Two great cricketers will face each other in the Asia Cup on Sunday. If the gods smile on the television moguls, this could be the first of three meetings in the tournament. The rivalry between India and Pakistan has generally been more intense in the hearts and minds of the supporters than the players. Battles have been fought on social media by fans who believe that victory on the cricket field is the ultimate proof that one political system or one religion or one nation is superior to another.
Over the years, whenever the teams from India and Pakistan have met, there have been two separate games. A competition on the field is between two talented players trying their best to win, bringing professional pride to the frame. Beyond that, the game symbolizes something else. The war minus the shooting, to use George Orwell’s memorable phrase.
The last time the teams met, was in the World T20 in October 2021, Pakistan defeated India by ten wickets. Mohammad Shami, the only Muslim bowler on the Indian team, was mercilessly trolled. He had figures of 3.5-0-43-0, not unusual in a T20 game. But for those looking for scapegoats, Shami fit the bill.
The exchanges on social media have been relatively muted in the build-up to Sunday’s game – but it will take a long time for the India-Pakistan match to go from a test of nationalism to “just another game”.
On Sunday, Pakistan will be without fast bowler Shaheen Afridi, who has a knee problem. When the two teams met in the World T20, Afridi was the man of the match with three wickets.
“Shaheen’s injury is a big relief for Indian top-order batsmen…” former Pakistan captain Waqar Younis tweeted last week. To this, former India player Irfan Pathan replied, “It’s a relief for the other teams that Bumpa is not playing the Asia Cup!” Indian fast bowler Jasprit Bumrah has a back injury.
The exchange has been lightened by what some players and fans have been tweeting in recent days. If things are getting a little boring, it’s for the best. But that might be too much to hope for. There are plenty of players, fans, and television personalities who have fanned the flames for personal, professional, and political reasons.
But to set against these exchanges, there is one between the two sides’ leading batsmen.
When India’s Virat Kohli was suffering from a bad complication in England last month, Pakistani star Babar Azam sent him a message: “This too shall pass. Stay strong.”
Kohli’s response was equally warm: “Thank you. Keep shining and growing. Wish you all the best.”
For political reasons, India and Pakistan only play each other in multi-team tournaments outside their respective countries – giving these matches an edge. Emotions remain suppressed for a long time and are released on these occasions.
But that’s between the fans. Players show more discretion. The Pakistan Cricket Board released videos of the players from both countries greeting each other warmly from the venue and asking about the status of each other’s families. For them, it is business as usual.
One factor explaining the lack of usual excitement in the build-up to the first match of the Asia Cup could be the distraction caused by Kohli’s lack of form. The former India captain and the leading batsman has not scored a century in international cricket since November 2019 and has played just four of India’s last 24 T20 matches.
Kohli’s return to the team after a short break to rest and recuperate is eagerly awaited.
Indian fans are praying for Kohli to play a major role in the team’s victory. This will be his 100th T20 International, making him only the second player (after New Zealand’s Ross Taylor) to play 100 matches in each of the three formats of cricket.
Kohli’s form has become a major domestic issue, with at least one national magazine analyzing it in a cover story, and other experts lining up to comment. A website has calculated that it has been 1009 days since his last century. It won’t matter if Kohli rediscovers his touch in the Asia Cup. The story within the story has diverted attention from the bigger stories – the India-Pakistan tie and the Asia Cup itself.
The 15th Asia Cup, to be played in two groups of three each between six teams, was to be held in Sri Lanka but was shifted to the United Arab Emirates due to the economic and political situation in that country. Teams from each group will play each other in the ‘Super Four’, with the top two teams competing in the final on September 11.