Pakistan-India encounters have always been larger than life, never just a game of cricket or any other sport. Pakistan vs India game in any sport is a festival, an occasion to bring people together, and also an important part of cross-border relations between the two countries.
A journalist usually remains neutral, but many – including myself – find it difficult to stay impersonal and keep emotions aside while covering a Pakistan-India cricket match.
The scenes inside the media box at Wanderers in Johannesburg during the final of World T20 2007 between Pakistan and India, and listening to Pakistan’s national anthem during an ODI in Delhi in 2005 are still fresh in my memories.
The 2007 World T20 final between the two archrivals was one of the best things any cricket fan could ask for, and the environment inside the media box was no different than in any of the stands at the ground.
Pakistani journalists were cheering loudly for Pakistan team, Indian journalists were doing so for their team, and everyone was on their toes during those tense final moments of the game.
I was live on my TV channel explaining the scenario. As soon as Misbah played the famous scoop shot off Joginder Sharma, I shouted in excitement that it was going to be the decisive shot. It was decisive but in India’s favor and I was unable to speak a word for around 20 seconds, while still being live on TV following Sreesanth’s catch of Misbah.
My first ever experience of covering an India-Pakistan match was in 2004, one of the best bilateral cricket events I have ever covered. The first ODI in Karachi saw a nail-biting encounter between the two teams and both scored over 300 runs.
India did not only win that match, it also won the hearts of fans in Karachi who gave a standing ovation to the visiting team, a remarkable example of how cricket unites the two countries who are both equally passionate about the sport. Fans from both the countries sat together in the same stands and cheered together, with cricket being the ultimate winner.
Pakistanis showed exemplary hospitality and opened their doors for Indians visiting Pakistan to enjoy the game. The series was memorable for everyone – from cricketers to fans and from both the boards to the journalists from both sides of the border.
That series connected me to some great cricket writers from India. Some still remain in contact, some became great friends and Chandresh Narayanan, who has worked for the ICC and Indian Express, is one of them.
Chandresh deserves a special mention while I share my experiences of covering India-Pakistan matches in India.
I can never forget how his family took me in with them in 2005 when I missed my flight from Mumbai to Kochin. They treated me no less than their own son.
There are others who have been very good friends to me. Rishabh Sharma, Faysal Sharif, Bharat, Piyali Dasgupta and Aditi are a few of them.
The 2005 series, when I first toured India to cover the ODI leg of Pakistan vs India series, also provided me an opportunity to connect with my loved ones.
For years, I was unable to meet my paternal relatives who are based in Indian Gujarat, but the series gave me a much-cherished opportunity to meet them. As I did not have a visa to visit the city of Surat, they travelled to Ahmadabad to meet me, where I was staying to cover one of the ODIs of the series. That was a highly emotional moment for me.
An article on the ICC website by former Pakistan captain Shahid Afridi, in which he mentioned how he, in his eagerness to welcome the Indian cricketers in Karachi, forgot that most of them were vegetarians, reminded me of a similar experience I had with an Indian journalist.
Back in 2006, when several Indian journalists were in Karachi, I took a couple of them out for dinner with another colleague.
Without realising that they were vegetarians, I took them to my favorite restaurant on the famous Burns’ Road to have Nehari. It was embarrassing and we had to go to another restaurant to have vegetarian food.
I last visited India in 2012 to cover two T20Is and three ODIs, and despite not-too-good political relations between the two countries, I received a remarkable reception in India.
From the crowd at Delhi Airport, where everyone was excited to see the towering Mohammad Irfan, to a restaurant owner in Kolkata who refused to take money from me after he got to know I was from Pakistan, I was touched by Indian hospitality every step of the way.
It is sad that cricket lovers on both sides of the border have been deprived of regular Pakistan vs India encounters for so many years. Cricket has become hostage to politics as India refuses to play against Pakistan. For the sake of the sport that we all love, India must rethink its policy on sports with Pakistan.
Sports in general and cricket in particular have always helped defuse tensions between the two countries, by bringing together millions of fans, politicians, athletes, celebrities from both the countries. Cricket has provided Pakistan an opportunity to showcase its hospitality to Indians and vice versa.
If people from both the countries meet more frequently, they will get to know and understand each other better and that may eventually harmonise the relations between the two nations.
As I look forward to making more friends during the Pakistan vs India match in the ICC Champions Trophy this year, I also hope for an early resumption of bilateral cricket ties between the two neighbours.
I wish all the best to both the teams. May the best team win this high-voltage encounter.