The players line up for the national anthems

History, politics, cultural identity and sporting mania all clash when India and Pakistan play cricket in Dhaka


Hate to Love

India v Pakistan, a Bangladeshi view

Hating to love the rivalry that arouses strong passions in Dhaka

Mohammad Isam  |  

The Dhaka of the 1990s that I grew up in was divided by politics and sport. Hardly any kid my age was interested in politics; whichever party imposed a hartal - meaning the schools were closed and the roads empty - had our support. Support for sport was mainly split down the lines of the Abahani-Mohammedan rivalry, which began in the mid-1970s with football, and spread in the late 1980s and 1990s to cricket's Dhaka Premier League. But the cricket rivalry that everyone liked to talk about was India v Pakistan. It got the pulse racing and the blood boiling in equal measure.

You might wonder why Bangladeshis get excited about India and Pakistan in 2019. But back when Bangladesh did not have a cricket team at the highest level, sports fans tended to adopt one of the other international teams to support. From 1979 to 1994, the Bangladesh team participated in the ICC Trophy every four years, and returned empty-handed. Until the 1997 ICC Trophy win, which took Bangladesh to the 1999 World Cup, interest in cricket peaked during the Abahani-Mohammedan Dhaka derby - and India-Pakistan matches.

If the India-Pakistan contest was played in Dhaka, the intensity went up a notch. Many of those games were one-sided, but we also had the 1998 Independence Cup final, better known as the Hrishikesh Kanitkar match, for it was a boundary by him that clinched a high-scoring thriller. All those matches were sold out. Those who lived in Old Dhaka, next door to the Bangabandhu National Stadium, would queue up at the crack of dawn, and the supporters of the team that won would celebrate deep into the night.

Old Dhaka was the boisterous centre of the support base not just because of its proximity to the stadium. It had to do with the history of the area, and the layered demographics of Bengali- and Urdu-speaking populations who lived there.

People had an affinity for old connections. Urdu speakers tended to support Pakistan, and a mix of people supported India, but it did not always need a family connection to be an India or Pakistan supporter. The rivalry was also acknowledged in other parts of the capital, like Dhanmondi, Mohammadpur and Shantinagar, but nothing beat the fun at Old Dhaka, where the tiny alleyways were always buzzing during games and erupted every time a wicket fell or a six was hit. In the early 1990s, supporters were known to celebrate with biryani, sweets and firecrackers.

The height of fandom: Fans climb onto the boundary wall of the ground to watch Pakistan players train ahead of an India-Pakistan clash in Dhaka, 2008

The height of fandom: Fans climb onto the boundary wall of the ground to watch Pakistan players train ahead of an India-Pakistan clash in Dhaka, 2008 © Associated Press

There is no denying that the history of the three nations played a part in the following for these games. Bangladesh gained independence after a bloody war with Pakistan, while India, helpful during that 1971 war and its aftermath, cast a large and powerful shadow.

Hero worship of the likes of Imran Khan, Javed Miandad, Kapil Dev and Sunil Gavaskar is not uncommon in foreign countries. But Bangladeshis took a liking to Indian and Pakistani cricketers based also on social and cultural links, which included literature, art and music. While Hindi movies and songs were popular in most households, there was also place for Pakistani bands, TV shows and artists. Similar to how cricket in British India came eastwards into what is now Bangladesh, the post-Independence generation of Bangladeshis got hooked to the game by watching cricket matches between India and Pakistan.

My innovative uncles and their friends would twist and turn the rooftop antenna, or manoeuvre a kitchen plate (you read that right) to boost the antenna's receiving powers so they could catch India-Pakistan matches on the Doordarshan channel from across the border. Bangladesh Television used to telecast the Sharjah matches live. An Australia obsessive like me, however, would have to be content with a half-hour weekly show for Australia and West Indies highlights, and rely on magazines and newspapers to find out about Dean Jones, the Waugh brothers, Shane Warne and Curtly Ambrose.

I don't remember whether it was the jury-rigged antenna that did it, but my entire extended family managed to watch the 1987 Pakistan tour of India. When the Asia Cup was played in Dhaka the following year, my mother, an ardent India fan, made sure she went to watch the India-Pakistan game, even if it meant queueing up from six in the morning. I was four years old then. My grandmother later told me that I cried so much that day that she pointed to the TV and I looked for my mother in it. Perhaps my love-hate relationship with India-Pakistan matches began from that day.

India captain Mohammad Azharuddin receives the 1998 Independence Cup from Bangladesh prime minister Sheikh Hasina in Dhaka

India captain Mohammad Azharuddin receives the 1998 Independence Cup from Bangladesh prime minister Sheikh Hasina in Dhaka © AFP

In the 1980s and '90s, and even well into the new millennium, the support for India and Pakistan was not unacceptable. It was only annoying. To me.

In time I realised that my problem was not with the match-up, but with how my friends, cousins, uncles and aunts reacted to the game. Emotion in cricket confused me. I spent so much time playing that it never crossed my mind that people could support a team for reasons beyond cricket. I loved Australia, and despite accusations of only supporting top teams in the 1990s, I was not swayed from admiring their way of cricket.

Yet there were two particular things about the India-Pakistan contest that had me hooked.

I was obsessed with watching Wasim Akram bowl at Sachin Tendulkar. The best bowler in the world against the best batsman in the world. Brian Lara against Shane Warne and Waugh facing Ambrose were similar top-drawer contests, but I considered Sachin v Wasim a touch above those.

The other interesting aspect for me was that the lesser-known cricketers tended to shine in these games. I loved finding new names in newspaper reports and magazines, later in books. For every Aaqib Javed, Zahid Fazal and Moin Khan who stood up for Pakistan in their hour of need, India had an Ajay Jadeja, Navjot Singh Sidhu and L Balaji. These players often made the difference in a high-pressure encounter, and made it more fun to watch.

The thing for me was that it was supposed to be fun, but emotions got in the way. It remains that way even today, when Bangladesh have become an established international team. If an India-Pakistan contest is played in Dhaka or elsewhere, it becomes a divisive topic, and conversations rarely stick to the cricket. These days it feels like the real contest is played in the days leading up to the game and after it. The number of one-sided contests in the last decade has not helped.

Yet, every now and then, the India-Pakistan on-field beast awakens. One such occasion came in the 2014 Asia Cup in Dhaka. It was a near-capacity crowd at the Shere Bangla National Stadium, and the support was split fifty-fifty.

The game burst into life after Pakistan lost their way in the chase, only for Shahid Afridi to put on a special performance. It finished with him miscuing R Ashwin for a last-over six to clinch the win. Half the crowd, including many of the fielders, expected the ball to fall inside the boundary, perhaps for a catch. But Afridi and the long-off fieldsman, over whom the ball went for six, both knew.

It was the last great India-Pakistan game. I have not lost hope. The contest that have I hated to love since my childhood has the potential to catch fire when you least expect it.

Mohammad Isam is ESPNcricinfo's Bangladesh correspondent. @isam84