“It’s Important We Play Against Pakistan. It’s Our Ashes.”
January 25, 1999
Exclusive Extracts From The Qayyum Inquiry
February 22, 1999

Red Cherry Blossoms

IT was lunch-time on the third day of the first Test. The game was poised on a knife’s edge, and the prophets didn’t know which team would roll in the dirt. Amid all the white-knuckle drama, a harmless aside was being enacted away from all bloodshot eyes – one that would have disarmed any chance observer. Pakistani off-spinner Saqlain Mushtaq, the five-wicket specialist with Mickey Mouse ears, stood sweating in batting gear after having knocked a few balls on the instadia hoardings. With him was Harbhajan Singh, his Indian counterpart, in deep conversation. They talked, apparently about Harbhajan’s bowling action and what Saqlain thought of it. A few tips about the art flowed across, and then they went their ways. Inconclusive, as good conversations often are.In an on-field rivalry that on most occasions is never ‘septic’ enough, and where no one spares a rat’s ass, there’s reason to believe such encounters would be outside the bandwidth. But obviously history and language are too strong for any static to jam individual frequencies. Besides, isn’t the whole series about creating a whole new set of values – at least reaffirming old-fashioned ones in a climate of venom? An arena where – though you could practise ten different kinds of mayhem on field – the spirit of the moment wasn’t supposed to be the only thread in the whole tunic.

In the boiling social sea that preceded the tour, where no one knew where the candles were if the mains sprang a fuse, and cricket played second fiddle, the players ran up against each other with their cardio-vascular systems all tuned up and lubricated and came up with a spectacular opener. bcci president Raj Singh Dungarpur is more than thankful: ‘You couldn’t have asked for better cricket. A friendship series starting off with vintage cricket. The only unfortunate part was that India lost. This Indian team thrives on success and it would have been great for their morale on World Cup-eve to have won but such things happen.’

At Chepauk, before the victory lap, former Pakistani captain Salim Malik gushed to his teammates, ‘Ek baat hai. Crowd bada vadia tha (There’s one thing. The crowd was fantastic). They applauded us every step of the way.’ Shahryar Khan found other virtues: ‘Not only did they applaud us but I noticed there was very little litter in the stands after they left.’ Like snakes, perhaps. To squeeze in a more political soundbite, take what Pakistan’s high commissioner Ashraf Jehangir Qazi had to say on the series so far: ‘Superb. Fantastic. It’s been the smoothest possible ride. Everything has gone well so far except perhaps the umpiring in the Chennai test. Some of this has to rub off positively on the relations.’

The initial gestures came from Shahryar and captain Wasim Akram. Sachin Tendulkar, flush from his Padma Shree, was presented with a letter of congratulations before start of play on the first day in Chennai. Later, of course, you heard Moin Khan calling Venkatesh Prasad a ‘cheat’ after he thought he had caught him. Prasad, in turn, responded by taking Moin’s wicket, a trophy he deemed the most important in his six-wicket haul in Pakistan’s second innings. But all this was on the field. In light banter before the Test, one Indian player warned Moin not to sledge too much or he would ‘call Balasaheb Thackeray’. Says Dan Kiesel, physio of the Pakistan cricket team: ‘I haven’t seen the Pakistan team mix as well with any other team. The important thing is, player interaction is not limited to cricket. It extends to family and friends.’

It comes with the usual, good-natured mix of gags and leg-pulling. Says Moin: ‘Once Saeed Anwar asked Saurav Ganguly whether he was married. Ganguly told him he had been married for three months or something. At which Saeed asked him whether he had any kids so far. It was quite amusing.’ Ganguly himself was game enough to go for dinner at Shahid Afridi’s house in Karachi with wife Donna after, in fact, the Indian team won a famous one-day game in 1997. The match in which Rajesh Chauhan hit a six towards the end and Ganguly himself had a huge score. Says a journalist: ‘Afridi had really put up a welcome. His entire Pathan clan was there. Brothers, friends, everybody. It was a big occasion for them.’ Recalls Afridi: ‘I had told my family members to prepare every non-veg dish, but it turned out they were vegetarian. I had to order dal from a restaurant.’

