The Ashes may be cricket’s oldest rivalry, but it’s no longer the biggest — or the most profitable.
The India vs Pakistan conflict is tense and fierce, fuelled by a complicated geopolitical history that includes the Partition of 1947 and three bloody wars. There’s lingering resentment between the two nations, which won’t change in the near future — but cricket unites them.
Whenever the two cricket-mad nations face off, it’s a must-watch. Emotions run high for fans and players, and the scenes can be surreal.
In terms of eyeballs and broadcast revenue, it comfortably surpasses the Ashes buzz. Approximately 988 million people watched the 2011 World Cup semi-final between India and Pakistan in Mohali, and that figure is estimated to have ballooned to over one billion when they met at Adelaide Oval four years later.
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“Cricket is massive in Pakistan and India, that’s the only sport left. Hockey disappeared, squash disappeared,” said Pakistan legend Wasim Akram told Fox Cricket.
“When you guys talk about Ashes, England has 60 million people, Australia has 25 million people. Pakistan and India together? 1.6 billion people.”
Having such a passionate and wide-reaching fanbase has its downfalls. If you win, you’re hailed as a national hero, but you’re slaughtered in the media by millions if you lose.
The criticism is relentless and unforgiving.
“In our day there was no social media, so there was no pressure, unless you read a newspaper, and when I was young I hardly read a newspaper,” Akram continued.
“We have about 65 news channels in Pakistan, and India has thousands. Every day there are programs saying, ‘We’re going to win, we’re going to win’. That also adds pressure.”
India and Pakistan have not played a bilateral series in over a decade, so their contests are typically reserved for ICC events, which is a crying shame.
However, that only magnifies the anticipation.
Most recently, Virat Kohli and Babar Azam butted heads at the MCG during last year’s T20 World Cup, with 90,293 fans filling the iconic venue, absurd numbers for a neutral match. For three-and-a-bit hours, politics took a back seat.
If India had qualified for the final, it could have been the most-watched sporting event of the year.
“It’s not a war. It’s a cricket match,” Akram said.
“Somebody has to win, somebody has to lose.
“The colour, the people, the excitement. When they sit together, Indians and Pakistanis at cricket matches, they just love each other. People-to-people contact is so important.”
The rivalry resumes this weekend in Kandy for the Asia Cup, and the two nations are expected to meet again during the Super Six stage. Stakeholders will be praying India and Pakistan both qualify for the Asia Cup final on September 17.
Pakistan was originally slated to host the entire tournament, but nine of the 13 matches have been moved to Sri Lanka because India refused to cross the border.
Over the past 24 months, Pakistan has welcomed the likes of Australia, England and New Zealand, but due to ongoing political tensions and safety concerns, India is still reluctant to take the plunge.
The BCCI has all the power. What they say goes.
“That’s politics. Politics should be apart from sports,” Akram said.
“It is a frustration for Pakistan, of course. I think things are fine as far as our security is concerned. Our security agencies are the best in the world because they’ve been through a lot.
“Imagine if Pakistan said they were not going to India for the World Cup.”
Pakistan has not played an ODI in India since January 2013, but that ten-year drought will end next month.
The World Cup gets underway on October 5, and Ahmedabad’s Narendra Modi Stadium, a mountainous sporting coliseum, will host the blockbuster India vs Pakistan match on October 14. There will be 132,000 vocal fans cheering Pakistan’s every mistake, a daunting prospect for any athlete.
“If there’s a pin-drop silence, that means you’re doing well,” Akram laughed.
However, there are lingering safety fears ahead of the marquee tournament — earlier this month, Hyderabad Police requested for the World Cup schedule to be adjusted because they could not organise security arrangements for back-to-back games, including Pakistan’s match against Sri Lanka at Rajiv Gandhi International Stadium on October 10.
“I hope Pakistani fans can get an easy visa to India,” Akram said.
“As a Pakistani, if I go to India, I need a visa for every city. If I get a visa for Delhi, I can’t go to Bombay. I can’t go to any other city. Same vice versa for Indians if they come to Pakistan.
“Pakistanis who travel to India, they’re going to get looked after there beautifully, that’s part of their culture.
“Indians do welcome their cricket teams. I remember when we toured in 1999 when there was a threat to us on that tour. We had presidential security. Wherever we went, we got looked after. The food is amazing, the hospitality is one of the best in the world.”
Last week, Pakistan was proclaimed the No. 1 ODI team in the world, leapfrogging Australia on the ICC rankings after their series victory over Afghanistan. The Pakistanis have won 17 of their 20 most recent ODIs, including Wednesday’s thumping 238-run victory over Nepal in the Asia Cup opener.
Captain Babar Azam is No.1 on the ODI batting rankings, while Imam-ul-Haq and Fakhar Zaman also sit in the top five. Pakistan also boasts a world-class pace trio of Shaheen Afridi, Haris Rauf and Naseem Shah.
However, pundits are almost exclusively predicting that either India, England or Australia will win this year’s World Cup.
“I like Pakistan to be underrated, underdogs,” declared Akram, who will feature as part of Fox Cricket’s coverage of the Asia Cup and World Cup.
“I don’t want them to go in as favourites. If you are a low-key team, you have a chance, and the Pakistan team has got the right preparation going.
“As far as preparation is concerned, physical preparation, mental preparation, getting used to the conditions, the pitches, the weather … their preparation is on the right track.
“They look happy, they look settled, they are winning, so everything is going well.
“They’re right up there as favourites, no doubt.”
Pakistan will face India at Pallekele International Cricket Stadium on Saturday, with the first ball scheduled for 7.30pm AEST. Every match of the Asia Cup and World Cup will be available live on Fox Cricket and Kayo Sports.