NEW DELHI — Think of it as a South Asian version of the Red Sox versus the Yankees — that is, if Boston and New York each had nuclear weapons and shared a disputed border.
When India and Pakistan take to the field on Wednesday for a cricket match in Dubai, it will be their first such meeting in over a year and a “mouthwatering” prospect for cricket fans across the subcontinent.
But their desire to see more of one of the greatest rivalries in sports faces a major obstacle: politics.
Over the past decade, the relationship between India and Pakistan has included periods of outright belligerence as well as moments of rapprochement. And the prospects for expanding cricket ties between the two countries have risen and fallen in tandem with the broader tenor of the relationship.
Pakistan’s newly elected Prime Minister Imran Khan is himself a cricket legend who reportedly would like more matches between the two countries. He even invited several former Indian cricket players to his swearing-in ceremony.
Meanwhile India’s government, which is controlled by a conservative Hindu nationalist party, is skeptical of Khan (Pakistan’s new leader is “propped up” by its powerful army, an Indian government minister said Monday. “Let’s wait and watch how things go.”)
Yet — as cricket fans in both countries will tell you — there is nothing quite like a match between India and Pakistan. “It’s like an addiction, you have to get your fix whenever it happens,” said Sharda Ugra, a longtime cricket commentator based in Bangalore. “I won’t miss it for anything.”
Matches between India and Pakistan are a war “where the weapons are sporting equipment,” said Saad Shafqat, a novelist and cricket columnist in Karachi. Shafqat said such contests put him in a state of high anxiety. He plans to watch the upcoming match “peeking through my fingers.”
Wednesday’s Asia Cup match was originally supposed to be held in India. But Pakistan refused to attend, so the entire tournament was moved to the United Arab Emirates. India, for its part, had said it would not participate in another international cricket competition due to be hosted by Pakistan later this year.
India and Pakistan have not played a full series of matches — the traditional format for two-way cricketing contests between countries — since 2007, the year before a devastating terrorist attack in Mumbai which India says was executed with help from Pakistan’s intelligence service.
Instead, they play each other merely as part of international tournaments, which are nearly always held in third countries. The two teams “meet like extended family members who only see each other when there is a family wedding or engagement,” as one disappointed Indian cricket commentator put it.
Pakistan has played in India twice in recent years — once in 2016 and once in 2013 — while the Indian team has not traveled to Pakistan since 2008.
That’s a shame, say commentators in the two cricket-obsessed countries, pointing out that other sporting contests between their nations are not hostage to politics. And the relationships between the cricket players themselves — who share a similar cultural heritage and easily communicate with each other in Hindi and Urdu — are warm.
“On the field we were like gladiators, but off the field we were far from that,” said Yajurvindra Singh, a former Indian cricketer who knew Khan as a player. He expressed hopes that the two teams would start to play each other more often, but he was not wholly optimistic that it would happen.
Cricket has played a memorable role in improving relations between the two countries in the past. In 2004, the Indian government cleared the way for its cricket team to play its first series of matches in Pakistan in 19 years. The tour came five years after the countries fought a brief but ferocious clash high in the Himalayas.
India’s then-prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee reportedly told the team: “Win matches and win hearts too.”
Analysts said the prospects for a similar initiative now were slim, particularly with national elections in India expected next year. “The Indian government is not going to take any risks at this stage, especially because Pakistan’s situation internally is quite murky,” said Brahma Chellaney, a security expert at the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi.
Chellaney will be on a plane during Wednesday’s match, otherwise he too would be in front of a television, he said. A cricket clash between India and Pakistan “always generates more excitement.”