Sometimes it is easier to love a stranger than a neighbour, writes Peter Roebuck

What joy it brings to welcome into this country a cricket team from Pakistan! Not just any old team either, but the national side. Such things ought not to be taken for granted. Sometimes it is easier to love a stranger than a neighbour.

Over the years, it has been a troubled relationship pursued in short breaks between hostilities. Because they have been infrequent, matches between these sides carried a heavier weight than was healthy.

In the past, entire series were left undecided as captains dared not risk anything. Of course it is silly but there has always been more folly than wisdom in man’s story. Over the years, the players of both countries have tried hard not to let bad blood come between them. They came together in county cricket and Rest of the World teams and occasionally in regional sides and shared jokes and drinks in a sporting way.

How was Intikhab Alam supposed to hate Bishan Bedi? They were brothers in artistry, and in much else. Besides, sport is not immune to the upheavals of the world. Nor does it always set an example. But it can advance understanding between nations. It does not happen overnight.

Entrenched position and past resentments are not to be wiped away like kitchen crease. Nor does enlightenment silence every tongue. World wars have begun with the firing of a single gun. Accordingly it is important to make the most of every opportunity to promote harmony.

It will be encouraging to see the Pakistanis walk on to the field in some of the great cities of India. All divisions are artificial, a question of geography or colour or gender or faith and the other prejudices that set men apart.

Uniquely placed

Sport is uniquely placed to rise above all that. Once Younis Khan or Virender Sehwag start batting the absurdity is revealed. As Younis begins to play his cultured strokes or Sehwag cuts loose in that madcap way the heart starts to race. Nowadays, too, both teams are prepared to attack.

Defeat has become a disappointment and not a calamity. Cliche casts India as bustling and chaotic, Pakistan as feudal. Yet both nations are booming. The Pakistan economy and stock market are growing at a rate matched only by its neighbour.

According to William Dalrymple, sales of mobile phones in Pakistan have risen from three million to 50 million in four years. It is an unstoppable force. Independent newspapers are setting up in the main cities, and the middle class is rising. In short, Pakistan is finding its feet. Nor has India any longer any reason to doff its hat to anyone. Not so long ago the country was cast as a haven of disease, poverty and dust. Or else it was patronised as spiritual and quaint. Now it is regarded as a formidable force and respected as an embodiment of the secularism others can only crave.

Eagerly sought

Once derided, the rupee is eagerly sought. Everyone goes to India, including the most craven opportunists. In short, this series will be played between two important nations.

Accordingly, it can no longer be cast as a mere local derby. Meetings between India and Pakistan are the most important in the game. Getting the teams on to the stage was just a start. In the past it might have been enough. Now more is expected. It could be close. India is undergoing a changing of the guard. Pakistan is seeking consistency. Time to let loose the dogs of sport.

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