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This Weekend, the Heart of South Asia Is Beating on Long Island

Radical historian Vijay Prashad tells you what you need to know ahead of Sunday's sold-out Cricket World Cup match between India and Pakistan.

India and Pakistan face one another at the 2015 Cricket World Cup. (Rajiv Bhuttan / Wikimedia)

"Cricket is an Indian sport," Ashish Nandy wrote in his 1989 book "The Tao of Cricket," "that the English discovered by accident." Nandy could very well have substituted "South Asian" for "Indian," given the grip of the sport in Bangladesh, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Afghanistan. These five South Asian countries are part of the 12 elite members of the International Cricket Council, the international governing body for cricket, and three of the countries—India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka—have won four of the 13 Cricket World Cups. But most importantly, 90 percent of cricket’s one billion worldwide fans live in South Asia. That last point is the key one: Despite the actual invention of the game of cricket in England, the game is most fanatically played and enjoyed in South Asia. It is, in that sense, a South Asian sport.

It is difficult to explain the game to people who did not play it as kids. So much about sports is about nostalgia. If you played a sport as a young person, you developed a body memory of that sport, and that memory bathes you with the eternity of youth through your life. This also applies to those who watch a sport through their life, the act of watching the sport creating its own kind of physical fanaticism. I love cricket and have always loved it. When people tell me that they either don't understand cricket or find it absurd, I try my best not to react with anything but sympathy. Everyone else's sport is hard to understand or appears stupid: I have no appetite for American football or for tennis, but only because I neither played them nor watched them as a young person. They are alien to me, as I suspect cricket is alien to the vast majority of people —for now—in North America.

Cricket is played in many formats: A match is either played over five days with the two sides getting two innings each to bat, or in a one-day format with a set number of overs (each over consists of six balls, or legal "pitches" to a batsman), such as 50 overs per side or 20 overs a side. In 1975, the International Cricket Council organized a World Cup of cricket that was to be played over 60 overs. As television became more and more fundamental to sport, cricket’s organizers found new and more exciting formats. That is why the ICC designed a T20, or 20-over per side, World Cup in 2007. The most recent T20 World Cup is taking place in—of all unlikely places—the United States, and not just anywhere in the U.S., but in Long Island.

Or perhaps it's not so strange. After all, cricket came to North America with the British colonial settlers. The sport spread with the settlers, and by the early 19th century, it was one of the main sports for intercollegiate championships. But, by the time of the U.S. Civil War, people in the U.S. began to gravitate to baseball over cricket, largely due to the fact that baseball in the 19th century did not take five days for a single game. 

Now, with the emergence of the shorter-form matches, and with large numbers of migrants arriving from cricket-playing nations, cricket has started to pick up again in the United States, a reality captured in Joseph O’Neill’s 2008 novel "Netherland." In it, O'Neill, himself a transplant to New York City, describes the world of post-9/11 New York City through the world of the Staten Island Cricket Club, which is largely made up of men from the Caribbean and South Asia. The lead character—from Holland—describes how he walks along Coney Island Avenue with his Indo-Trinidadian friend and finds "a bunch of South African Jews, in full sectarian regalia, watching televised cricket with a couple of Rastafarians in the front office of a Pakistani-run lumberyard.”

When the British knew that their centuries-long rule over South Asia was over, they hastily partitioned the continent into India and Pakistan in 1947 and departed. That partition bears heavily on the subcontinent. India and Pakistan played their first cricket match against each other in 1952, and since then, the two sides have found that the game was drawn fully into the geopolitical rivalry between the two states. 

Not a match went by that was not charged with electricity. Things got so bad that the two sides would rarely play each other in their two countries, but would have to play on such neutral pitches as in Sharjah, in the United Arab Emirates. When relations between the countries improved, then one side would tour the other’s main cities; when tensions inflamed, such as when the two countries went to war (in 1965, 1971, and 1999), the two sides simply would not play each other. Cricket between India and Pakistan was, from the first, interrupted by politics.

All of this is a great pity. Many schoolchildren in South Asia have fantasized about the incredible team that would have been produced out of a united South Asia, or else about the tremendous All-South Asian cricket tournaments. When India had the world’s best spin bowlers, Pakistan had some of the finest fast bowlers: What a team they would have made, with Imran and Sarfraz sharing the ball with Bedi, Prasanna, and Chandrasekhar! Imagine the immense scores made by Zaheer Abbas and Sunil Gavaskar if the two titans of the bat had opened the innings for a South Asian team! After the independence of Bangladesh in 1971, and after Bangladeshi cricket began to come into its own, many people in the Bengali speaking regions of South Asia have wondered about a United Bengal team that could take on the otherwise overpowering Maharashtra. Some of this came to pass with the emergence of the Indian Premier League (IPL) in 2008, although the money power in IPL has taken some of the artistry out of the game (the IPL’s televised emphasis on showmanship in a short period of time took away the chess-like quality of strategy that defines the five day match.)

India and Pakistan meet in Long Island on Sunday for their World Cup 2024 match. India's team is led by Rohit Sharma, who was discomforted when the New York Police Department used excessive force against a fan who got onto the field in India’s warm-up match against Bangladesh. That was the most remarked upon incident from the match, which India won comfortably. Pakistan is led by one of the most gifted short-format batsmen, Babar Azam (his Indian friend Virat Kholi called him the best batsman in the world). The players themselves know each other well, having played against each other in the international circuit and in various other matches. Many of them are friends and bear little animosity against each other.

Last year in Ahmedabad, at the newly named Narendra Modi Stadium, the authorities banned Pakistani fans. Local political leaders of Modi’s party riled up the crowd to chant charged anti-Pakistani slogans. These incidents are often highlighted by the press. But less remarked upon are incidents such as the roar that greeted Pakistani Mohammed Rizwan when he scored a century in Hyderabad just a few days earlier. Fans love the sport. It is easy to emphasize the differences and make this match about geopolitics; small gestures of goodwill get lost in all the noise.

All sports are wrapped up in other social obligations, such as national pride. Chauvinism will play a role, no doubt, but it will not be able to take away from the excitement of the day when Shaheen Afridi and Jasprit Bumrah start their run up with a shining white ball in their hand, ready to bang into the pitch and test the mettle, the eyesight, and the reflexes of the batsmen. Cricket is a South Asian sport, and anything that is shared is also able to divide, but on Sunday, I suspect it will unite more than it will sever.

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