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The geo-politics of South Asia’s cricket rivalries

The basis of cricketing rivalries is a curious thing

Update : 11 Dec 2023, 08:21 PM

The basis of cricketing rivalries is a curious thing. It seems odd to harbour so much bitterness towards those who are in such close proximity. But there are a multitude of examples, whether in cricket or other sports, where neighbouring cities, regions, and nations are at loggerheads on the field of play. The primeval instinct for turf war appears to eclipse all reason or logic. 

Nowhere is this truer than in South Asia, a place where someone will always be frantically looking at a mobile phone, streaming the latest franchise or international cricket action.

In a vast geographical area, with a complex tapestry of an often troubled past, India and Pakistan undoubtedly share the biggest cricket rivalry. And it’s not the kind of conflict that originates from a bowler scowling at a batter in their follow through. Three major wars and numerous armed disputes point to a genuine hatred at a political level, which has permeated into aspects of everyday civilian life. 

In a historical context, England too is worth a mention. Britain’s role in hastily defining the border between India and Pakistan, along crude religious lines, continues to be the cause of conflict today. In many eyes it was similar to that of an arsonist fleeing a burning building, with only a cursory look back over their shoulder. Add a century of contentious colonial rule into the mix, and it’s easy to understand the delight that South Asian nations take in beating England. 

Some history

The journey of a piece of land, at varying points known as Bengal, East Bengal, East Pakistan and then Bangladesh, has also frequently been torturous. And the bloody history between Bangladesh and Pakistan has given rise to a simmering enmity not always apparent to those on the outside looking in. Crucially, despite Islam being the predominant religion in both East and West Pakistan, the creation of Bangladesh in 1971 was a direct result of East Pakistanis asserting their Bangladeshi identity, primarily through language. This was completely at odds with the enforced subjugation by the ruling regime, based a thousand miles away in West Pakistan.

The discrimination experienced by the population of East Pakistan, such as the suppression of Bengali as an official language, was mirrored by the selection policy of the Greater Pakistan cricket team. In the 24 years of its existence, not a single player born in East Pakistan represented Pakistan. The nearest anyone got was when a young right-handed batter, Raqibul Hasan was chosen as twelfth man in a 1969 Test against New Zealand. 

Perhaps as a nod towards the rising tide of Bangladeshi nationalism, a couple of years later Hasan was selected for the Pakistan starting XI, in a Test against a touring Commonwealth team captained by Micky Stewart. However, the match in Dhaka was abandoned amidst rising tension as the city was on the verge of war. The Pakistan captain Intikhab Alam later recounted having to escape Dhaka while holding an automatic weapon. Hasan himself went on to play two ODIs in the 1980s before becoming an ICC match referee.

Interestingly, before 1971, Pakistan played a total of seven Tests in Dhaka as the home side. Geoff Pullar, the Lancashire and England opening batter, is a name that still resonates with a certain generation of Bangladesh cricket enthusiasts, courtesy of his 165 in Dhaka, when England drew the second Test in January 1962. All of those matches were played at the old Dhaka stadium, known as the Bangabandhu National Stadium.

Incidentally, it was the same venue that England faced Bangladesh during their 2003 tour, when local dissatisfaction over Bangladesh’s performances in an ODI led to fires being lit in the stands. 

Central to the trauma of the Bangladesh Liberation War were an estimated three million lives lost to the genocidal actions of the Pakistan army. This naturally fostered a climate of suspicion between Bangladesh and Pakistan, but cricket appears to have largely transcended that animosity. Support for the Pakistan cricket team grew in Bangladesh throughout the 1980s and 1990s, in part due to the lack of a competitive Bangladesh team that fans could coalesce around. The glamour of Imran Khan, and the thrilling speed of Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis, won hearts. Wasim regularly featured as an overseas player in Bangladesh’s nascent domestic competitions to further consolidate the bond.

At Northampton during the 1999 World Cup, following a pulsating, windswept match between the two sides, which Pakistan surprisingly lost by 62 runs, Wasim pointedly remarked: “I’m happy we lost to our brothers.” At a time when cricket and match fixing were becoming synonymous, the comment fuelled speculation about the match. But it also harked back to a bygone era when both countries were unified, albeit in an unequal partnership. 

The Sher-e-Bangla Cricket Stadium in Dhaka, where all international cricket is now played in Bangladesh, hosted the 2011 World Cup quarter final clash between Pakistan and West Indies. Although the sell-out crowd ostensibly consisted of neutrals, in the stands the swathes of dark green flecked with white crescent moons showed that support for Pakistan was overwhelming. The Pakistan fans went home happy as the West Indies experienced a crushing ten-wicket loss in one of the most one-sided matches imaginable. 

An underlying unease

Despite the lack of overt hostility on the cricket field between Bangladesh and Pakistan, the relative recentness of the atrocities during the Bangladesh liberation struggle, has meant the existence of an underlying unease. It didn’t take much for tensions to rise to the surface during Pakistan’s tour of Bangladesh in late 2021. When the Pakistan team planted their country’s flag into the turf during a training session at Dhaka stadium, eyebrows were raised by the hosts. At best the act could be described as insensitive, but some fans viewed it as deliberate provocation and predictably turned to social media to vent their anger.

