It was May, 1999 and a war was breaking out in Kargil, Kashmir, a long-disputed region on the India-Pakistan border. About 5,000 Pakistani soldiers spread themselves high in the mountains of Indian territory. Days later, India sent 30,000 soldiers of its own to the region. Every day for almost a month, India fired nearly 5,000 shells, threw mortar bombs, and launched rockets at the Pakistanis, who returned fire with AK-47s, anti-aircraft guns, and Stinger missiles.
Pakistan shot down one of India's fighter jets, and both sides took prisoners. No two countries with nuclear weapons had ever engaged in such direct, conventional warfare—nor have they since.
Meanwhile, 11 men from each of the countries took to the elegant, manicured fields in Old Trafford, England, to square off in the Cricket World Cup.
The Manchester police beefed up security across the city. Thousands of faces painted in the tricolor of the Indian flag and the crescent moon and green of Pakistan lined up for the match. Singing, dancing, slogan-chanting followed in the stands—the passionate atmosphere was far removed from the sophisticated, almost orchestrated claps typical of English cricket audiences.
India won the match. The next day, six Pakistani soldiers and three Indian officers died in the war in Kargil.
On February 14, at 11:30 p.m. EST, India and Pakistan will face off once again in the Cricket World Cup; this time, the match will be played in Adelaide. The town of Kargil, Kashmir may be quieter now than it was 15 years ago, but the relationship between India and Pakistan remains exceedingly hostile. The two nations survived a bloody and traumatic partition when the British left the region in 1947, but millions lost their lives, and millions were made refugees. Families were separated and homes were abandoned as a border was drawn.
This hostility is part of the legacy of British colonialism: three separate wars, nuclear weapons, and continued fighting over the disputed territory of Kashmir. But the British also left behind the sport of cricket, and a sporting rivalry that is as heated as any in the world, charged with decades of geopolitical heat, while also serving as a form of needed catharsis, and a meaningful cultural exchange between two countries that have very few of those.
The World Cup semifinal between India and Pakistan in 2011 was watched by 1.5 billion television viewers across the world. None of the other major sporting contests in the world pit nation against nation in a way that India vs Pakistan does in cricket.
"It's like wrestling in a mud pit with your cousin," says Sharda Ugra, one of India's most acclaimed cricket writers. "There is an enormous history of violence and traumatic separation between the two countries that makes the India-Pakistan cricket rivalry very different. In other international rivalries, say Australia vs England, the historical link is very old. The India-Pakistan rivalry is still current. There's constant friction between the two countries."
It's an oft-quoted anecdote among journalists that after the two teams finish playing a cricket match, scribes invariably call the army spokesperson to check if anything transpired at the border. The winning country's army, they report, indulges in some celebratory air-firing to mark the occasion.
"People have always believed that if there's a war without guns between the two countries, it's absolutely on a cricket field," says Mudar Patherya, who covered multiple India-Pakistan cricket series in both countries during the 80s and 90s. Generations of fans on both sides have taken this sporting rivalry rather personally. Patherya says he has seen Pakistanis step out onto their terraces and fire rounds out of Kalashnikovs after victories.
He recounts that even in insignificant exhibition matches played between Indian and Pakistani journalists, Pakistani teams recruited real bowlers who would bowl bouncers faster than his eyes could see. "Such is their fierce desire to beat India in cricket," he says.
Indian fans tend to feel equally fierce. When the Indian team and its captain Sunil Gavaskar played Pakistan in Sharjah (a neutral venue in the United Arab Emirates) in the 80s, every Indian immigrant they bumped into—from the bus driver who drove the team to the hotel, to the bellboy who dropped the daily newspaper in their room—told them the same thing: "We don't mind if you lose the tournament, but make sure you win against Pakistan." A win against their rivals would give them bragging rights in their communities for months to come.
Pakistani fans got those bragging rights in 1987 when their cricket team returned to Lahore after beating India in an away Test series for the first time. Hundreds of people jammed the roads to catch a glimpse of their heroes. The flag-waving, drum-beating, whistle-blowing crowds declared Imran Khan, the team captain, "Faateh-i-Hind,"—meaning "the conqueror of India,"—on banners that they carried across the city. In his book Shadows Across The Playing Field, Shashi Tharoor describes the welcome party, "It was more a reception for a Mughal emperor than a cricket team captain."
In the South Asian subcontinent, cricket is anecdotally referred to as the third major religion after Islam and Hinduism. Before India-Pakistan contests, Hindus perform rituals like offering 101 coconuts to deities and conducting havans (sacred fire). Muslims say mannats (special prayer), sacrifice lambs, and distribute the meat. But it only takes one bad performance for people's reverence for their "gods" to turn to the other end of the spectrum.
"A defeat against Pakistan means media would roast us and fans would pelt stones at our house," former India bowler Harbhajan Singh told Reuters recently. "Fielding in the deep, you often hear the crowd behind warning you 'better win this match or it won't be easy to get out of the stadium.'"
Indian bowler Chetan Sharma experienced the way a loss against Pakistan can turn Indian fans against a cricketer. In the Australasia Cup Final in Sharjah in 1986, Pakistan needed four runs off the last ball to win the tournament. The stadium full of Indian supporters was waiting to erupt with joy, but Pakistani batsman Javed Miandad hit a six off Sharma on that final ball. A paper in the British media described Miandad's stroke as "a shot heard throughout South Asia and much of the world." Sharma later said he didn't step out of his house for almost two months after the match. Police officers in his hometown in Chandigarh would often stop him for no reason and give him tickets.
