Andrew Maykuth Online
The Philadelphia Inquirer
April 11, 2004

India, Pakistan cooling down on and off field
The nuclear powers avoided war 2 years ago. Now they can treat matches as sport.

LAHORE, Pakistan -- Pakistan's cricket fans are known as sore losers. Dissatisfied spectators have set fire to stadiums and rained abuse and bottles on opposing teams. During periods of heightened political tension, opponents sometimes cancel tours of Pakistan because they know things will get ugly.

So it was no casual decision for archrival India to accept an invitation to cross the border to play a series of cricket matches in Pakistan this year. After all, the nuclear-armed neighbors nearly came to war only two years ago.

"We are a volatile people," said Shaharyar Khan, the Pakistan Cricket Board chairman. "In the past, Pakistanis have not been particularly sporting. They've been chauvinistic and nationalistic. But this has been a real change."

Much to everyone's amazement, the Indians' first tour of Pakistan in 14 years has proceeded without serious incident. Even after Pakistan lost the first round of matches last month, 3-2, Pakistani fans remained uncharacteristically, resolutely polite.

In India, where an estimated 200 million television viewers rejoiced at their first victory in Pakistan, fans who had traveled there for the matches returned with reports of warm welcomes. "We have won the game," said Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee. "We have also won hearts."

The detente on the cricket pitch has raised hopes for normalized relations as the two nations enter a critical phase of peace talks this summer.

Ever since India and Pakistan were partitioned in 1947 along religious lines, there has been deep distrust between them. The neighbors have fought three wars over the disputed Kashmir region, and they edged toward conflict again in 2001, after Pakistani-linked extremists attacked parliament in New Delhi.

"I'm delighted that the public has made this statement that we want to live in goodwill," said Khan, the cricket board chief. "There can be no doubt that cricket can act as a bridge of peace between the two countries."

It is difficult to understate the passion south Asians have for cricket. The game, which shares a remote ancestry with baseball, is played throughout the British Commonwealth, typically among the elite. But on the subcontinent, it has broad appeal. Children play pickup matches on fields and sandlots the way children elsewhere play soccer or basketball. Cricket stars are national heroes.

"In the past, these matches were treated like war," said Suji Chandra, a writer for the Indian magazine the Week. "We have seen from this series that the Pakistani people have learned to take defeat. In the past, a defeat was seen as a big calamity, a blow to the national ego. But the government has been trying to send the message to just treat it as a game."

It's not so much that cricket has been depoliticized, but that the emotion has been redirected to more peaceful ends. Peace tops the agenda of the two governments, and they are making considerable effort to promote such confidence-building measures as sporting events or restoring cross-border bus services. They've even coined a phrase for it: "Cricket diplomacy."

The object of cricket is for a bowler to try to knock down three sticks - the stumps - with the ball, to dismiss a batsman. The batter tries to strike the ball away from the bowling team's fielders to score runs.

The sport is much more complex than that, of course. There are infinite variables - the placement of fielders, the speed of the bowlers, the turf conditions, the skill of the batsmen - that aficionados say make the game as intricate as chess.

Mostly good feelings were in the air on a sultry day last week in this historic city only 20 miles from the heavily fortified border with India, the two teams squared off for the latest match.

While the first round last month was a series of fast-paced one-day matches, the teams are now settled into the more languid "test" matches that can last up to five days each. Pakistan's victory in Lahore last week evened the three-match test series at one victory apiece, setting up the final match this week in Rawalpindi.

Despite the goodwill, little is being left to chance. Security is intense at Gaddafi Stadium, named in 1974 to honor the Libyan leader. A phalanx of riot-helmeted police officers stood outside the stadium.

"Of course there were apprehensions, but it has all turned out for the best," said Police Inspector Noreen Ramzan, guarding a metal detector at one of the entrances as an officer walked by with a bomb-sniffing dog. "It's a good thing the governments have decided to patch things up."

Inside the stadium, hundreds of police, some with automatic weapons, were positioned in the stands. An eight-foot spiked iron fence separated spectators from the field. While the one-day matches were sold out, there have been plenty of seats for the test matches, which are best watched on television.

"The nation needs this," said Haseb Chaudhry, a banker from Vallejo, Calif., who took time off while visiting family in Lahore to see the match. As a child, he attended the 1975 India-Pakistan series in the same stadium.

"It was a good vibe then," he said. "It's the same story now. I think we need a more peaceful relationship."

A few rows away, two Indians sat surrounded by six chattering Pakistanis who were curious about their neighbors in the stands.

"We are here to make friendship," said Shahid Mahmood, 24, an accounting student from Lahore. "Actually, I'm not very fond of cricket. I came here to enjoy the company of the people."

Gurpreet Singh, a turbaned engineer from India, also said he was less interested in the game than in the rare opportunity to visit Pakistan. His Sikh family traces its roots to Lahore. They were among the millions who fled Pakistan for India during the bloody partition of 1947, when many Muslims left India for Pakistan.

"We are one people," said Singh. "Our language is one. Our culture is one. Only the border is between us."

There seemed to be general agreement among the new friends that politicians from their respective countries were to blame for the animosities that have bedeviled relations for more than half a century. And none was willing to wager that warm relations would last much past the looming Indian elections, after which they expect hostilities to resume.

"This is just about the elections," said Singh, wincing at the cheers when a Pakistani bowler claimed another Indian wicket. "After the elections, it will be the same story."

But the politicians say they are learning, from the example of their citizens, that the desire for peace and prosperity runs deeper than the years of mistrust.

"The challenge now for politicians is to behave less like politicians and more like statesmen," Pakistan Foreign Minister Mian Khurshid Mehmood Kasuri told a Pakistani newspaper this week. "They can no longer have the excuse that they can't be flexible because it is unacceptable to the people." home page   
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