THE FIRST question to Pakistan captain Babar Azam at the press conference ahead of the India-Pakistan encounter on Sunday was seemingly harmless: “Dubai mein garmi zyada hain kya (Is it very hot in Dubai)?”
Babar promptly replied: “Garmi toh hain (It is hot)”. He then paused, seeming to realise the loaded undertone of the question, and said with a grin: “Hum zyada garmi nahin lete hain (We don’t feel the heat too much)”. He was referring to the inevitable “more-than-just-a-game” narrative drummed up whenever India and Pakistan duel, limited to multi-team tournaments these days.
Often in the past, the pre-match press conference would be intense, and sometimes, tense affairs. Captains would stride in with a sense of urgency, weighing each question and measuring each answer. But Babar was as relaxed as when he bats in the middle.
As was his Indian counterpart Rohit Sharma, who too was probed about the familiar narrative. “It’s the question that every India captain has been asked before every match against Pakistan for years. What can I say? Bahar se hype, andar se sab normal (Hype from outside, all normal inside),” Sharma said.
These are less fractious days between the two teams. The build-up to the India-Pakistan game, the first after their World T20 fixture at the same venue, was one of bonhomie and camaraderie. Babar and Virat Kohli were spotted exchanging handshakes and pleasantries the other day. A few months ago, Babar had tweeted support for Kohli who is going through a particularly lengthy lean patch.
Fast bowler Shaheen Afridi, who missed the tournament due an injury, had greeted Kolhi and told him: “Aapke liye dua kar rahe hai wapas form mein aaye. Dekhna chahte hai aapko. (I am praying that you regain your form. I want to see you play well).”
Kohli’s struggle to make big runs has been a talking point before this clash. Kohli also spoke to the official broadcaster Star Sports about how the extended lack of form affected his mental health. “For the first time in 10 years, I didn’t touch my bat for a month (before the Asia Cup). I came to the realisation that I was trying to fake my intensity a bit recently,” he said.
At the nets, several Indian and Pakistan players were seen and video-graphed chatting and greeting.
Most players from most countries share a bond these days, after the global cricket village that the IPL is – but these are not bonds forged in the IPL, as Pakistani players are prohibited from playing in the league, a reminder that geopolitical tensions are still simmering between the two countries and any hopes of them featuring in a full-fledged series seems distant.
“We are cricketers, and we greet and talk to each other, be it players from Pakistan or some other country. It is all normal,” said Sharma.
Babar said the same: “As a sportsman, you try to meet different players. We have met everyone, it is normal. You try and talk to players about cricket and other things.”
Though the “badla (revenge)” for the World Cup defeat cropped up, Sharma played it down: “Of course, that loss hurts, but it’s not like we are thinking about it all the time.”
Even the build-up to this game was quiet. Just a handful of supporters turned up for the nets at the ICC Academy under the scorching afternoon sun, though it was a holiday – and the players unhurriedly granted their wishes for selfies. Sharma was even asked what he felt when a Pakistani child sought a photograph with him, and he replied: “Unusual for you, usual for us.”
There were no banners or placards or frenzied flag-waving or shouting names, no stampede at the turnstile to catch a glimpse of the cricketers, no swarming of the team buses, or competition between the fans of both countries to show who is louder. The few who had assembled were merrily chatting, not even cricket.
The scene will change on Sunday – the tickets have been long sold out, and for those who did not get one, several restaurants and shopping malls have arranged live-streaming in their premises. The atmosphere will be as electrifying as any India-Pakistan match has been and perhaps will be. The rivalry has not lost its edge, though some of the heat may have been doused.
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It could be because the match-ups between the countries come so few and far between – in the last five years, they have met just thrice – that every occasion is something of a chance of a lifetime, and not spoiled by scuffles or troubled history between the countries.
This is a different generation of players too, few who want to trade punches in the middle of a game. You would not expect someone monkey-jumping like Javed Miandad in the 1992 World Cup tie, or someone like Kiran More giving back in kind. Or the Aamir Sohail-Venkatesh Prasad episode. Not just that the modern-day players want to avoid hefty fines, but they are hardwired differently, trained to think of the game as just a game.
So is the crowd. You would not expect players to be pelted with stones, as they were in Karachi in 1997, or one lakh fans evicted from the stands at the Eden Gardens in 1999 over an umpiring decision, or fans staging political protests outside the Edgbaston. Such incidents have only added more heat and fire in the most heated rivalry in world cricket, more hues into a colourful rivalry, spun myths and folklore, sunk and risen careers. But perhaps not this Sunday in Dubai.