Imagine two nations that have more in common than most families. Then imagine four wars and a stockpile of nuclear weapons on both sides. That is just part of the backstory each time India and Pakistan meet to play cricket. The two countries recently fielded teams for a three-game series in Delhi and Calcutta.

A Bloody Past

“I don’t think any rivalry compares to India-Pakistan. And the reason is partition,” said Boria Majumdar, a historian and TV pundit who lives and works in Calcutta, India. “No other country has come out of this level of political trauma and played. So you see India-Pakistan cricket is of a different league. It is the world’s foremost sporting rivalry, across all sports. And that’s what makes it so special.”

It is the world’s foremost sporting rivalry, across all sports. And that’s what makes it so special.
– Boria Majumdar, historian and TV pundit

Partition. When the British withdrew from India in 1947, two states were born. A massive Hindu majority state called India, and a smaller Islamic republic called Pakistan. The twin births were traumatic. Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs who had lived together for centuries slaughtered each other on both sides of the newly drawn borders. A million or more people were killed. 20 million were made refugees.

The British also left their cricket. Since then, the game has served as olive branch, surrogate war and communal obsession for nearly one-fifth of the world’s population.

The Game

I traveled to Calcutta for game two of an important three-game series. India and Pakistan hadn’t played head to head in five years, since the Mumbai terror attacks in 2008 that left 174 people dead. India blames the attacks on Pakistan.

Outside the stadium, scalpers sold tickets for half price. Inside the stadium, the atmosphere was, well, just plain dull. No flags, no songs, a feeble wave now and then. On the pitch, 7-foot-1 Pakistani fast bowler Mohammad Irfan made kofta of the Indian batsmen — picture Randy Johnson with a 50-foot running start. India lost its second match in a row. The series was lost. Nobody cheered. Nobody booed. I knew I was a stranger in a strange land, but I just didn’t get it.

The Fans’ Perspectives

Fans from both countries enjoy the pregame excitement in Delhi. (Ken Shulman/Only A Game)

Fans from both countries enjoy the pregame excitement in Delhi. (Ken Shulman/Only A Game)

In Delhi, I walked barefoot up three chilled flights of marble stairs, into the sanctuary of a Sikh temple in the Chandni Chowk marketplace. About 1 million Sikhs live in the Indian capital. Many came from Lahore after partition. The Sikhs believe in prayer, charity and the equality of all persons. But cricket with Pakistan, said head priest Giani Ranjit Singh, is another matter.

“If we lose to Australia it’s fine, if we lose to England it’s fine. Even if we lose to Bangladesh it’s fine,” Singh said. “But if we lose to Pakistan it’s like committing suicide. This is no game. India and Pakistan no game. Only war.”

No game. Only war. Maybe that’s a little much. Or maybe it isn’t. In 1983, Karachi fans stormed the field in the middle of a five-day match with India. In 1989, fans in Calcutta pelted visiting players with bottles and fruit after a controversial call — the match was finished in an empty stadium. After a loss to India, one Pakistani fan emptied the clip of an AK-47 into his television set then took his own life.  But there are also heartwarming stories around this rivalry.

“I happened to be in Karachi when the Indian team was visiting,” said Fauzia Khan, a filmmaker from Mumbai.

In 1989 Khan traveled to Pakistan for the first time to visit family she’d never met. She stayed up all night making banners for India and, against the advice of her cousins, went to the stadium. When the first Pakistani wicket fell — that’s cricket speak for making an out — she stood up and cheered.

“And the entire stadium out in front of me, all the women in the grandstand, they thought it was a mistake, and I sat down,” Khan said. “At the second wicket again I was up. They all turned and this time there was a hush, and my cousins said, ‘We’re going to disown you.’ And this time three women from the fans turned to me and said, ‘Are you from India?’ And I said, ‘Yes.’ And I was really scared at the time. And then they suddenly turned around and said, ‘Can you give us all the Bollywood gossip?’”

Cricket And Culture

Fans in Delhi with India and Pakistani flags painted on their faces. (Ken Shulman/Only A Game)

Fans in Delhi with a hybrid of Indian and Pakistani flags painted on their faces. (Ken Shulman/Only A Game)

Cricket has also helped India tell its own story. In the 2001 Bollywood hit musical Lagaan, one of the characters, a cricket bowler, is an untouchable — the lowest of the low in India’s caste system. The character is based on Palwankar Baloo, a real life untouchable who broke Indian cricket’s caste barrier in the early 20th century.

But the mirror hasn’t always been flattering. Sameer Khan is a playwright from Pune. He remembers watching a 1992 India-Pakistan match from Australia on TV with a group of boyhood Hindu friends.

“And after the match was over when India won and we were celebrating,” Khan said. “And when we were returning home we were confronted with this huge mob.”

Suddenly, someone hit Sameer from behind and knocked him down, and shouted, “Pakistan murdabad!” Translation: death to Pakistan.

“I didn’t know why they had said that. But one of my friends, he was older, he understood, and he started to fight them, and then told me to run,” Khan said. “And that was the time when I realized they had hit me because I was a Muslim.”

The Series Ends

It was just after 10 a.m. on Sunday, the final match. The series was already lost for India. But the fans at the Delhi stadium didn’t care. Everyone was having fun. And everyone was getting along, Indians and Pakistanis, Muslims and Hindus, all posed together for pictures. Some fans had both countries’ flags painted on their faces. Faizan Lakhani is a Pakistani sportswriter. I asked him if partition still matters to these fans.

“I think we have to get over it,” he said. “Whatever happened it happened over 65 years ago. Although there are bitter memories on both sides of the borders. But we have to get over it, we have to move forward.”

Was Sunday a cricket match or diplomacy?

“It’s a cricket match, it’s a cricket match, it’s nothing more than a cricket match,” Lakhani said.

Husband and wife Mohammed and Fasiha Kashia are divided by cricket’s greatest rivalry. He roots for India, while she roots for her native Pakistan. (Ken Shulman/Only A Game)

Husband and wife, Mohammed and Fasiha Kashia are divided by cricket’s greatest rivalry. (Ken Shulman/Only A Game)

I watched the final match in a working class Muslim neighborhood near Turkman gate, in the home of Fasiha and Mohammed Kashia. He’s from Delhi. She’s from Lahore. They speak the same language, eat the same foods. They’re even cousins. When Fasiha left her Lahore home eight years ago to be married, her mother warned her not to cheer for Pakistan.

But Fasiha continues to root for Pakistan, even though her husband, children, and in-laws cheer for India. The only thing she and her new family agree on in cricket is that the Pakistani team is far more handsome. I asked her if the marriage can survive the rivalry.

“No,” Kashia said with a laugh. “There is no chance.”

I confess I went to India looking for a reality show. Instead I found a friendly family feud. And that’s a good thing. In the final match, India salvaged its honor, beating Pakistan by 10 runs. There were no riots. Delhi traffic was no worse than normal. The following day, the front page was full of reports from the disputed region of Kashmir, where an exchange of fire across the de facto border had left two Pakistani soldiers dead.