If a sport like cricket can bind and ease tensions between the two countries, why can't we channelise this energy into a more constructive form, asks Brinda Suri after watching the high- energy clash in Mohali.

The Indian cricket lexicon just got a few worthy additions: Dhoni's Devils, Wankhede, April 2, 2011. It was 28 years ago when the first few entries had appeared, on a magical June 25, 1983. The ICC World Cup win has unveiled a new set of champions but there's no stealing the thunder from the Original XI, a certain rough-diamond Kapil Dev and his Daredevils, those magnificent men in white whose acts of bravado have found immortal space in the tote bag of sporting legends.

A political tool?

Who dared to go where no Indian had been before, to forever change the fortune of cricket in the country. Since that incredible triumph at Lord's cricket in India has seen a metamorphosis to divine status, has a few gods to boast about and is a potent tool in many a money-spinning formulae. That it can play a role in political diplomacy as well was seen during the India-Pakistan semifinal, an encounter which in many ways was the juiciest in this edition

Even as the country revels in the Mumbai win, the high-voltage Mohali clash remains of special significance. It should be of interest to rewind and take a look at some of the subtle moments connected with it that contributed to its now-famous bonhomie, the emotion of which managed to draw a tad-romanticised statement from India Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao who said, “It would be appropriate to say that this time a ‘Mohali spirit' pervaded the Indo-Pak relationship.” On-field the ‘Mohali spirit' showed itself in heartwarming gestures…when Pakistan skipper Shahid Afridi had a buddy handshake with his Indian counterpart before the toss or when he grinned and patted Sachin Tendulkar on the shoulder just after failing to take his wicket owing to a dropped catch. It was instances like these that made the much-touted ‘war' just another game between two professional sides. Off-field there was much more.

Replete with ingredients of a thriller, the March 30 tie was a sell-out. Besides the high-profile guests — a cheerful veneered Pakistan PM Yosuf Raza Gilani, an expectedly unanimated Indian PM Manmohan Singh and a surprisingly animated Sonia Gandhi; there was a bevy of familiar faces from the Bombay film fraternity, sundry ministers and corporate honchos. Private jets were supposed be ferrying the A-list, for the aam aadmi the Indian Railways ran a special train from Delhi to Chandigarh, and hotels were booked to capacity. It was Mohali's day in the sun. I was not scheduled to be at this mother of all matches, its tickets having sold out almost as soon as they were announced. As news of an India- Pakistan tie got confirmed the little piece of paper was the hottest property, with reports of it being crookedly traded for five figure amounts. Luck came my way when a cousin couldn't make it and grudgingly handed me the coveted terrace-block ticket.

Setting the mood

The air was fragrant with that lovely balminess of Punjab's pre-spring, the turf was a verdant carpet and in the packed PCA Stadium stands there was palpable energy, all crackling and electric. Making it more of a party were bhangra-pop songs booming on the microphone and dhol players drumming up the beat at regular intervals. The feisty crowd was here to watch a high-quality game and have a good time. Amongst them were 100-odd, men, women and children, who had walked across the Wagah border to cheer their Men in Green. And confidently raising its head time and again from amidst the sea of Tricolour was the fluttering Green-White crescent-star. Every time it went up a hurrah erupted from some corner of the 26,000-plus crowd. The Pakistani was not an enemy here. He was a fair contender and the sporting Mohali crowd applauded a fine shot whichever side it came from. The opponent and its supporters were the cynosure of all eyes. Afridi received the biggest round of applause when his playing XI was announced, Wahab Riaz got an ovation for his succulent five-wicket haul and sitting-in-the-pavilion Shoaib Akhtar's autograph was most sought- after. In the stands their beautiful women, bespoke for the fashion ramp, stood out for their stylish attire — near-ankle length kurta, trouser and flowing dupatta — which made them worthy of a pictorial spread in the next day's newspapers. Hogging the limelight separately and obliging enthusiastic Indians with a photo a minute was Cricket Chacha or white- bearded Abdul Jalil, Pakistan's 61-year-old lucky mascot from Sialkot dressed in his trademark green, for whom this was “the biggest match” he was witnessing.

This was Punjab and the multitude had its brand of zest in tact. Mukesh Ambani may be amongst India's richest but when he appeared at earshot distance from the crowd he was greeted the bum-chum way: Oye Ambani! Wadhiya…all is well? His wife Nita, though, was respectfully called “Bhabhiji”! Comic irreverence is part of the Punjabi fabric, but there was no room for the offensive here. A group of college boys occupying seats alongside mine were typically vivacious and happy-go-lucky. They had been wildly cheering but hadn't attracted the television cameras yet. “And that's a big shame,” they felt. The situation was being gravely pondered over till one of them said “We need to make the right noises. No sooner than had he mouthed it that a volley of voices berated him: “Khabardaar, mehmaan ne saade… Don't you dare, they are our guests.”

No one had drilled the Ps and Qs into those young, cheeky heads, it was a natural response. Similarly, no one told the people of Punjab to open their homes to those from across the border as hotels were booked. No one told Raju, the little boy who was painting flags on cheeks of spectators, not to charge the Pakistanis. No one told restaurateurs in Chandigarh to request the guests not to ask for a bill. No one told the grand old Punjabi lady to approach a group of Lahore women whom she spotted in the market a day after the match with, “Aao, ghar charan pao…Come, grace my home.” It's a hospitable temperament not uncommon at a people-to-people level, which can ease relationships and let the two countries channelise their energies for more constructive issues. If only there's a political will…Cricket diplomacy has once again set the ball rolling. Will it get converted into valuable partnerships or as usual be stumped?

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Sunday MagazineJune 28, 2012