Amrit Mathur, the manager of India’s World Cup team in 2003, narrates a tale that puts in perspective the off-field pressures that players are subjected to in the lead-up to an India-Pakistan World Cup game. Especially in a climate like today’s, when political and diplomatic ties between the two countries have been severed. As the two teams hadn’t played an ODI in nearly three years leading up to the match at Centurion on March 1, 2003, it was decided by Mathur, his Pakistani equivalent Shahryar Khan and Ali Bacher, the 2003 World Cup tournament director, that the players would shake hands before the match begins; a gesture of friendship.
“Just minutes before the two teams were about to descend the long staircase to the ground and exchange mementos and handshakes, someone from our camp raised an important point,” says Mathur, a columnist with HT. “This gentleman said, ‘We keep saying that this is just another game. Then why are we doing this? We are not the United Nations.” But Mathur was certain that it wouldn’t do India’s image much good if they backed out at this late hour. “So, I took this gentleman aside along with our captain, Sourav Ganguly, and convinced them that backing out wasn’t an option. The mementos had been made. The Pakistanis were waiting. And the world was watching,” says Mathur. “They agreed and the two teams lined up, Sourav’s men and Waqar Younis’s men, and like before a football match, all players shook hands.”
For India, the gesture of goodwill seemingly spilled over on to the field as well. At the end of Pakistan’s innings of 273, Saeed Anwar—as he often did against India—scored big runs, 101 of them. And seldom in the past had India won after an Anwar hundred. Says Mathur: “During the break, it was a dressing room on the edge. The score was daunting and so was Pakistan’s bowling attack of Wasim Akram, Waqar and Shoaib Akthar.”
You know what happened next —Sachin Tendulkar’s 98 helped India win a match that was tense for reasons more than just the contest—but you perhaps aren’t aware of what the victory meant to the players in the dressing room, so allow Mathur to tell you. “In all my time with different India teams, I have not seen a dressing room celebrate like that. Even the non-drinkers were polishing off the Amstel beer stocked in the fridge.” Mathur says that sometime during the emotional celebration, Tendulkar came up to him and revealed that he had been preparing for that match for over a year, since the World Cup schedule had been released. “His wife Anjali called him from Bandra, Mumbai, and held the phone by the balcony so that Sachin could hear the crackers that were going off all over the city,” says Mathur. “Sachin told us it sounded like Diwali.”
It is of course terribly unfair that professional sportspersons have to shoulder ambassadorial burdens at a time when the cross-border relations are in a trough. During the 2011 World Cup, MS Dhoni’s side were to play Pakistan in the semi-final at Mohali. As if the tension of the stage and the opposition weren’t enough, the team was reminded almost daily in the newspapers that this was the first time Pakistan would be playing on Indian soil since the terror attacks in Mumbai in November 2008.
And even before Dhoni and Shahid Afridi could proceed for the toss, the Prime Ministers of India and Pakistan, Manmohan Singh and Yousuf Raza Gilani, took the field for a photo-op. It is unlikely that PM Narendra Modi and his counterpart (and winner of the 1992 World Cup) Imran Khan will be present here on Sunday, given that the current Indo-Pak situation is somewhat similar to when the two teams met at very same ground in 1999.
Just 10 days before that World Cup was to start in mid-May, the Kargil War broke out. Right in the heart of that conflict on June 8, 1999 and many thousand miles away from it, the two countries lined up their cricket teams in front of high-strung spectators at Old Trafford, all of them patriotically charged. And one fears that the environment in the stands won’t be too different during the group game on Sunday.
Although the tense situation across the India-Pakistan border escalated and de-escalated over a short span in February (three months before this World Cup even started) it has lived on in an Indian dressing room eager to pay its tribute to the armed forces. The camouflage caps worn by the entire team during an ODI against Australia at home and the para-military insignia on Dhoni’s wicketkeeping gloves during this World Cup both have a deeper revelation: that, for perhaps the first time in the lead-up to a World Cup game against Pakistan, the unnecessary pressures have been self-inflicted.