In 2010, I had visited The Louvre. Like most people, once inside I made a straight dash towards its most famous painting, the Mona Lisa. The painting’s ubiquity in pop-culture, a level of familiarity and rich legend had given it a status that made it a must see, with even casual viewers feeling compelled to invent a sliver of emotional investment in witnessing it first hand in Paris. But when I reached the hall where it was kept, I was crestfallen to find out that you can’t really get close to the real Mona Lisa – it’s a tiny painting kept at an artificially high distance (due to security) – or be able to appreciate its art. All I could see was other people seeing the Mona Lisa, desperately trying to click pictures.

Which brings us to what has lately become the Mona Lisa of the cricketing world – the India vs Pakistan encounter. Sunday at Dubai was the first time the teams met since the Men’s ODI World Cup in 2019, the latest chapter in a storied rivalry. As the sporting gods would have the stars align, around the same time on Sunday another storied rivalry kicked off in Manchester – the venue where India last took on Pakistan. Liverpool FC were visiting Manchester United for the Premier League clash for which ‘the world stops’ claimed the LFC official Twitter handle.

Both these rivalries have huge socio-political history layered upon the sporting one, but while the footballing one sees the sides meet on the field regularly, the cricketing one has become more and more complicated with multilateral tournaments the only place where India and Pakistan meet. The scarcity has artificially inflated how momentous and legendary the occasion feels and in turn, made it an almost voyeuristic affair. It’s kind of hard to figure out how many are tuning in because this is a great and intriguing rivalry and how many are tuning in because others are tuning in to a rivalry they have been told is great and intriguing.

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It’s the same legend that I have been brought up on, as have many subcontinent cricket fans. And a bunch of us get caught in the throes of that legend even before the match has begun. On our way to the game, we are heavily delayed by traffic leading up to Dubai Sports City. Everyone on my bus gets fidgety as we miss the toss and the maps app still shows another 35 minutes to cover a distance of a couple of miles. It gets worse. By the time we are within a mile of the stadium, the traffic still persists and we spot a brave fan or two essentially get off their cars, direct the chauffeurs to head to the parking lot, while they cut across the half a mile of desert to make a straight dash for the Dubai International Stadium. Our bus driver opens the door and asks if anyone would like to attempt the same. A lot of us, including me, jump at the opportunity. Within seconds we have lunged over the highway barrier and running across the desert sand as if possessed by some Fremen spirit on Arrakis.

We cross a couple of treacherous caverns and there are strangers – fans from both teams – holding each others’ hands to form a human chain to navigate a particularly tricky slope where your shoes can very quickly sink into the smooth sand. It’s almost as if everyone’s united to make the last leg of a pilgrimage with the shrine in sight, something that isn’t without precedent on the desert in the Gulf. Now we are up to the outer fencing of the stadium, just some plain wire about a meter tall. As we start to climb over, we hear a cop car patrolling the perimeter fire its sirens up and head towards us.

Just then up goes a massive roar in the stadium. Shaheen Shah Afridi has produced a peach of a delivery to dismiss the in form KL Rahul, and Pakistan have the early advantage. The combination of the roar and a bunch of people running as fast as they can on sand to dodge an on coming cop car gives the whole evening a surreal air for me.

Image Credit: Tareque Laskar

But I guess that’s the legend of the India-Pakistan rivalry on the cricket field for you. We, at best, would be watching an over worth of extra action than if we had stayed on the bus, but the risk feels worthwhile. Shoes almost chock full of sand we finally make it to the gates and then our seats. By then, Pakistan have established a hold on the contest. India are 36/3 with Rishabh Pant and Virat Kohli trying to rebuild.

The ICC touts the number of people watching the India-Pakistan clash at their events as testament of just how popular cricket is, but how many are here for the cricket and how many for the rivalry? Just like at the Louvre you cannot be sure who’s come to take pictures of the Mona Lisa and who’s come to take pictures of those taking pictures of the Mona Lisa.

That by itself is not a bad thing.

I have a colleague, a content specialist, who is attending her first ever game. She confesses that she really isn’t into cricket but by the end of the night she is hugely invested, intellectually and emotionally, on the back of the sheer atmosphere and intensity she witnesses first hand. She tells me that she would probably have gotten into the game earlier if she had more opportunities to experience the atmosphere because in her words “TV just doesn’t have the same feels”.

Rivalries like these are great advertisements to get fans into the game but as the night ends with two one-sided thumpings in both Dubai and Manchester, the starkness that stands out is we know exactly when Liverpool will play Manchester United next.

It doesn’t need to be this way, and the atmosphere I experienced at the Dubai International Stadium on Sunday night was testimony to that. At the end of the game, after Pakistan have broken a streak of 13 winless matches in World Cups against India, I am speaking to Omar, the head of a sports company in Pakistan. He tells me that the atmosphere for an India-Pak game in the UAE is quite like how it is in the UK – both sets of fans are naturally partisan but also quite amiable. While he tells me that, I see a section of the Indian fans cheering on a group of Pakistan fans singing ‘Dil Dil Pakistan’ in the stands below, just behind where we are chatting.

The result is an impressive one for Pakistan who were clearly the better team in all departments, and there’s acknowledgement of that from a large number of the opposition fans in attendance. In my stand everyone stands up to applaud Mohammed Rizwan’s winning hit, regardless of the colour they’re wearing. The scenes in the middle with both teams smiling and hugging it out mirror a majority of those in the stands.

It’s a tragedy that complicated geo-politics intertwined with a sense of hyper nationalism in the name of narrative and rivalry has snuffed the cricketing essence out of an encounter that can be so skill rich. The Mona Lisa can inspire many a person to get into art and that should be its true power. In the same way India-Pakistan clashes where a duel of skills on the field takes centre stage rather than an industrial-size hype machine could get a new generation to look at the rivalry anew and enjoy the intensity without being beholden to it.

Do that and see how many more literally cross a desert to witness it.