There is much in common between India and Pakistan and a cricketing encounter between the two countries only serves to underline the fact.
WHEN India and Pakistan meet on the arena, it is a celebration of the game, a special occasion wrapped in that distinctly sub-continental mystique, touched by magic, and fuelled by passion.It would be unrealistic to imagine that cricket could remove all the hurdles between India and Pakistan. As the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) chairman, Shaharyar Khan, said, problems did exist between the two countries. However, regular cricketing ties will bring the people of the two nations closer. This "bridge building exercise" can only create a healthier atmosphere, facilitating positive developments on the other fronts.
What we witnessed in Pakistan, 2004, and in India, the subsequent year, was that the spectators and the public in general displayed a great maturity in accepting the verdict of a match. No longer were these games "a matter of life and death". Now they appreciate the feats of both the teams.India swept to a historic Test series triumph in Rawalpindi and the home crowd applauded. Earlier, when Rahul Dravid was on 99 in the Karachi ODI, the sporting crowd chanted "Rahul, Rahul". Karachi, then considered a hazardous venue, also managed to win the Indian confidence. The buzzing commercial capital of Pakistan will host the third Test on this occasion.The Director of PCB's Board Operations, Abbas Zaidi, termed India's tour of Pakistan in 2004 as "path-breaking". Indeed, that series was a heady, emotional affair, where the Indian team, the scribes and the fans were greeted with love and affection. "The series broke the ice," Zaidi said.The current Indian campaign in Pakistan is different in the sense that the two countries have already faced-off frequently over the last 18 months. While the Indian team has been received with warmth, there has not been an over-pouring of emotions.The tour, so far, has been without the hype that accompanied the earlier series. The focus, as Zaidi points out, is more on cricket. "India was in Pakistan for a Test series after 14 years. People were just happy at the fact that the Indian team and the fans were here. This time there is more attention on the matches."India captain Dravid maintains that the primary objective of his team is to clinch the series. Dravid also realises that by dishing out hard, attractive but fair cricket, the players can contribute to this bridge-building process. The Indian team has already stretched out a caring arm on this tour.The visit to Imran Khan's Shaukat Khanum cancer hospital has been highlighted in Pakistan. A young one, afflicted with the disease walked up to Sachin Tendulkar, telling him "my life depends on you". Skipper Rahul Dravid found the experience of spending time with those fighting for life, several of them children, ""greatly moving".
When Pakistan toured India last year, Inzamam-ul-Haq, apart from being an inspirational captain of a young, evolving team, was a wonderful ambassador. The Pakistan skipper, a soft-spoken man with a sense of humour that can surprise you, was a popular figure in India. And more than 10,000 Pakistani fans crossed the border to watch the first Test in Mohali. Since there was a shortage of hotel accommodation, several of the visitors from Pakistan, stayed with the local residents, who opened the door with a smile.Such spontaneous displays of affection are bound to impact on India-Pakistan relations. As Shaharyar Khan says, "there is great love and affection between the people of the two countries. We can all see this now." But then, there is a pressing need to guard against an "overkill" of India-Pakistan cricket; too many matches at short gaps will take the edge away from these contests. Thankfully, both the BCCI and the PCB have now arrived at an understanding that the Test series will be held once in two years, on the lines of the Ashes.India versus Pakistan is arguably the "biggest series" in cricket. India coach Greg Chappell, who has been a part of several titanic Ashes battles, ranks the sub-continental duel even higher than the Tests between Australia and England. "On an emotional scale, on the basis of the following in the different parts of the world, this is a massive series," says Chappell.
Tirumph of the spirit
There is so much in common between the two countries. Lahore's Iqbal Park could so easily have been Mumbai's Shivaji Park, where youngsters chase dreams. Here matches, a welter of them at that, staged simultaneously, often in demanding pitch conditions, produce champions in a purely sub-continental fashion.Those strokes of wristy brilliance, those scorching reverse swinging balls, and those delightfully flighted spinning deliveries are often conjured up by cricketers who learnt the tricks in the dusty lanes and by-lanes, and in those common grounds. In their successes lie much romance.And cricket between the two countries is often a triumph of the spirit. And it does extend a hand of friendship and peace.