Manchester, England: It’s not about the bike. This was what Lance Armstrong, seven-time Tour de France winner and later disgraced dope cheat, called his book, written at the peak of his career.
For the gaggle of Indians gathered in Manchester for the seventh India-Pakistan World Cup match, there was the distinct feeling that something similar applied here: It’s not about the cricket.
The chest thumping on either side of the border, the hysteria among fans on social media, fuelled by some high-intensity jingoism in chat shows on news television channels has turned a cricket match into a spectacle of a different kind.
But truth be told, while the India-Pakistan rivalry is a storied one, and one that sparked off the most emotional reactions, it has been an utterly one-sided one in World Cups.
Going back to 1992, India have won all six encounters between the teams in this tournament, and that apart, the character of the two teams has changed beyond recognition. Pakistan had larger than life figures, such as Javed Miandad, whose choice of in-laws was typical of the man.
Then there was Imran Khan, with Hollywood good looks, charisma to match, and enough self-belief and will to go on to become the prime minister of his country. Then there were the two Ws, Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis, possibly the last pairing in the world who could defend any total that their batsmen put together.
Today, Pakistan is the youngest team in this World Cup, by average age, despite having two players who are 38 in Shoaib Malik and Mohammad Hafeez. Most players in today’s Pakistan team could walk into a mall in Mumbai or down a strip of shops in a Delhi market and not be recognised.
Honestly, how many Indian fans know what Hasan Ali looks like? Which young Indian cricket fan has a poster of Imad Wasim over his bed? The Pakistan teams of the 1970s through to the late 1990s had an aura about them. And then there was the fact that they seemed to have a factory that produced freakishly talented and genuinely quick fast bowlers.
India then had wily spinners and just about medium-fast bowlers, and fans constantly envied their neighbours their riches. Today, India have Jasprit Bumrah, Mohammad Shami and Bhuvneshwar Kumar, an attack that can hold its own against any in the world.
In terms of genuine cricket rivalry, India’s most recent has been with Australia. The two teams have now played each other so often that even this has lost its edge, not least because Australia are in the middle of a rebuilding phase, and are not the dominant force they used to be.
India had an axe to grind against English cricket, for it always looked down India as a visiting team, plonking its fixtures in unfashionable backwaters and often only slotting them into the early part of the home season when summer was yet to make an appearance. But that too has changed, what with India becoming such a board-room superpower that the England and Wales Cricket Board has been left behind.
To be fair, India’s cricketers know and acknowledge this.
The first seven questions of Virat Kohli’s pre-match press conference were attempts at hyping up the Pakistan clash. But, Kohli refused to take the bait, leaving outside off as though he was facing an especially probing spell of late outswingers.
“Look, neither do I want to come here and say things for the TRP nor do I want come here and create some exciting news. You may agree with me or not, but if there is any bowler in front of me, I only see the white ball or red ball,” said Kohli.
“You have to give respect to the bowler’s skill set. I said the same about Rabada ahead of the South Africa match. You have to always pay attention and be wary of the strengths of the impact bowlers in world cricket. But (at the same time) you need to have enough belief in your own ability that you can go out there and score runs against any kind of bowler.
“So, in my mind there is never any contest against anyone, neither do I keep a competition with anyone nor I have a thought process that I have to go out and win a competition to show the world. Such things don’t come to our minds. All this is talk from the outside. I have never entertained such things ever nor will I do that in future.”
Kohli also said that, as professional cricketers, every member of this team knew that they had a job to do, and irrespective of the outcome, life would go on, and quite merrily at that.
“I think the best way to approach something like this, if one focuses too much on what’s going on outside, it’s to understand that the game starts tomorrow at a certain time and it finishes at a certain time, so it’s not going to last a lifetime for you, whether you do well or you don’t,” said Kohli.
“That’s the one thing that, as cricketers, always keeps you grounded, always keeps you focussed, because our tournament, whether we do well as a team or we don’t do well, tomorrow is not going to finish. So even if we have like a good performance as a team or a performance where we feel like we can improve in more areas, the tournament still has to go on.”
There were, however a few who were buying into the hype.
Mickey Arthur, the Pakistan coach, seemed to be doing his best to whip his players up for the game.
“I don’t want to say it’s the biggest rivalry in sport, but I saw some stats which said the soccer World Cup final attracted 1.6 billion viewers. Tomorrow is likely to get 1.5 billion,” said Arthur.
“I’m telling our players in the dressing room, you could be a hero tomorrow. Your careers are going to be defined by a moment in the game. You do something incredible tomorrow, you’ll be remembered forever. We’ve got 15 incredible cricketers in that dressing room, and we keep stressing to them, how do you want to be remembered? You’re the class of 2019. What are they going to say about you in history?”
How the tables have turned in this rivalry.