India's captain Rohit Sharma, right, and partner Virat Kohli run...

India's captain Rohit Sharma, right, and partner Virat Kohli run between wickets to score against Ireland during Wednesday's cricket match with Ireland at the Nassau County International Cricket Stadium in Westbury. Credit: AP/Adam Hunger

For cricket's desi diehards, a T20 World Cup tournament thousands of miles from home has the allure of a Shah Rukh Khan blockbuster movie premiere — they wouldn’t miss it for the world.

But when the adversaries are India and Pakistan, it stirs up passions unparalleled in cricket — passions that have their roots outside the sport.

We see this regularly in athletics, where contests between national teams are fraught with geopolitical pressures. Most prominent were the many U.S. vs. Soviet Union showdowns in the Olympic Games during the Cold War.

India vs. Pakistan in cricket takes its place in that long legacy. The two nations have fought three bruising wars and share 77 years of simmering political hostility. The tension is such that India's team does not play cricket in Pakistan, and Pakistani players are barred from participating in India's lucrative professional cricket league.

That's the backdrop for Sunday’s India-Pakistan match at the Nassau County International Cricket Stadium in Eisenhower Park in East Meadow. It should be a riveting event for fans in the tristate area, home to a burgeoning South Asian population. On Long Island, more than 80,000 people identified as Asian Indian and more than 26,000 as Pakistani, according to 2020 census data, which makes Nassau an ideal marketing location for the match.

The two teams boast some of the world’s best players — India’s Virat Kohli and Rohit Sharma and Pakistan’s Babar Azam. Fans will draw on a history of more than 200 matches between the teams. But the two nations' shared history of conflict — not to mention a threat from ISIS to sabotage the contest — ensure that the match will be much more than just a game.

Pakistan's captain Babar Azam takes a catch to dismiss Aiden...

Pakistan's captain Babar Azam takes a catch to dismiss Aiden Markram of South Africa during the ICC Men's Cricket World Cup 2023 match between South Africa and Pakistan on Oct. 27, 2023, in Chennai, India. Credit: Getty Images/Gallo Images

Back in the day, overzealous crowds caused havoc. In 1952, when Pakistan toured India for the first time and beat the home team in the city of Lucknow, angry Indian fans attacked their own players. India and Pakistan have not played a test match in over a decade.

Even today, violence erupts in India when people are accused of cheering the wrong side while an India-Pakistan match is televised — particularly in college hostels with Muslim students — behavior which is criticized especially by right-wing Hindus.

“It doesn’t have to be this way,” said Sukomol Chakraborti, 72, an Indian émigré who lives in Bellerose, Queens. India and Pakistan have so much in common — in art, music, literature and movies — that it's a shame to not foster deeper cultural ties and encourage more interaction, he said.

Belying the deep divisions is the warmth and affection sometimes shown by people of the two countries. In the 1980s, when Sunil Gavaskar’s Indian team toured Pakistan and visited a market in Lahore, shopkeepers reportedly would not accept money from Indian players, saying, “Aap hamarey mehman hai” (“You are our guests”).

That spirit of bonhomie is common among Indians and Pakistanis living overseas, including here on Long Island. Often, they work in the same offices and shop at each other’s stores.

Sometimes, their love of cricket has brought the two nations closer.

Pakistan’s former military dictator, President Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, a graduate of Delhi’s elite St. Stephen’s College, visited Jaipur in north India in 1987 to watch a cricket match, engaging in what became known as “cricket diplomacy” to mend fences with India — reminiscent of the early 1970s “pingpong diplomacy” that helped ease tensions between the U.S. and China.

When India and Pakistan meet Sunday, the crowd will be thrilled. Whether national fences are mended remains to be seen.

Columnist Nirmal Mitra's opinions are his own.


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