For a vast majority of Indians, leading a life of anonymity while dreaming, aspiring and despairing, life is a karmic circle, where the wheels of destiny are unstoppable. Cricket is one of the many pastimes that many have passionately embraced and see in its throbbing, vigorous rhythm of fours, sixes and wickets, in its victories and defeats, a mirror to their own life and even their country.
When the Champions Trophy began, the organisers, like often in the past, pitted India against Pakistan in their opening match to squeeze to the last all benefits, especially financial, such a match generates. Why leave something to chance, when there appeared very little possibility that Pakistan could march to the very end to set up a final encounter with India?
Pakistan’s resounding defeat in the opener was one more instance for India’s cricket fans of how far ahead India has progressed as a nation in every sphere of life, with cricket being a powerful symbol of that advancement. The two nations, politically never at ease with each other, have a deep-rooted history of hate and dislike, despite some terrific moments of harmony on the cricket field. There have been encounters in the past that have divided the people of not just the two nations, but their own people as well. From a vast majority, that believes that sports is a binding factor, not to be mixed with the divisive politics of the region, a stage has been reached where the voices of hatred are now drowning out those of peace.
Even at the height of tensions between the two nations, when the 1999 World Cup match was played at Manchester in the backdrop of the Kargil war, people from both sides who did not want the match to be disrupted far outnumbered those who live on hate. I remember having driven to the venue with my Pakistani taxi driver Zardar Khan, displaying the national flags of both countries on the windscreen. Whatever our differences, perceived or real, there was no disagreement on what a cricket match meant: a pure and simple contest which pitted a set of harmless skills against each other. There is much to be admired in those skills, regardless of which nation and people they come from. It does not kill people; if anything, it wins them over.
Times have changed and changed far too dramatically for everyone’s comfort, even for those who still find sport a harbinger of peace. Unlike now, when certain sections of the media boycotted the opening encounter, even carrying a blank sports page in protest, and campaigned against playing it, no such visceral hatred was on display in the past. That perhaps is the reason why many may have been happy that there was little possibility of an India-Pakistan final, given the inherent weaknesses of this Pakistan side.
But who can fight the resilience of a spirited team and that giant karmic wheel called destiny! Is there a divine message in this as it has ensured the unthinkable, a final between the two nations on one of the biggest stages of international cricket. Nations that were partitioned 70 years ago, leaving in its trail a bloodshed never witnessed before.
Seen from a larger perspective, this match is pregnant with more meaning than the 1983 World Cup final between West Indies and India. At that time the odds were overwhelmingly stacked against India, just as they are now against Pakistan. But the stakes are much higher, from a financial as well as political angle.
There is little doubt that this match guarantees it will leave the broadcasters and organisers in much sounder financial health, though they would be worried about the off-field fall-out from the match. While the bat and ball fight it out on the ground, the stands will see a vociferous, raucous battle between fans of the two nations waving their national flags.
For millions and millions glued to TV sets, and for the people at the ground, a disclaimer after every over should be made in between the advertisements that this is a just a cricket match and not a war being fought at the border! Even while ending with a cliché that may the best team win — and make no mistake India at the moment are the best by miles — a reminder that upsets in sport are not unusual. And they are welcome, as they were in that summer of 1983 in England.