Aussies have gone soft, Pakistan are friendly, who does India hate on at this World Cup?

The Australians have already played the opening game in this World Cup trip to India and they haven’t started the trash talk. The other day Shaheen Afridi, like a friendly neighbour, ran across to the Indian dressing room to present a baby gift hamper for Jasprit Bumrah’s new born son. Before and during the Asia Cup game, the one-time bitter rivals behaved like cousins out on the field during summer vacations.

Of late, the erstwhile intimidating Australia have been giving off the New Zealand ‘good guys’ vibes and the quietude of the Sri Lankans seem to be rubbing off on Pakistan, the former Unquiet Ones. The two former World Cup winners might still finish as champions but they are no longer the volatile teams that exuded brutality.

World cricket isn’t what it used to be. The changing times and altered dynamics of these storied cricket rivalries leaves the Indian fans facing a puzzling proposition: With foes turning friends, who do they hate from the bottom of their hearts this World Cup?

Back in the day it was easier. An overbearing sense of dread and defeat would hit the mind when going through the Aussie batting line-up in the 2000s and before. Even after Gilchrist, Hayden and Ponting were in the hut, the ‘still to come’ list had Martyn, Lehmann, Bevan and Symonds. As if their intimidating presence on the pitch and overwhelming body of work wasn’t enough, they enhanced their aura by speaking like truckers and behaving like goons when a batsman took guard. Rival fans would pray for their dismissal and hoped they retired soon. The Ugly Aussie, they were the classic villains.

The nation isolated from the world has historically celebrated machismo. Australia Rules Football, or rugby on steroids, remains the most popular sport. It’s a sport where around 70 to 80 cases of serious concussions injuries are recorded every year but still wearing a helmet isn’t yet mandatory. This month, AFL’s legendary coach Ron Barassi passed away. He enjoys cult status across Australia and is best remembered for referring to one of his players as ‘bloody weak as piss’.

Former Australian cricketers, in private, say the same about the present team. It all changed in 2018 when the cameras captured Cameron Bancroft hiding a sandpaper in his briefs. The team protocol, both written and unwritten, changed. Overnight, the nation went soft. They do sledge but the chatter is childish. Now Tim Paine was asking Rishabh Pant if he was free to babysit his child. Marnus Labuschagne, while fielding at short-leg, would inquire about Shubman Gill’s favourite batsmen. If Hayden was on air he would have sunk in his chair.

Australia Australian captain Pat Cummins during press conference at PCA IS Bindra Cricket Stadium in Mohali. Express Photo by Kamleshwar Singh

Their World Cup skipper Pat Cummins often gets referred to as ‘Captain Woke’. He is the baby of his family, did his masters during injury break and talks about environmental issues. Cummins has a bright glowing face that transmits positivity. He doesn’t insult rivals nor is he boastful of his team’s achievements. He is an UnAustralian cricketer, they say.

During the recent Ashes series, even with his team in the lead, the Aussie former players and fans weren’t too excited about their cricketers. Their rivals, the much despised Poms, were showing unrelenting bravado on the field. They seem to be playing a fearless brand of cricket that the Aussies thought they owned. And all this under the leadership of two Kiwis – Brendon McCullum and Ben Stokes. How bad could it get? Cummins continued to smile, he didn’t change, he remained unAussie.

Now to Pakistan. Partition and subsequent wars make them the bonafide enemy nation but back in the day even in times of peace and talks when they met on the field it was ‘war minus the shooting’. Indian fingers would remain crossed when Imran Khan, Wasim Akran, Waqar Younis and Aquib Javed would run in to bowl. When Javed Miandad walked in with a smirk on his face, the Indians would roll their eyes. It was tough to be kind to someone who had broken a billion hearts.

The long cricketing freeze between the diplomatically hostile nations have made India and Pakistan aloof toward each other. India’s rocketing rise as a cricketing super power and the coinciding sporting isolation of Pakistan has turned this into a contest of unequals.

Shaheen Shah Afridi and Jasprit Bumrah Jasprit Bumrah and Shaheen Shah Afridi share a heartwarming moment on the sidelines of India vs Pkaistan Asia Cup Super 4 match. (Twitter/Pakistan Cricket Board)

Pakistan cricketers and commentators seem to be in awe of the Indian team that is full to the brim with richly-paid super stars of the world’s biggest cricket league – the IPL. Like never before, Pakistan, when facing India, seems to be dealing with an inferiority complex. For Pakistan, India is what Australia used to be back in the day. India doesn’t quite have the silverware in the cabinet to match the Aussies of the past, but it does have the facilities, infrastructure and stable system that could be the envy of any neighbours.

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Like in Australia, the former players in Pakistan, those from the Imran-Akram era, can’t connect to Babar Azam’s bunch. They are perplexed by the viral videos of Virat Kohli, Haris Rauf and Shaheenshah Afridi sharing jokes outside the dressing room on match eve. They too enjoyed cordial relations with Indians but before a game they didn’t overdo the brothers in arms act.

They, and most of Pakistan, love Kohli. They see their past heroes in him. Several youtube channels are dedicated to his praise. While praising the Indian star, they say “Aur hamare ladke dekho…”. It is a common expression of exasperation on television sports shows. Apart from the several impossible acts on field, Kohli has got the two sworn enemies on the same page. If nothing else, India and Pakistan agree on Kohli’s greatness.

But consensus isn’t a condiment that makes a sporting clash spicy. Ask any football fan in Barcelona, Madrid, Manchester, Buenos Aires or Rio and they will tell you that the prerequisite for an engaging Derby isn’t fans being deeply in love with their own team. They also need to hate their rivals. But can these well-behaved Pakistan and Australia players get on the nerves? Alas Mohammad Rizwan can’t be expected to break into a monkey jump like Miandad, nor does Cummins have McGrath in him, to infuriate India. Cricket is threatening to be reclaimed by gentlemen leaving fans puzzled.

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