In the 90s when the rivalry was most intense, a riot was almost always waiting to break out when the two teams played. There were repeated incidents of people pelting stones at players' houses, chanting abusive slogans, and burning effigies of players after a loss. Former Indian captain Sourav Ganguly's effigy was once given a mock funeral and Pakistani bowler Wasim Akram's effigy was burnt after the 1996 World Cup match against India because people felt he feigned cramps to keep himself out of the high-pressure contest. "It's a game of nerves without a doubt, you can't even sleep for several nights before an India-Pakistan game," says Pakistani bowler Wahab Riaz.
Cricketers on both sides were so scared of violence after losses that observers believed the teams may have intentionally played to 11 straight draws in Test matches in the 80s. "Captains on either side wanted to play safe because they were so worried about the public reactions," says former Pakistan Cricket Board management head Chishty Mujahid. "The players wanted to save their jobs." Underperformance against the rival team would mean you'd be shown the door.
Sometimes that pressure got to the players. Cricket fans remember the incident where Pakistani batsman Inzamam ul Haq went after a heckler in the stands. India was playing Pakistan in Canada in 1997, when Shiv Kumar Thind, an India supporter, started insulting Haq over a megaphone. Among other things, he called Haq an "aloo," (potato) which the cricketer took most offense to, perhaps because of his weight. He'd had enough of the taunts when he heard that the man was calling him "fat potato, rotten potato." With a bat in his hands, he charged into the stands and completely mauled the man before Toronto police could take him away.
That same year, when the Indian team visited Pakistan, crowds threw stones and other sharp objects at the Indian fielders in Karachi. When one of the stones hit a player's head, then India captain Sachin Tendulkar decided that enough was enough. He staged a walkout with his team. Police had to be called in, and about 26 people got injured in scuffles with the officers.
Two years later during a Test match at the 90,000 capacity Eden Gardens stadium in Kolkata, India, a controversial run out call to Tendulkar incited people in the stadium to start burning newspapers and throwing stones and plastic bottles onto the field. The police received instructions to evict the 65,000 people from the stands, and the match couldn't resume for three hours. The Guardian criticized the brute force used by the police, "…elderly men, women and children were ejected, if necessary by kicking, punching and beating with lathi sticks."
This was the only match in modern cricket history to be played in an empty stadium that had been forcefully cleared of all its spectators.
But on more than one occasion, people on both sides have shown immense respect for the visiting teams. When Pakistani cricketers came to India to play a Test series in 1999 after a gap of 12 years, the Chennai crowd was passionately craving a home win. Many fans in the stadium said that they were not sure if they'd be able to see another India-Pakistan cricket match in their lifetime.
In that historic match, to the home crowd's delight, Tendulkar rose to the occasion and scored a century. (The BBC had once famously said that when Tendulkar goes on to bat, an entire nation switches on their television sets, and switches off their lives.) But the visitors beat India. The crowd was heartbroken but nearly 30,000 people gave the Pakistani team a standing ovation as they took a victory lap around the stadium. Pakistani cricketers who played in that game still remember the gesture fondly.
In 2003-04, Indian cricketers and fans had a similar experience in Pakistan. India hadn't played Test cricket in Pakistan since 1990. But in a gesture of good faith, the governments of the two countries chose cricket as a tool for reconciliation. In 1955, the Pakistani government had stopped giving visas to Indian citizens to travel across the border, but for this historic series, they issued "cricket visas." Pakistanis welcomed Indians with heartwarming hospitality. As soon as restaurant owners realized that their guests were Indian visitors, meals were made free of cost, and discounts were given on hotel stays. Rickshaw-pullers gave Indians free rides, and craftsmen engaged them in long conversations over chai. The joke making the rounds was that some Pakistanis had started pretending to be Indians to get the freebies. Tharoor writes in his book that "the ghosts of Kargil had been buried once and for all by the cricket tour of 2003-04."
But many don't agree with that simplification. Governments in both the countries have often used "cricket diplomacy" to de-escalate the tension between the two countries in the short-term, but it hasn't helped in the long run.
"Can either side win Kashmir through cricket?" Mujahid asks. Eventually, the state of diplomacy between India and Pakistan determines their position on the cricket rivalry as well. For example, after the 2008 terrorist attack in Mumbai, in which 166 people died, India refused to play cricket with Pakistan in a home series. And no international cricket has been played in Pakistan since 2009, when gunmen opened fire on the visiting Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore. The two countries still play each other in World Cups, and other International Cricket Council approved tournaments, but that's it.
In the last year, ceasefire violations have dramatically increased at the India-Pakistan border; soldiers on both sides have lost their lives. The situation in Kashmir remains as tense as ever. And after Narendra Modi, India's Prime Minister, called off diplomatic talks with Pakistan last year, cricket fans have little hope of seeing the two teams take the field in either country.
For now, they can only enjoy the rivalry for what it is: a far less dangerous expression of tensions between the two countries, and a way, still, for Indians and Pakistanis to unite over a common passion. Cricket has indeed been a vehicle for displays of solidarity in the past.
During the 1996 Cricket World Cup, in a show of goodwill, players from India and Pakistan's national cricket rosters formed a team together for a one-off match against Sri Lanka. Indian batting and Pakistani bowling came together in a dream scenario for cricket fans. Pakistani captain Wasim Akram played under the Indian captain Mohammad Azharuddin. India's Tendulkar and Pakistan's Saeed Anwar opened the innings together.
Now, as the two countries prepare to play in another World Cup amid rising hostilities, it seems almost unbelievable that such a match ever took place. One can only hope that it will happen again.