Expectedly, mingling between the two teams goes back a long way. Says Dicky Rutnagar: ‘During Lala Amarnath’s time, he used to be quite a stabilising influence in the side as he was from Lahore. Besides, the English counties were a fertile ground for interaction between players from both sides. Zaheer Abbas often used to invite Indian players on tour to his home.’ Umpire S. Venkataraghavan more than agrees: ‘The counties were a great mixing opportunity. Zaheer Abbas, Mushtaq Mohammed and Wasim Raja were particularly friendly.’ Even political turmoil was not deterrent enough. Says Dungarpur: ‘Just after the Bangladesh war, there was the world series in Australia, and Zaheer Abbas, Bishan Singh Bedi and Intikhab Alam were quite inseparable. It proved then that language and culture were bigger bonding factors than religion.’

Of course, there is also Javed Miandad. An inseparable part of his legend status on the subcontinent has to do with his on and off-field antics. Says a player: ‘Characters like Miandad come once in 50 years. They bring the human element to cricket in a very memorable way. It would also be fair to say that because of the language, the Indians have borne the brunt of his wisecracks and pranks.’

This calls for a slice of Miandad lore. On tour in 1979 and facing a spell from spinner Dilip Doshi in the Bangalore Test, Miandad kept asking Doshi his room number (‘arre Doshi apna room number to bata’) after each delivery. Doshi ignored him for a while till the end of the over when Miandad commented, ‘Arre ab to bata de Doshi, ab to over khatam ho gaya hai (Tell me now. The over is complete.’ Doshi retorted: ‘What’s your problem?’ Then gave his room number. The Miandad special: ‘Ab agle over mein ball wahin bhejoonga (Your next over, I’ll hit the ball there).’ His repartee had Sunny Gavaskar and Syed Kirmani in splits behind the wicket.

Doshi, apparently, caught Miandad’s fancy in a big way in that series. In another over, Miandad barked like a dog after going forward and defending each delivery. When Doshi asked him why he was doing that, Miandad replied that since he was pulling him forward like a dog on a leash for each ball, he had to ‘act’ like one. Once after hitting Doshi for consecutive fours, he mimicked Doshi’s habit of taking his glasses off and wiping them but twisted the script around by motioning him to follow the ball with his specs.

A striking picture of the bonhomie that pervaded the two teams would be their antics on Holi, the day before India lost the Test match and the series to Pakistan in 1987 at Bangalore. The last Test to be played by the two countries before Chennai, the match is remembered more for Sunny’s 96 on a killer track. The Test ran quite similar to the one at Chennai with everything depending on a solitary Indian batsman. The tension even on the rest day was palpable.

But it was Holi and Miandad, Ravi Shastri and Kiran More joined in to throw people into the swimming pool.Recalls Qamar Ahmed, veteran cricket reporter: ‘The three of them threw Kishore Bhimani into the pool and he broke his toe because it got caught in the sluice. They dragged a very reluctant and abusive Imran from his hotel room and rubbed his face with grease and colour. You could see traces of it the next day on the field as it was too strong to come off in one wash.’ Rameez Raja’s eyes twinkle at the memory: ‘Manzoor Elahi and I threw Ravi Shastri into the pool. We had lots of fun that day.’ Raja was very friendly with Kris Srikkanth, with whom he played under-19 cricket before moving onto Tests. ‘Srikkanth, Azhar and I were of the same age group and mixed well. There were others too. I remember Ajay Jadeja travelling on the Pakistan coach on a trip in Pakistan’s 1992 tour to England. He had played cricket in England with Mushtaq and Waqar Younis.’

In fact, Jadeja and Azhar figure high on the list of friends of Pakistani players. Says Pakistan middle-order batsman Ejaz Ahmad: ‘Four years back I was playing for minor counties in England. The Thornbee club. I got injured so I called up Jadeja and gave him my contract. He played out my season for the club. We stayed together for a couple of weeks and became friends.’ Asked who his friends are in the Indian side, Inzamam-ul Haq pipes up: ‘All of them. But I have a special regard for Venkatapathy Raju and Jadeja. Raju because he is such a wonderful mimic of people and makes you laugh all the time. Jadeja is more candid and fun-loving.’

With the older cricketers, the favourites are from a past generation. Malik, for instance, says his best Indian friend is Kapil Dev. ‘We used to play golf together.’ Of the many interesting episodes together, Malik narrates one: ‘I was facing him in a one-dayer in Sharjah when he bowled me a bouncer. I wasn’t wearing a helmet. The ball hit me on the head. I didn’t show any hurt at all though. And didn’t rub my head even once. After a while one of his deliveries hit my inner thigh and I started rubbing my leg vigorously. Kapil then came up to me and said, ‘Tera sar tera paair mein hai kya? (Is your head in your leg?)’. I started laughing and thought, ‘really, there’s a point in what he’s saying’.’

