IndoPak Express: Partners and peacemakers

Aisam-ul-Haq and Rohan Bopanna’s tennis partnership has won many hearts across the nations and worldwide.

Qureshi (left) and Bopanna first played together in 2007 [Getty Images]

Pakistan and India celebrate their independence either side of a midnight and have fought at least three major wars since partition 67 years ago.

So it’s not surprising that the two countries form one of the fiercest rivalries in sport.

Their biggest sports battles have been on cricket field, with hockey a close second and kabaddi, boxing and athletics to follow. When it comes to India versus Pakistan, even singing competitions stir nationalism that is hard to contain without a few verbal blows dealt and a few tears shed.

However, you turn to the tennis court and it is a completely different picture.

The cricket rivalry


Pakistan and India have produced some of the most memorable cricket results since they began playing against each other in 1952.

While both countries have faced off in global and regional events, they had not played a bilateral series for six years until a hurriedly arranged limited-overs series in India at the end of 2012.

The 2008 Mumbai attacks had brought an end to the period of warmth preceding the 2006 series and Pakistani players have been controversially left out of the IPL.

With the on-going display of friendliness between the recently elected prime ministers, bilateral series are scheduled to make a return next year.

Here, the big-serving Indian star Rohan Bopanna has teamed up with Pakistan’s most successful international player Aisam-ul-Haq Qureshi. Popularly known as the IndoPak Express, Bopanna and Qureshi came together for the first time in 2007 to defy the bitter rivalry, jingoistic politicians and even the mighty Bryan brothers on the court.

It started off as friendship based on common language, food and culture, before quickly developing into a professional partnership on the tennis circuit.

“Playing with Rohan was an easy decision,” Qureshi told Al Jazeera. “There are no Pakistanis on the tour so it was natural for me to play and communicate with an Indian since we speak the same language.”

Love across the border

It is this language and culture that have ensured unwavering cross-border popularity for Indian cinema. Right from the time of partition, Bollywood has been a leading source of entertainment for Pakistanis. It is a popular joke that even if a Bollywood film is not available in Indian shop, it can easily be found in the Pakistani market selling pirated DVDs.

A recent role-reversal has seen several Pakistani TV series making their way onto Indian screens via a channel whose entire programming is based on Pakistani content. Add to that the popularity of Pakistani actors and singers (Atif Aslam, Rahat Fateh Ali Khan, Fawad Khan) across the borders and you wonder where and why the conflict exists. Sachin Tendulkar’s retirement was mourned in Pakistan too.

The amount of airtime given to Indian tennis star Sania Mirza’s wedding with Pakistani cricketer Shoaib Malik broke records. In the days leading up to their wedding, media outlets on both sides of the border spent hours broadcasting the tiniest of details related to the event.

Sania Mirza controversy

Four years on, the couple still find themselves dealing with controversies. Mirza was reduced to tears by the comments of an Indian politician and resulting brouhaha after she was appointed ambassador for the Indian state of Telangana.

According to BJP leader K Laxman, Mirza was Pakistan’s daughter-in-law and unfit to be awarded the accolade.

“After playing for the country for many years, after saying time and again that I have an Indian passport, after winning medals for India following the wedding, I don’t know why I have to keep justifying that I am Indian,” Mirza said as she broke down on live television.

In a country where sports bulletins are dominated by cricket, Qureshi’s success with an Indian partner stirred a sudden interest in tennis.

The IndoPak Express’ biggest triumph has been to make people from both sides of the border cheer for a joint aim. Their biggest success on the court was the 2010 US Open men’s doubles final when they ended runners up to Bob and Mike Bryan.

Hundreds of expatriates from both countries, as well as their ambassadors to the UN, sat together and cheered for the pair.

“If Aisam and I can get along, people in our countries can too,” Bopanna said after the match. “Even if five per cent (people) change their minds, it’s worth it.”

Spurred on by his coach Robert Davis, Qureshi made use of the limelight and launched a non-profit organisation called ‘Stop War, Start Tennis’, which was built on the premise of promoting peace through sport and providing tennis wheelchairs to war victims across the world.

The idea blended well with the duo’s stereotype-defying partnership and became a hit with leading players who sported the merchandise to promote the cause.

Omnipresent tension

Meanwhile, tension between the two countries has always been palpable and recurring incidents of crossfire along the working boundary or the Line of Control act as reminders. It was with this hostility in mind that Qureshi and Bopanna decided to act as peacemakers and proposed a match at the Wagah border (just outside Lahore).

“The idea was for Rohan to serve from the Pakistani side and I will return from the Indian side of the border,” Qureshi said. 

Security concerns keep delaying the symbolic match but Qureshi hopes that one day a half-hour drive will be all it will take for him to play a game with his good friend from India.

For that to happen, more partnerships will need to be formed outside the tennis courts. Perhaps taking cue from the annual exchange of sweets between the respective security forces on August 14 at Wagah border.

Source: Al Jazeera