a new era was beginning."

For players, the pressure of these matches can be daunting. "You get the feeling that the cricketers are trying to convince themselves that it's just another game, and that if they repeat it enough to themselves they'll believe it," said Rahul Bhattacharya, the author of Pundits from Pakistan: On Tour With India, 2003-04. "It's still 22 players out there, the pitch is still 22 yards - that kind of thing."

But for fans, these matches are not just another game.

A Test match in Kolkata in 1999 was played in front of stands that had been emptied by the police. Angry about an umpire's call, spectators burnt newspapers and threw plastic bottles onto the field.

In a 1999 World Cup game in Manchester, England, Mr Bhattacharya saw "Indian and Pakistani fans shoving flags in each other's faces, and a nasty sort of jibing. There's definitely some element of triumphalism."

But often the fans applaud cricket quality - even when it's displayed by the opponent.

In a closely fought 1999 Test match in Chennai, Pakistan won despite a classic Tendulkar century. Recalling the game later, Pakistan team captain Wasim Akram said: "How can I forget the Chennai crowd that gave Pakistan a standing ovation when we won a Test there?"

Mr Bhattacharya similarly recalled a game in Karachi. Pakistan needed to score six runs off the final ball to win. But batsman Moin Khan could not match Miandad's 1986 heroics and India won.

"There was so much applause for the Indian team after they won, and that spirit really continued throughout that tour," Mr Bhattacharya said. "Even now, when I think about it, I get goose pimples."