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‘The biggest game in world sport’: India-Pakistan rivalry offers a chance to show rare unity

The repercussions are globally felt — by the billions living in the neighboring subcontinental countries and by those who have moved away, onto pastures new.

Pakistan’s Shoaib Malik bowls to Indian batsman Ambati Rayudu at the Dubai International Cricket Stadium in the 2018 Asia Cup. The ball squirts away off a leading edge. Rayudu and Rohit Sharma — standing in as captain for Virat Kohli — cross for a single.

But, as Rayudu trots through for a run, securing his side the win with 63 balls still remaining, this one means more. It always does when India and Pakistan take to the field.

In the words of Steve Elworthy, the managing director of this summer’s Cricket World Cup: “It is probably one of the biggest games of sport in the world.

“There are very few others that will have the impact that this has in terms of the audience and viewership.”

Recent tension

It is, in many senses, the rivalry to end sporting rivalries; if the Ashes — England’s historic contest with Australia — is the zenith of cricketing traditionalism, then this is something else. Something bigger and something greater, founded on something other than simply runs and wickets — a sporting feud based on the countries’ wider relationship.

In February, an increase in violence between the two nations led to fears around their flagship World Cup showdown at Old Trafford, Manchester, on Sunday June 16.

At the time, the Board of Control For Cricket in India (BCCI), issued a statement in which it urged “the cricketing community to sever ties with countries from which terrorism emanates.”

Following that statement, CNN had reached out to the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) for comment but received no response.

Much of the tension in recent times has been linked to the conflict in Kashmir. A largely mountainous region located between India and Pakistan, it has had a tumultuous history.

The region has been bitterly contested by both India and Pakistan following the partition of the two countries in 1947, leading to three wars and numerous other skirmishes.

And while cricket — within a wider context — might seem a comparatively trivial matter, it has become a unifying vehicle; a tangible context within which to play out a fierce tension.

Unprecedented demand

“The India-Pakistan relationship is so critical for cricket,” says David Richardson, the outgoing chief executive of the International Cricket Council (ICC). “It is one of the iconic clashes.”

However, the pair have not met in Test cricket since 2008. The BCCI has refused to take part., while there has been just one bilateral ODI series since then — taking between December 2012 and January 2013.

One of the quirks of international cricket is that series between two nations are — in the main — the responsibility of the two national boards, meaning that the ICC does not have the power to force countries to face each other outside of ICC-run competitions.

Of course, in global tournaments such as this summer’s World Cup, the ICC does hold such jurisdiction and, as a result, the encounter on June 16 has been anticipated like few others.

India has won four of the sides’ last five ODI meetings, though Pakistan emerged victorious last time the pair met in the UK — a shock triumph in 2017’s ICC Champions Trophy. Few believed a side then in disarray would get beyond the group stage. That, in a nutshell, is the unpredictability of Pakistani cricket.

“The fact that India and Pakistan can play each other in ICC events is a tremendous tool to make sure that things don’t get out of hand and that relationships are kept on an even keel,” Richardson stresses.

“When you see a match played as we will at Old Trafford, you see the fans sitting together — touch wood — without any friction and enjoying the game.”

Perhaps fittingly, both Richardson and Elworthy are talking at the launch of the World Cup’s partnership with UNICEF, with the focus on bringing people — children, chiefly — together.

And if Elworthy’s claim that this clash is the biggest in world sport seems outlandish, then an unparalleled demand for tickets suggests otherwise. Old Trafford, which has a capacity of 26,000, has had over 400,000 applications from those desperate to witness this titanic clash.

A massive opportunity — not a daunting risk

“We could fill Wembley four times,” he chuckles of England’s 90,000-seater national football stadium. He is only semi-joking.

“The applications for tickets have come from all over the world,” Richardson adds. “New York, everywhere, to come to watch the India-Pakistan game.

“That is their first priority. Then, of course, they hope their team will make the final and they will buy tickets for the final. But this is a huge game.”

The magnitude of the occasion cannot be underplayed. Nor, however, can the scale of the opportunity that comes with it. At a time of societal division, sporting products are quick to highlight their capacity to unify communities.

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In this World Cup though, there is more to these statements than public relations or bluster; the story of the Afghan team — from refugee camps and Taliban insurgency to World Cup dark horses — is testament to the sport’s genuine power to bring about change.

“This match is a key moment in the tournament, but it is also a very key message in the tournament,” Elworthy explains.

It will be the culmination of an all-encompassing pre-match buildup; rather than looking at the event as a daunting moment, those in charge have taken an opposite view — that it is an open goal to be leapt on and not to be shirked.

‘A chance to send a powerful message’

Manchester will be a festival of activations and fan-zones, activities and a carnival atmosphere. Security, he says, is fluid, but intelligence-led. Rather than an occasion to stage on the down low, it is one to be used to emphasize the potential of rival factions peacefully coexisting.

“If I have a look at everything outside of the cricket, if you look at the wrap-around of all the events and everything that it is happening in and around Manchester in the days before the game and on the day, it is just absolutely testament to how big this actual game is,” he says.

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“When you talk about the game itself, there are no issues in terms of the fans. We are running all of these events as a way of making sure that all the fans do absolutely integrate with what the World Cup is.

“You will see fans sitting next to each other cheering their team on. That is one of the most powerful things you can see from a sport: actually making a proper statement that this is about the sport and about setting our differences aside; that we come to a game, we enjoy it, we support our teams. That for me is the most powerful message this World Cup can send.”

CNN News

CNN News

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