Greener on the other side: Watching Pakistani cricket in the 1990s
As fiercely contested as India-Pakistan cricket was in the 1990s, there was also plenty of grudging admiration to go around
The second thing I learnt about Pakistan was that it produced warlocks for bowlers (the first pertained to Imran Khan’s looks, and is irrelevant to this article). The third thing was that this sorcery was linked with meat-eating, something rationalized as so particular to Pakistan that it was considered remarkable even in a household of diverse eating habits in a multi-religious Mumbai neighbourhood.
“That strength and aggression," I was told, “it comes from the erachi (meat) they eat." I confess it took me many years to realize that Pakistani fast bowling derived its mystic power not from aattu-erachi, the mutton my grandmother made on Sundays, but beef.
All history (including this one) is written in the present, but I don’t bring this up as a strategy to talk about India in 2017. To the children of the 1990s, Pakistani swing bowling—the blazing run-up, the cobra-strike quickness of the arm action, the grace of the bowlers’ torsos swinging up on the pitch—was one of the most beautiful forces in sport. It was, as Pakistani cricket journalist Osman Samiuddin called it, “the most frenzied, crazy magic".
We discovered sour, sweaty fear through Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis. I can still recreate in my mind the sound of Akram’s yorker crunching Brian Lara’s right foot in a World Cup match in 1992: pure fantasy, since the mics never picked up the sound. It was not hard to rationalize the belief that the ability was elemental, something bequeathed through air and water, breakfast and lunch.
But of course it was, like us, a phenomenon of its time. As Samiuddin, who is a senior editor at ESPNcricinfo, points out in his history of Pakistani cricket, The Unquiet Ones, from 1982-92, there were more spinners than pacers among the annual lists of top 10 wicket-takers of the domestic Quaid-e-Azam tournament. Growing up in Sharjah, the boy Waqar believed he was born to bowl leg spin. Pakistan’s bowling culture, like the rest of the subcontinent’s, was dominated by spin until Imran Khan’s transformative career and celebrity changed what Pakistani cricketers wanted to do and be.
The notion of a special violence was just an easier explanation to give disappointed children. It was coded with envy and the jagged sorrow of imagined victimhood, emotions that poisoned the well of social life in India through a decade of war, militancy, and Hindutva ascendancy. In riot-torn, terror-struck Bombay (now Mumbai), crescent-moon flags strung between electric poles became symbols of the enemy within on match days. Sharjah came to be resented as an unfriendly venue because of its Muslim-majority population.
It was a decade busy sowing the wind that reaped the whirlwind—literally, in the case of the Wankhede stadium, where the Shiv Sena turned over the soil of the pitch and poured engine oil on it to keep Pakistan from playing in Mumbai in 1991. The silliest story I ever heard was that Pakistanis jockeyed for India-Pakistan matches to be played on Fridays so that they might be strengthened by the power of Jumma (Friday) prayers, like an army of comic-book heroes counting on gamma rays for their superpowers.
I can think of a couple of reasons for this emotional extravagance. First, the 1980s had upset what for decades had been, at least on paper, a reasonable rivalry. The Imran Khan generation and the onset of the 50-over format gave Pakistan a distinct advantage over India in those years. When Javed Miandad has lofted you for a last-ball six, you quail a little. We came into the 1990s jittery about the capacities of every Pakistani player, from Saeed Anwar to Saqlain Mushtaq, and what he could potentially unleash on an Indian team whose frailties—vegetarianism and all—we were intimately acquainted with.
Second, 1990s kids were unusual in knowing an almost unbroken sporting peace between the two nations. Our parents lived not just through the wars of the 1960s and 1970s, but 15 years without a match between the two countries, as cricketing ties were suspended from 1962-77. They had to figure out how to feel about a team that could produce both Imran Khan and Miandad, and somehow pass it on to us. They did, by and large, an ugly job, and found rancid vindication in 1999, when the Kargil War prompted a suspension of the India-Pakistan Sahara Cup tournament, held annually in Canada.
In the balance, quite ridiculously, was the effervescence and magic of the cricket itself. The 1990s were especially enchanted, with their coloured uniforms, abundance of result-oriented short-format matches, and live broadcasts of superb quality. The years were bookended by two memorable bilateral tours, by India in 1989 and by Pakistan in 1998; within this time, Pakistan won a world cup, and India all its world cup matches against Pakistan—a satisfying equation for many on this side of the border.
So many virtuosi played on both sides that we discovered for ourselves the fantasy of what an unbeatable team we might have had, but for Partition. Aamer Sohail could open the batting for this dream team, yet be perfectly capable of incurring withering contempt in the 1996 World Cup quarter-final, both for trying to bully Venkatesh Prasad and for failing. The Pakistanis changed world cricket with reverse swing; yet it was Anil Kumble who took a perfect 10 in the final innings of the 1999 Delhi test.
All that “mon semblable, mon frère" (my fellow, my brother) torment couldn’t help but bubble up in our stadiums and before our TV sets: There was time, in between all the wailing and gnashing of teeth, for mischief, respect, admiration, and even passionate worship. There may be men who think they know the effect Shahid Afridi had on the subcontinent’s women when he made his international debut in 1996-97; having been a tween in an all-girls’ school during those years, I can only pity such misconceptions.
It would be false to say that the paths of both nations diverged after that decade. The future we live in has been a long time coming for both nations. Yet I don’t envy those who began watching cricket after 2000, in years that have so changed our cricket and theirs. Perhaps we too have done an ugly job of bequeathing our emotional baggage to a generation of fans who have joined us. To the millennials, I can only apologize, and add that the fourth thing I learnt about Pakistani cricket was that it was never to be written off. And no matter what your parents tell you, it will never be explained by beef.