Malik spared a kind word for Ganguly when he was dropped in a Toronto one-dayer in 1996, the act which led to banner newspaper headlines in Ganguly’s home town Calcutta. Says journalist Sabyasachi Sarkar, who’s come out with a book on Ganguly: ‘Saurav was dropped five minutes before the match in favour of Vinod Kambli and he was on the verge of tears. Malik came to his room in the evening and told him ‘Itna run bana rahe ho na isliye problem mein aa rahe ho. Zada run mat banao’ (You are making so many runs that you are running into problems. Don’t make so many runs).’

If Miandad was the monarch of the antics brigade, he was also one of the most fiendishly competitive players, even by world standards, and on most occasions his escapades had to do with the larger purpose of giving his team an edge. To illustrate: Before the 1992 World Cup finals between Pakistan and England, legend has it that Miandad sat next to Steve Bucknor in a flight. He, reportedly, filled Bucknor in with how naughty and mean and horrible the English race was. In the finals, Bucknor didn’t raise his finger to a bowler’s appeal for lbw when Miandad was more than plumb. Narrating the incident to a journalist, Miandad says Bucknor couldn’t have done anything else with the way he had brainwashed him. Of course, this is not something Bucknor would admit to or Miandad corroborate.

If in the current crop of Indian players, Azhar and Jadeja have a long-standing friendship with the Pakistani players, there are others too with a high regard for them. After the Chennai Test, Robin Singh made it a point to go to the Pakistan dressing room to congratulate them on their stunning victory. Says Balaji, tnca official and liaison man for the Pakistan cricket team: ‘Robin even came to the Pakistani dressing room and collected 15 passes for the game from them earlier on during the Test. Javagal Srinath went to their dressing room with his neighbour and had fruits with the Pakistan team. Later, Miandad went around looking for the neighbour for he was not sure whether he had had his photograph clicked with the players of his choice.’

Mongia himself has spent time with former Pakistan captain Rashid Latif discussing, what else, wicket-keeping. Says Mongia: ‘We had dinner together in Colombo. I am also friendly with Moin. We talk about our movements before the ball comes to us and other technicalities. The Pakistani players are very curious though about Indian filmstars. They keep asking questions about them.’

SACHIM Tendulkar himself, though reticent most of the time, has opened out at times. A journalist who covered the infamous 1994 Singer Cup in Colombo remembers: ‘There was so much rain on that tour that players were looking at ways to have a good time. One evening, Wasim, Waqar, Sachin and Vinod danced in the Oberoi disco all by themselves. They were on centrestage and all the four of them danced without girls or anything. Sachin would be on the floor only as long as Vinod was there. When Vinod would step down for a while, Sachin would follow. When Vinod would go to the stage, Sachin again followed him. It was so cute.’

Most of the players though regret that much has been lost because there hasn’t been a long series in 12 years. Says Waqar: ‘We were meeting in Toronto, Sharjah etc, not in our backyards. Also, you develop a closeness only on long tours. Indians are not currently on the county circuit either.’ Agrees Anwar: ‘Apart from a few instances, we are reduced mainly to going together to official functions in the evening. There is so much else that there is scope for.’

While on-field rivalry adds that added element of spice to relations off it, there is some misgiving that the evolution in cricket could dampen the flowering of, say, another Miandad. Says Venkatesh Prasad: ‘These are the days of stump mikes and third umpires. A Miandad is going to have his hands full.’ But it would be sad, as Rahul Dravid says, ‘to strangle the human element in cricket’. Dravid had a soulful shaking of hands with Akram at Chennai where match referee Connie Smits acted as the catalyst to defuse some bad blood.

In the restaurant at Chennai’s departure lounge, however, when the two teams were waiting it out at the airport for a fog-delayed Indian Airlines flight, the interaction was rather on the low side. Still stinging from defeat, the Indians were content to bunch together in twos and threes. While Sachin, Harbhajan and Kanitkar browsed in the bookshop, Pakistan’s Miandad, Mushtaq, Waqar, Malik and Ejaz passed time by playing cards (rummy). And while a defeat might put the enormous goodwill on the backburner for a while, the underlying bonhomie shows through at unguarded moments.

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