Can Bangladesh be India’s ‘Noisy’ Neighbours? The rivalry against Pakistan is too intermittent, that against Sri Lanka has never quickened the pulse — the Tigers are the best bet to fill the breach
The dictionary defines ‘rivalry’ as “Competition for the same objective or for superiority in the same field”. What it doesn’t tell you is that most rivalries don’t feature equals. There’s usually a top dog, an established power, and an opponent jealous and resentful of its success.
The insecurity of one and the sense of superiority of the other feed off each other. Even when parity of a kind is achieved, the chips on the shoulder, accumulated over many years, don’t always go away. Some like Pedro Martinez, the Dominican who pitched for the Boston Red Sox at the turn of the millennium, tend towards despair. “I wish I’d never see them again,” he said of his team’s great rivals, the New York Yankees. “I wished they’d disappear from the league. Then we’d be winners.”
Back in December 1919, the Red Sox had traded Babe Ruth — who had just broken the single-season home-run record — to the Yankees. Ruth had helped Boston win the World Series in three of the previous five seasons. With the Yankees, he would win four more. Boston would go 86 years without winning another. In that time, the Yankees would rack up 26 titles. The same scenario would play out in northern England, where Manchester United and Manchester City were equals in the swinging ’60s. But once Sir Alex Ferguson took charge at United, one club zoomed towards the stars, and the other stayed in the gutter. It was only less than a decade ago that City’s fortunes started to change. “We’ve got a noisy neighbour,” said Ferguson with a smirk seven years ago.
In the seasons since he uttered those words, City have won as many titles as United (two). And since Ferguson called it a day in 2013, the noisy neighbours have finished ahead in the table every season.
I ndi a n c r icket bad ly ne e d s a noisy neighbour. The rivalry with Pakistan now belongs to the realms of nostalgia rather than reality. This December, it will be a decade since the two teams played each other in a Test. This century, there have been just 12 such matches, all between 2004 and 2007, when political relations were not as fraught as they are now.
To put that into perspective, India have played 33 Tests each against Australia and England in that period. Sri Lanka and India have contested 18 matches, despite the islanders not having visited India since 2009. New Zealand and India have played 17 times.
For whatever reason though, the India-Sri Lanka rivalry, in Tests, has seldom quickened the pulse. When Muttiah Muralitharan and Sachin Tendulkar were in their prime, the two teams never played each other, in much the same manner that Tendulkar’s career seldom intersected those of Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis. The two Ws were involved in a Twitter spat of sorts over what happened in the final stages of Anil Kumble’s perfect ten in February 1999. Fans on both sides of the border followed it with fascination because such strong memories remain of those three Tests played a generation ago. For the main protagonists, they were career highlights, featuring moments they recall with both fondness and sadness. Mohammad Amir and Virat Kohli, whose mini contest illuminated a World T20 game last March, have never played against each other in whites. Amir, despite a five-year ban for his part in the no-ball scandal, has played 25 Tests. The game in Hyderabad against Bangladesh is Kohli’s 54th.
Each year, fans look at the Future Tours Program and feel frissons of anticipation when it shows that India-Pakistan is pencilled in. But the fixtures stay on the page or screen. A generation could well complete their careers without playing an India-Pakistan Test, as was the case between 1961 and 1978.
Initially, the Indian attitude to Bangladesh was one of benign condescension. Jagmohan Dalmiya may have been instrumental in granting the Tigers Test status, but even when he returned from the ICC to the presidency of his home board, no real effort was made to invite Bangladesh over for a series. The administrators that followed cared even less.
For most Indian fans, it began to be seen as a rivalry only after Mashrafe Mortaza and friends pushed India towards the World Cup exit in 2007. Flippant and arrogant remarks from a couple of popular Indian cricketers i ncensed t he Bangladeshi suppor t , a nd t he f use was really lit by a TV promo run during the 2015 World Cup. W h e n Bangladesh beat India in a bi lateral ODI series a few months later, some of the memes and videos were puerile, rooted in mindless jingoism than any sport-based rivalry. Since then, temperatures were raised by the nature of India’s victory at the World T20 in 2016, and Mushfiqur Rahim’s reaction to India’s subsequent exit.
Hopefully, such nonsense is now behind us. What matters, as Kohli put so eloquently, is that Bangladesh get more opportunities to establish themselves as a Test force. With Pakistan Tests unlikely in the foreseeable future, this is the contest most capable of filling the breach. India may be overwhelming favourites in this one-off Test, but as Martinez and the Red Sox could tell you, the worm will turn one day. After the Curse of the Bambino ended in 2004, the Red Sox have won the World Series twice. The Yankees have had just one to celebrate.
The passion for cricket in Bangladesh has to be seen to be believed. But for that to translate to the five-day version, fans need to be able to savour more of it. Hopefully, the new BCCI administrators will recognise the need for a robust local rivalry. Without noisy neighbours, sport is bleached of its vibrant colours.
The passion for cricket in Bangladesh has to be seen to be believed. But for that to translate to the five-day version, fans need to be able to savour more of it