If you want to feel an India-Pakistan contest without the hype, come to Hagley Oval in Christchurch. But that is not to say there is no excitement or anticipation.
You wouldn’t find fans hassling for tickets, people milling around hotel lobbies, security personnel rushing to get mechanisms in place, television cameras trailing players, and lengthy press conferences that sometimes border on treating it as another game.
It is a relaxed, informal setting, and has an old-world feel to it, like the days when players mingled freely with journalists. One Pakistan player, called ‘The Wall’ by his captain, gushed in admiration of ‘The Real Wall’, whom he hopes to have a chat with before leaving New Zealand. Besides the nets area, team managers went out of their way to oblige star-struck parents of little kids their photographs and moments with the cricketers. Players from both teams were happy to have a casual chat with each other.
For a change, not many are complaining. There are no prying eyes and no agendas to keep. Players live in a homely environment, where the coach is the father figure and the one players look up to for everything associated with cricket.
Compare this with any other India-Pakistan clash, where there is invariably talk of pressure, expectation, excitement, anticipation and revenge.
Players from both these teams were too young when India and Pakistan played what was unofficially termed the Friendship series in 2004. Some of them were not even drawn towards the game then, but they have all come to know it as ‘the tour’ that fostered great camaraderie within the teams off the field, and yet had the ferocity of an India-Pakistan contest in it.
None of the current batch from either side yet knows what it is to play in an India-Pakistan contest, and so will start with a clean slate on Tuesday, even as television sets will be turned on at an ungodly hour in many households.
Both sides missed playing each other at the Under-19 Asia Cup in Kuala Lumpur in November, because India were knocked out in the group stage. Political tensions haven’t made bilateral series between the two sides possible. In fact, India and Pakistan haven’t played in an Under-19 fixture since 2014. This, therefore, is a new step into the unknown for both sets of players. But as Aryan Juyal, India’s wicketkeeper, put it, when the national anthems go on: ‘Dil ki dhadkanein aur tez chalengi.’ (Hearts will beat a lot faster).
Perhaps the India-South Africa Test, the Wanderers pitch, the IPL auction, and Pakistan’s T20 series win over New Zealand have insulated both sets of players from the build-up and the hype, but it is nonetheless a pleasant change that the focus is entirely on the cricket.
Rahul Dravid, India’s coach, who was at the center of the fiercest on-field battles involving both countries, believes the experience will make the players aware of the stakes, without being overly worried about the result. “Last couple of years, we haven’t had a chance to play Pakistan at any level, so it’s really nice that it has panned out the way it has,” he said. “Irrespective of the result, at least the guys would have got to feel what it is to play an India-Pakistan game.
“Maybe somewhere along the line, they will grow up as men and become cricketers who play for India, and some of the Pakistani boys will play for Pakistan. They would have played it and done it before. That’s really the exciting part of it. In the course of these 16 months, we have been around this group of boys and a larger group as well, we’ve played different teams, played in different conditions, playing in New Zealand, played Test matches, one-day games … but never played an India-Pakistan game. That, for me, in a way caps off this whole gamut of experiences that we want these kids to experience.”
Has he shared his experiences? “I don’t tell them too many tales, let me be honest with you. Not many of them want to listen also,” Dravid said with a laugh. “We don’t dwell with the history too much. For these guys, it’s not such a big deal, honestly, it’s just about preparing and playing the game. For them, it’s not as big a deal as, sometimes, everyone else outside makes it to be.”
At the helm of affairs for Pakistan is Nadeem Khan, their cricket manager, who has been involved in one of the most thrilling India-Pakistan battles – the 1999 Chennai Test – and understands the whole range of emotions players go through. Nadeem has stressed on letting them enjoy the occasion without letting raw emotions run wild. His logic stems from the understanding that the players who will go on to have storied international careers will need to change the perception that has been built over years of ‘revenge’ matches, ‘do-or-die’ clashes and ‘final before a final.’
Over to the group of 22 starry-eyed, yet confident cricketers who will take the field on Tuesday, in what promises to be an experience to cherish. Only time will tell if tempers will fray or if they will hold their composure, but at least they will know they are in good hands and are accountable for their actions.