After Pakistan lost by 76 runs at Adelaide in the 2015 ODI World Cup, then India skipper MS Dhoni was asked about the country’s winning run at these events. “It is just a coincidence, I think. Someday, this run will come to an end,” he replied, nonchalantly.
Through his captaincy years, Dhoni attended more than a fair share of press conferences. Having started his career as early as 2004, he also featured in a fair share of India-Pakistan matches, unlike most cricketers in either side nowadays. Maybe, all of it had lost sheen.
And yet, it was a stunning response. Was victory against arch-rivals Pakistan in a World Cup encounter such an insignificant moment for arguably the most celebrated Indian captain in history? Or did it simply pale in the shadow of that momentous semi-final victory at Mohali back in 2011?
Or, maybe, this age-old rivalry is simply no longer what it is made out to be? Is it just another game, as Virat Kohli would have you believe, insisting repeatedly?
Four years ago, prior to that 2015 clash, Dhoni and Misbah ul Haq were asked nearly 4-5 questions about India’s World Cup-winning streak over Pakistan. A lot changes with time, it is said, and the same could be applied to pre-match rituals on Saturday. Neither Kohli, nor Mickey Arthur (Pakistan coach), was asked a single question about that winning streak (which stands at 6-0, just in case you were wondering).
Like the international border running between the two countries, ‘that’ winning run is a bone of contention between these two sets of fans. Indians swear by it – why wouldn’t they? After all, winning the World Cup comes only second to beating Pakistan. So they had been told, so they witnessed whilst growing up when Sachin Tendulkar dominated these contests through the years, and so it has always been.
Pakistani fans avoid this conversation. Or, bring up the Champions Trophy as trends suggest on social media. Funnily enough, that is the one tournament wherein Pakistan have bested India through the years, including the last edition. Overall ODI history is also in their favour – 73 wins, 54 losses against India.
Is this really a rivalry anymore, though? The last time India-Pakistan played active cricket was at the 2018 Asia Cup, when they contested two matches in the space of five days. Bilateral cricket has been a non-starter since December 2012, whatever the reason. They last played Test cricket in December 2007 – of the current lot, Dhoni, Dinesh Karthik and Shoaib Malik were part of those India-Pakistan squads.
That last Test series was a curve in the road, of sorts. Truth told, Indian and Pakistan cricket have been on different trajectories for a long time. These two trains stopped at the same station together for a final time in 2008, when Pakistani cricketers took part – and lit up – the inaugural season of the Indian Premier League. None of them returned in 2009 owing to security reasons, and it has been status quo for a decade now.
The IPL effect
The IPL is now India cricket’s centrepiece. Yes, the international domestic season – home and away – is still a money-spinner, albeit all of it feeds into and off this humongous T20 extravaganza. Players work hard in the domestic wilderness, but catch the limelight in the months of March, April and May. From Jasprit Bumrah to Hardik Pandya, from Yuzvendra Chahal to Kuldeep Yadav, from Kedar Jadhav to Ravindra Jadeja, all of them have seen sharp rise through IPL exploits.
Moreover, how often do you read or hear that the IPL has changed Indian cricketers’ outlook? They come to the international arena ready, as if they have prior experience. Look at Yadav’s chutzpah, Chahal’s guile, Pandya’s confidence, or Bumrah’s world-beating accuracy; all of it has been honed in the IPL whilst rubbing shoulders with the best from across the globe. Why, even Kohli’s exploits back in 2011-12 – especially when he took apart Lasith Malinga at Adelaide – was credited to the IPL.
Indian cricket hasn’t only gained money from its T20 league; it has also gained structure domestically and its cricketers have gained professionalism that is distinct from even a decade ago. Agile minds and fit bodies, knowing what they need to do in the nets and outside, knowing how to shut off critics and fans alike when they step onto the field – this is a well, oiled machinery, rolling on and on, chewing up everything in its path. They are indomitable, when it comes to both power and money.
All of this isn’t a generalisation. It is a statement of fact, one which world cricket has only tried to replicate. Look around – South Africa invented and re-invented its T20 leagues over the years. Australia introduced the Big Bash in 2011, Bangladesh Premier League started in 2012, and then Caribbean Premier League in 2013. The UAE is now replete with such leagues, while England did their bit too, and lacking success, moved on to the Hundred.
The question to ask here is, if Pakistani cricketers – bereft of cricket at home, banished from the IPL, plying their wares in different parts of the world – were left behind?
“Not playing in one league cannot impact you so much,” opined former Pakistan skipper Rameez Raja. “There are so many T20 leagues, and all of our players participate worldwide. We have a young side that is learning slowly, and maybe that is showing. A lot of it has to do with lack of proper structure back home, and they are only now trying to sort it out in domestic cricket.
“Not playing in home conditions, and in the absence of home support, hasn’t helped either, and pitches in the UAE have been monotonous. From next year, the Pakistan Super League will go home, and you will see a remarkable difference (in how things shape up quickly thereafter).”
His last sentence kind of gives it away. Among the world’s foremost T20 leagues, the PSL only came into existence late in 2016. Yes, it is quite popular now. Would it be too far a stretch though to assume Pakistan cricket is on the same learning curve – on the field and off it financially – as Indian cricket was within the first three years of the IPL?
The correlation is seen in what shape the Indian team was back in 2011-12, within IPL’s three-year existence, undergoing a major transition in terms of players with the likes of Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid, VVS Laxman, Virender Sehwag and so on, on their way out. That was the era when Kohli and company came forth, and took up the torch of Indian cricket.
It is the same with Pakistan cricket now, inside that three-year time frame of the PSL’s existence – Imam ul Haq, Fakhar Zaman and Babar Azam looking to find their bearings even as Mohammad Hafeez and Shoaib Malik look to pass on the torch.
“Even with two very old players, we are the youngest side in the tournament and they can only learn from here on. It bodes well for Pakistan cricket looking ahead,” said coach Mickey Arthur, accepting the mercurial nature of his side ahead of this marquee clash.
Arguably, he has the most frustrating job in the world of cricket, if not all sport. At the first ball, Arthur knows whether his team will have an easy or tough day, or even worse, a mixed bag.
So, away from all the chatter, how do you even prepare the team for a game like this? “I am telling them one of you could be a hero tomorrow,” replied Arthur.
Yes, no one mentioned that Indian winning streak in the press conferences. It doesn’t mean they are not talking about it in the Pakistan dressing room.
Meanwhile, in a nonchalant Indian dressing room, Sunday is just another game.