Vantage point

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Damn you, Inzy!

Damn you, Inzamam-ul-Haq! Why can't you be meaner, spew venom and act hostile? You and you men are slowly killing off one of the most mouth-watering rivalry franchises in sports today. You and your men are taking the sheen off the India-Pakistan rivalry.

Remember the sentiment surrounding any India-Pakistan cricket match in the 80s and 90s? A more explosive mix of jingoism and pure hatred would be tougher to find even in the 1930s in Germany. We hated the Pakistani players and every match became a war. People cried and tore their wigs out when close matches ended in the enemy's pocket. Pakistanis celebrated India's defeat to Sri Lanka in the 1996 World Cup semi-finals, and Indians were ecstatic at Australia thrashing Pakistan in the 1999 final.

After 1999, terrorism touched new heights. In addition, the men in Delhi donned saffron, while the men in Islamabad donned fatigues. Cricket ties were suspended for almost half a decade. But then 9/11 happened. 13/12 happened. The saffron tinge got milder and the fatigues expressed a desire to be replaced by salwar-kurtas. India and Pakistan started playing cricket again.

But hello, what on earth was this? Where was the edge? Where was the venom? The change in the nature of the India-Pakistan rivalry was nothing less than a tectonic shift. People on both sides of the border started treating it like just a cricket rivalry rather than a war. It became tame, even threatening to be tamer than the much-hyped-but-actually-tepid-and-wannabe ANZACS rivalry.

I blame Inzamam-ul-Haq!

The guy is just so damn nice. It just isn't possible to hate him. And once the captain is so nice and conciliatory, the team finds it very tough to adopt a belligerent attitude. It's all about the captains and the key players.

Remember, the edge to the rivalry was added by two gentlemen named Imran Khan and Javed Miandad. Imran Khan did it more explicitly, with his born-again-Muslim attitude. He was spewing the word 'jihad' even back in those days when Osama and Saddam were American "friends". He said Pakistani players treat every match against India as jihad. The supremo of the then-ascendant Shiv Sena latched on to this dialogue, and whipped up frenzy. Javed Miandad, with his last-ball six and his pugnacious attitude on field which he proudly displayed on television, was Ayman-Al-Zawahiri to Imran's Osama, in the mind of the Indians. Then there was a battery of pace bowlers, all breathing fire, and crushing Indian toes. The annual Sharjah circus kept sharpening the edge. Expat jingoism is always more expressive. The procession of Pakistani captains in the 90s was made up of followers of Imran, and be it Wasim AKram, Aamir SOhail or Rashid Latif, they all were obviosuly more charged up when the opponent was India.

Then along came 2004. Cricketing ties were restored. India agreed to play a full series in Pakistan, sending a message to other sides which had been cancelling tours post-9/11 that the place is quite safe after all. With a new and more cautious peace-process in place, there was guarded optimism. And of course, Inzy was at the helm.

Inzamam is one of my favourite players of all time. His lazy genius, his unflappable marshalling skills, and the ease with which he changes gears makes him a delight to watch. Plus he is such a nice guy, with an almost child-like innocence. His obvious talent also ensures that his innings don't rankle Indian supporters as much as Javed Mianded who was always more gumption-n-grit than genius. Even his spearhead fast bowler, Shoaib Akhtar, for some reason has never really rattled India in the last few years. His other lieutenants Yousuf and Younis, are also not very demonstrative of a "jihadi" attitude, the way every key player under Imran was. And his best spinner is a Hindu!

Bah! How can one hate this Pakistan team? Which is why their coming from behind and levelling the test series and winning the one-day series last season were not treated like national calamities in India. The Indian fan at Bangalore stood up and applauded Pakistan's amazing comeback. And even today, most Indians find themselves appreciating the way Pakistan is dominating England. Cricket is outselling jingoism.

Where did it all start? Did it start at Chennai in 1999 when the crowd shocked the Pakistanis with a standing ovation? Did it start at Delhi in 1999 when Akram wore as big a smile as Anil Kumble while congratulating him for the 10-wicket prize?

I'm not sure, but the enmity in India-Pakistan cricket is, at best dead, and at worst hibernating.

I blame good ole Inzy!

Cross posted on the Cricinfo Blog - Different Strokes