Saturday, January 29, 2022

Reverse swing: Forget India vs Pak. Watch the Ashes!

Boastful talk of the India-Pakistan matchup being better than the Ashes has disappeared these days.

Written by Tunku Varadarajan |
July 12, 2015 12:00:00 am
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There was a time when it was fashionable — and among Indians obligatory — to speak of the India-Pakistan rivalry in cricket as being “greater” than that between Australia and England. Our Bashes, it was said, are so much more intense, so much more impassioned, than their Ashes. I always found such assertions misguided. The intensity that was invoked was only fractionally about the cricket. These were not sporting contests primarily, but substitutes for war. Imran Khan used to say in private that he treated games against India as a form of jihad. With each cartwheeling middle-stump, India, in his charged-up mind, lost its grip on Kashmir: reverse-swing as AK-47.

Boastful talk of the India-Pakistan matchup being better than the Ashes has disappeared these days. India hardly ever plays Pakistan in cricket, and rightly so. For as long as that country wages covert war against India and harbours terrorists who’ve shed Indian blood, India should not play cricket against them except in international tournaments (where to forfeit a game against Pakistan on moral grounds would only be shooting itself in the foot). There’s also the truth — which was absent when Imran plied his trade as a cricketer — that India no longer cares to be compared with Pakistan at anything. India has outgrown them; and not before time. That Pakistan hasn’t outgrown its old, corrosive Indian obsession is, of course, the source of every current problem between the two countries.


But back to the cricket. The Ashes are with us again, and as I write, the Cardiff Test — the first in a five-match series — is deliciously poised, England with the upper hand. As I watch Mitchell Johnson steam in to Joe Root, a packed house in full throat, I marvel at international sport’s oldest and finest rivalry, a rivalry that has evolved from a contest that was once — as India’s is with Pakistan — about much more than cricket, to one that’s almost entirely about the game alone. There is great “needle”, of course, between the Aussies and the Poms, but it reflects differences in personality between the two countries more than anything else.

There once was a time when Ashes Tests were “political”, in the way that India-Pakistan matches are. Until the Statute of Westminster of 1931, Australia was constitutionally subservient to Britain, and it wasn’t until after the Second World War that it became truly psychologically independent. The Bodyline series of 1932-33 is best seen as a battle for emancipation played out on the cricket field, with Douglas Jardine unleashing his fast bowlers to keep the uppity Aussies cowed and in their place.

Jardine, England’s captain, was so reviled in Australia not simply because he sought to inflict harm on Australia’s players, but because the Australian nation saw him for what he was: a proud imperialist unwilling to let go. Equally, Don Bradman was revered not merely because he was a batting genius, but because each century he scored off the Poms was a blow for Australia’s self-image. Bradman himself never saw his role in those terms, which may go some way — along with the Protestant-Catholic tensions in Australia at the time — toward explaining why Irish-Aussies like Bill O’Reilly and Jack Fingleton didn’t care for him too much.

The political sting has gone out of the Ashes entirely, and as a cricket fan I long for the day when that happens to India-Pakistan cricket. Let the aggression be cultural, the way it is with the Ashes. The Australians still regard England’s players as effete. The England players still —though to a lesser degree of stereotyping — regard Australian players as hard-nosed yobs. Australia has, of course, changed. Diversity no longer means a sprinkling of Italians, Greeks and “Yugos”. A demographic broadening, as well as changing attitudes toward manliness, has made Australia a more tolerant place. In a decade, I suspect they’ll barely sledge.

And in a decade, one prays, India will be playing Pakistan again, without a trace of jihad in every “owzzat”, and with scant religious rancour in the stands. In the meantime, let’s watch the Ashes. There is no better cricket on earth.

Tunku Varadarajan is the Virginia Hobbs Carpenter Research Fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.


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