They would ask how was it to be a Muslim in India? Mohammad Kaif writes

I was barely 15 when I played my first high-profile India-Pakistan game, it was the final of the age-group World Cup, says Mohammad Kaif.

They would ask how was it to be a Muslim in India? Mohammad Kaif writes

It's been a few days since the India-Pakistan T20 World Cup game, but there is one frame that has stayed with me. The picture of Virat Kohli warmly shaking Babar Azam's hand and later encouraging the other unbeaten Pakistan batsman Mohammad Rizwan by ruffling his hair, was my takeaway from the action-packed game. It brought to mind my playing days and those India-Pakistan games.      

I was hardly 15 when I played my first high-profile India-Pakistan game, it was the final of the age-group World Cup. We all were young but there was clarity in our minds. It was a game where our eyes were on the trophy and not on the colour of jersey our rivals wore or the history of the two countries. I would be lying if I say it was 'just another game' because it wasn't and it can't be. One it was a World Cup final and, two, I was very much aware of the intense cricketing rivalry between the two countries. But to say that I would have been less focused and less driven if we were facing Australia in the title contest would be wrong. I know India-Pakistan games matter a lot to the fans but everyone should understand that for a player every match that he or she plays for India matters. To wear India colours and to play under tri-colour is a serious matter, always.

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Later I played three more World Cups. Two U-19 ICC events in 1998 and 2000 and to continue the streak I was part of Team India in the 2003 World Cup in Australia. I distinctly remember that crucial partnership with Sachin Paaji in the middle overs during that tough chase. It was such an intense game but we played in a cordial atmosphere.

The next year, in 2004, I was on my first tour to Pakistan. It was a historic series as the two countries were meeting each other after a long time. The world watched us as we crossed the border. We were the ambassadors of our country. I remember the message that was given to us by the then Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee - 'Khel bhi jeetna, dil bhi jeetna'. I feel we cricketers have stuck to that message for all these years. Generation of cricketers have changed but we have tried our best to win the game and also the hearts. Virat was just extending that beautiful tradition. Vajpayee wanted us cricketers to be the bridge between the two nations and we, or those who played for the country after us, have not disappointed those who believe in peace in the neighbourhood. 

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The people I met in Pakistan were very inquisitive to know about India. They would ask how was it to be a Muslim in India? And when I would tell them that I have led India to the Under-19 World Cup title and Mr APJ Abdul Kalam is the president of India, they would smile. I would also ask them questions about their country and I would invariably find that things to be the same as our country. Be it food, clothes, language, jokes, there would be that slight twist that would make my journey to Pakistan more fascinating.

In this backdrop, it is painful to see the ugly spats between former players and the very disappointing behaviours of the fans on social media. I have been witnessing how Mohammad Shami was trolled after the game against Pakistan. I have played enough cricket to understand that the fans do get angry when their team loses a game by a big margin. I also get it that since the fans have invested so much in the team and players that they earn the right to criticise them. A batsman getting out for zero or a bowler getting hit for a six will always face abuse - be it in a World Cup clash against Pakistan or an under-arm gully cricket game. But targeting someone for his or her faith, asking them to leave the country is uncalled for and unpardonable. Just imagine how a player, who for all his life has sacrificed everything to earn the India cap, would be feeling. But Shami, I know, is a tough cricketer. I can tell him from my experience, we have much more genuine fans in our country who give us unconditional love and they can easily outnumber the trolls on social media.

Take my word, in our diverse nation, there are a number of people who believe that those with different faiths can co-exist. Peaceful co-existence is not a fantasy. My wife is a Hindu and at our home there are celebrations and feast for both Eid and Diwali. As parents, we share with our children the teachings from both our religions.

I better get going as I need to help Pooja with cleaning our house before Diwali. See you soon.

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