Eden Gardens and Chepauk Ready To Host the Biggest Rivalry


A final decision isn’t likely until May, when the foreign ministers of the two countries are likely to meet, but Pakistan have signalled their willingness to play the World Cup in India later this year.



There are now less than six months to go for the start of the 2023 World Cup, and we still don’t know if a Pakistan team will play its matches on Indian turf. The Indian government has been steadfast in its refusal to allow an Indian team to tour Pakistan, citing state-sponsored terrorism from across the border and security risks. The nature of Pakistan’s participation in 50-over cricket’s showpiece event depends largely on whether their government chooses the path of diplomacy or confrontation.


Revsportz understands from several reliable sources that Pakistan and its cricket board are open to playing in India. With the tournament having a round-robin format where each team plays the other once, the focus is understandably on the India-Pakistan game. It’s understood that Kolkata, which hosted the India-Pakistan game during the T20 World Cup in 2016, is the first-choice venue for that, with Chennai the second option. In the worst-case scenario of Pakistan not agreeing to play the match in India, Dhaka – the venue for the first Test that Pakistan hosted against India, in 1954-55 – could step in.


For cricket followers of a certain age, it’s no surprise that Kolkata and Chennai are the two Indian venues that have cropped up in the discussions between the two cricket boards. No decision can be taken before talks at the foreign-minister level – likely in May – but the Chepauk Stadium within a stone’s throw of Chennai’s Marina Beach, in particular, can point to how it offered a sort of template for cricket diplomacy.


“Chennai was the most exciting Test Match I had ever witnessed. After a ding-dong contest, Pakistan won by 12 runs when an hour earlier Sachin Tendulkar had brought India to the edge of victory. The Pakistan team was deliriously happy but despite the disappointment of losing, the Chennai crowd of about 20,000 stayed on in the stands to witness the post-match awards and applaud the winners. The team then went on a victory round of the stadium and were given a standing ovation by the Chennai crowd. This was the turning point of the tour–an absorbing Test match fought out to the wire and the home crowd, sportingly and magnanimously, giving the victorious visitors a standing ovation! My son in Islamabad rang me in Chennai and remarked that while congratulations were in order the crowd response was unbelievable!”


That is an extract from Shadows Across the Playing Field, co-written by Shashi Tharoor and Shaharyar Khan. Shaharyar, the Pakistan team’s manager on that 1999 tour, has written movingly about how the warmth with which he and his team were received inspired him five years later – by which time he was chairman of the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) – to try and recreate the same kind of experience for the Indian contingent that journeyed across the border.


“Before the tour began, I had to make a delicate decision,” he writes. “Should the Indian supporters be placed in a separate stand reserved for them, as was the case in Mohali in 1999, or should they be allowed to mingle freely with Pakistanis? A separate stand was the safer bet but I decided on mixed stands. The result was electric and amazing. Large swathes of Indian fans carrying their flags and chanting slogans mixed with Pakistani fans in a spirit of goodwill and sportsmanlike conduct. There was good-humoured banter between both sets of fans and soon young people exchanged flags and ran about the stands with both flags held high. Young people, especially girls, had their faces painted with emblems from each country on each cheek. Banners of ‘Friendship Series’ and ‘Pak-India dosti zindabad’ appeared all over the ground.”


For cricket fans below the age of 30, on both sides of the border, these snippets might seem like some sort of fairy tale. Did these incidents even happen? After all, since that 1999 series nearly a quarter-century ago, Pakistan have played just six Tests on Indian soil, the last of them more than 15 years ago. There have not been any ODIs between the two in India since January 2013, and their only T20I contest in that time came within the framework of an ICC event – the T20 World Cup of 2016.  


Rose-tinted idealism has little place in a world where terrorist bullets and shrapnel from bombs slices through the flesh of innocents. But those Indians who journeyed across the border in 2004, and the Pakistanis who attended the Delhi ODI (2005) and the World Cup semifinal in Mohali (2011) could tell you so much about the unforgettable hospitality and bonhomie that characterised those journeys.


Sport can only hold up a mirror to society, both its better qualities and the ugly traits. But those now-distant days of cricket diplomacy offered a glimpse of what a less-hostile future could look like, while also providing a stage for a rivalry unlike any other.


It’s also a rivalry that we’ve rarely seen. In 70 years, going back to October 1952 when Abdul Hafeez Kardar left a side across the border, Pakistan have played just 84 matches on Indian soil – 33 Tests, 45 ODIs and 6 T20Is. Sri Lanka, who didn’t even play an international game in India until 1982, three decades after Pakistan, have now played 121 matches here – 22 Tests, 78 ODIs and 21 T20Is.


Just to give some perspective to those numbers, let’s consider the rivalry that is at the heart of cricket’s history. Since the start of the Radcliffe-Line rivalry in 1952, England have played 98 Ashes Tests in Australia, nearly thrice as many as Pakistan in India. India didn’t tour Pakistan between 1955 and 1978, and the current hiatus of 15 years and counting is closing in on the 17-year freeze that existed between 1961 and 1978, a period that saw two wars between the two countries.


Sourav Ganguly, who led the team across the border in 2004, played more innings against Pakistan on Indian soil (30) than any other player. In contrast, Rohit Sharma, the current Indian captain, has played just five knocks against Pakistan at home. Virat Kohli, his predecessor, has seven. An entire generation of players have arrived at the final chapters in their careers without getting more than a fleeting taste of this special rivalry.


Eden Gardens may no longer squeeze in 100,000 fans, while Chepauk after the recent renovations accommodates less than 40,000. But wherever Pakistan end up playing, whether that’s Kolkata or Chennai, those in attendance will witness an atmosphere that is simply unparalleled in sport. Those lucky enough to be in Karachi in 2004 or at Mohali in 2011 could tell you that. 

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