Moeen Ali, the English all-rounder and a proud British Pakistani, has previously given his unique insight into the Bangladesh and Pakistan rivalry. His wife was born in Sylhet, Bangladesh, before emigrating to Britain as a child, and over half a million others have trodden the same path. During England’s white ball tour of Bangladesh in spring 2023, Moeen said: “I think of my kids as being half Bangladeshi, I think it’s great to experience different cultures. I know there was some negativity (between Pakistan and Bangladesh) in terms of politics, in the past. In a tiny way, I guess that I can bring a bit of unity.”

Relations between India and Bangladesh, at least at governmental level, have largely been of a cordial nature. Whether or not it was an altruistic decision, India’s military support for Bangladesh in 1971 was a decisive intervention which hasn’t been forgotten by those impacted by it. Currently both countries are governed by leaders who have forged an alliance steeped in practical considerations rather than obvious principles. 

The region of Bengal is the biggest common denominator between both nations. Aside from family trees with branches either side of the West Bengal and Bangladesh border, the fact that the same language is spoken, and similar plates of fresh fish are eaten in both places, is hugely significant. In many respects the importance of Bengali culture to those on either side of the border, supersedes religious differences. 

The Tagore connection

Any self-respecting general knowledge quizzer is likely to know that India and Bangladesh are the only countries to have their national anthems composed by the same person –– the revered artistic behemoth and Nobel prize winner, Rabindranath Tagore. Tagore hailed from Kolkata, which has become a major destination for Bangladeshi tourists in search of a city break where the architecture is different but the culture comfortably similar. It’s no coincidence that the largest contingent of foreign fans at the recently concluded 50-over World Cup were at the Bangladesh matches staged at Eden Gardens.

Ironically, despite the perceived closeness between the two nations, after initial backing in their quest for full member status, there’s been little love shown towards Bangladesh cricket from India. On a cricket administration level, the BCCI have only ever invited Bangladesh to play three Tests in India and surprisingly, Bangladesh have played more Tests in both Australia and England. Staggeringly, the side’s recent World Cup clash against India at Pune was their first ODI in India against the hosts for 25 years. Bangladesh’s commercial viability as a cricket “product” has clearly been the BCCI’s primary concern. 

What’s more, the infrequent occasions when the two teams have met have often led to controversial, ill-tempered affairs. Maybe it’s the younger sibling complex which inhabits Bangladesh whenever they play India, a sense of being talked down to, which causes rational emotion to temporarily disappear. In a memorable 2016 T20 World Cup encounter, Bangladesh had all but sealed a famous win when they needed two runs to win from three balls. Following a premature fist pump celebration from the Bangladesh batters in the middle, three wickets fell in the last three balls, including a final ball run out to script an outrageous India victory by a single run. 

Bad blood

In 2020 it was the turn of the teenagers when Bangladesh’s under-19 World Cup final win at Potchefstroom, South Africa, should have sparked scenes of unbridled joy. Instead, the post-match celebrations turned sour as a Bangladesh flag was torn to shreds on the outfield by testosterone-fuelled players, who had been needling one another all day. Five players across both teams were sanctioned following the skirmish.

The most shocking incident of bad blood between the cricket teams is the most recent. It took place in July 2023 at Dhaka during the presentation ceremony following a tied one-day match which had led to a tied series, a result which meant much more to the Bangladesh women’s side as they had never previously beaten their Indian counterparts in 50-over cricket. India captain Harmanpreet Kaur was clearly still smarting from being on the wrong end of an lbw decision, which caused her to smash her own stumps. She gave a bizarre interview to the local broadcaster in which she questioned the standard of umpiring as well as criticising the absence of the Indian High Commissioner from the presentation party.

Bangladesh, led by their captain Nigar Sultana Joty, were eventually forced into abandoning the joint team photograph with the trophy, as Harmanpreet sarcastically goaded the umpires. She repeatedly asked them to join the posing players for the photograph, insinuating that their role in determining the outcome of the match was as important as the Bangladesh players. Harmanpreet was banned for two international matches for the outburst but a few months later she showed little sign of contrition by essentially reiterating her comments made in Dhaka.

A common refrain is that the proliferation of T20 franchise tournaments around the world has broken down barriers between cricketers of different nationalities, developing friendships and softening rivalries as diverse groups of players find themselves in the same dressing room. Against the background of the Indian Premier League, it’s a trend that doesn’t necessarily apply to players from Pakistan or Bangladesh. Pakistani professionals have long been subject to an unofficial ban from IPL participation and barely a handful of Bangladesh players have been deemed good enough to be picked up in the franchise auction. The exclusivity of the IPL has inadvertently pushed Pakistan and Bangladesh players to the margins, as they overlap increasingly in the second tier of franchise competitions. The Bangladesh Premier League regularly includes a healthy number of Pakistani players and the opposite arrangement is true in the Pakistan Super League. 

Where does all that leave us today? More than ever, cricket, a sport in perpetual existential crisis which traditionally eschews tribalism, relies on emotional investment as its lifeblood. In South Asia at least, there’s no shortage of reasons for fans to despise one team or another. Whether their ire is directed at the right team is as murky as the polluted haze that sits stubbornly over Lahore, Delhi and Dhaka alike.

 

Tawhid Qureshi is a cricket writer and journalist based in the UK, he has contributed pieces to BBC, Wisden, and The Cricketer Magazine. He also runs the Sight Screen Cricket Journal, his twitter handle is @SightScreenCJ. This article previously appeared in Wisden and has been reprinted with permission.

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