Beggar at Ghazi Chowk


War Minus The Shooting.

29 Mar 2011

Published in the Daily Princetonian, 29 March 2011.

By the time you read this, there will be about 20 hours before the start of what is arguably the most explosive cricket game in years.

Pakistan and India face off at Mohali, India in the semifinal of the Cricket World Cup, the third largest sporting event in the world behind the FIFA World Cup and the Olympics. Any World Cup semifinal is historic, and any India-Pakistan game is brimming with emotion and spirit, but this particular combination is something else.

Pakistan has reached the knockout stage of the World Cup for the first time in 12 years after a heartbreaking loss to Australia in the 1999 final. The country has not played a home cricket game for two years, after gunmen attacked the visiting Sri Lankan cricket team. Pakistan was then stripped of rights to host the World Cup this spring, along with India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. Being hit by a betting scandal last summer also damaged the team, and it was said that Pakistan went into the tournament as a non-contender for the first time in decades. But after all the drama, the team has held its own against cricketing giants, ending Australia’s 12-year unbeaten streak in World Cup matches that began in 1999 and then marching into the semifinals.

In Pakistan, what was a tentative hopefulness before the World Cup has changed back into the fervor of old. Thousands are on the streets; cricket fever is back. Win or lose, for once, the polarization typical of Pakistani society has given way to just plain craziness over a cricket game, and it’s amazing.

India is no different. Unlike Pakistan, however, the Indian team went into the tournament as favorites, faltered a bit, and then found its footing again. Recently buoyed by handing the final knockout to the mighty Australians, the Indians have burst the World Cup wide open once again.

Remixed anthems, posters and calls for prayer have all made their way over the Internet, and for once I feel less bubbled at Princeton. It’s hard to keep this energy out of your feed if you know anyone from South Asia.

Hotels within 25 kilometers of the venue in Mohali are full, there is no more space in the airport for private planes, ad rates are at an all time high and an Indian parrot that predicted a Pakistani win has been killed. For humans, though, cricket can have an unusually reconciliatory power. On more than one occasion, traveling across the border to watch cricket games has sparked great inroads into citizen diplomacy between the two countries. And even within these countries, cast, creed, religion — all are forgotten for a game.

I find it very difficult to explain cricket to my friends here. “It’s not really a sport, it’s just a bunch of people standing around in the sun, talking politics, mostly.” The tea breaks help, too. But come Wednesday morning at 5 a.m., viewing parties shall commence in many places all over campus. There will be swearing, there will be screaming and there might be the odd fistfight. We’re already wondering how to minimize tensions between the Indians and Pakistanis on campus. Judging by the Facebook banter, things might get tense. If any of us wake you up, our apologies in advance, but we have little control over our emotions in this terribly volatile situation. And in our defense, we’re not alone: We’re a small subset of about a billion and a half people who are also going crazy.

An effort was made to formally bring this fervor to campus in the form of Princeton Club Cricket. I’ve been an officer for the club since it was reintroduced, and we’ve slowly gathered a following that often joins us on the Dillon Gymnasium floor at 11 p.m. for two hours of cricket. As the winter ends, the challenge of finding a field is renewed, and hopefully we can get practice up and running as soon as possible.

Cricket has in fact been a part of Princeton’s heritage. The first collegiate football game between Harvard and Princeton was played on a cricket field in Hoboken, N.J., as my friend and I found out while aimlessly staring at the pictures in the Whitman Common Room in an attempt to avoid writing code. I hope that one day Princeton will resume playing cricket on cricket fields.

For many of us in Princeton Club Cricket, our membership is partly about the sport (if we agree to call it that), and partly about reliving the childhood memories associated with a sense of national pride. In many ways, South Asian cricket is our little rebellion against the world, a show of strength and an exhibition of technical prowess that can match that of anyone else in the world.

Here’s to some more interest in this historic sport, a peaceful Wednesday morning and a win for Pakistan. (May I also point out that tensions have already escalated, as this piece made its way through an Indian executive editor for opinion).