Peace? Yes, but give cricket a chance too

Published: Sunday, January 18, 2004, 23:53 [IST]
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New Delhi:As India's Prime Minister heads to Pakistan this weekend, millions of cricket lovers in both countries will pray nothing ruins India's first Test tour of Pakistan in 15 years slated for March.

They are aware that cricket, which evokes unrivalled passion on both sides of the border, has often been used by governments and political trouble-makers to score points.

Want to show official displeasure? Cancel a bilateral cricket tour. Want your names in the newspapers or news channels? Just vandalise a cricket pitch.

Activists in India and Pakistan have made careers out of staging protests over the game that is worshipped like a religion on the subcontinent.

The upcoming tour will be the mother of all tours, the ultimate rivalry in world cricket that will stop two nations in their tracks when Sachin Tendulkar takes guard against Shoaib Akhtar's thunderbolts.

The long-awaited visit was announced in October just two days after the Indian government lifted a three-year ban on bilateral cricket ties with Pakistan following a thaw in diplomatic relations.

Although the two teams have met in multi-nation events like the World Cup, India has not played a Test in Pakistan since 1989, while Pakistan last crossed the borders in early 1999 for three Test matches.

"The Indian tour will be the best thing to happen to world cricket in recent years," said Ehsan Mani, the Pakistan-born chartered accountant who heads the International Cricket Council (ICC).

Not only will the tour provide succour to the cash-strapped Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB), it will also lend greater credibility and structure to the ICC's 10-year Test calender that has been marred by cancelled tours.

The big bucks have begun to pour in even before the schedule for the March-April tour, comprising three Tests and between five to seven One-day Internationals, has been finalised.

One Indian cricket official predicted a turnover of around 20 million dollars a vast increase from the five-million dollar mark touted for other high-profile series like Australia versus England.

"It is going to be jackpot series, and from my reading of the pulse of the International television rights market, the series is going to be worth 20 million dollars," the official said.

Indo-Pakistan cricket is more than just a game or even commerce. It could boost political relations between the old foes, like the ping-pong diplomacy in 1971 which gave a new fillip to ties between the United States and China.

Former Pakistan president General Zia-ul-Haq tried his own version of the ping-pong diplomacy when he flew to India in 1986 to attend a Test match in Jaipur despite tense relations with the Rajiv Gandhi regime.

It cleared the war clouds hovering near the borders. Cricket ties between India and Pakistan have been both dramatic and rivetting, but they have also swung from the sublime to the ridiculous.

In 1987, Pakistan captain Imran Khan ordered his players to field with helmets on after they were pelted with rubbish during the Ahmedabad Test.

When India toured Pakistan in 1989, its captain Kris Srikkanth was accosted on the field and had his shirt ripped by a spectator during the Karachi Test.

Ten years later, Pakistan beat India in front of empty stands at the 100,000-seater Eden Gardens in Calcutta after crowd violence forced police to clear the galleries.

Yet, the two warring nations joined hands to host two World Cup tournaments in 1987 and 1996 and formed a strong united block at the ICC to break the Australia-England-New Zealand nexus.

During the 1996 World Cup when Australia and the West Indies refused to play in Sri Lanka due to security fears, a joint India-Pakistan team travelled to Colombo for a friendly match to show all was well.

Three years later, a packed Chepauk stadium in Madras gave Wasim Akram's men a heart-warming ovation as they ran a lap of honour after defeating India by 12 runs in the first Test of the 1999 series.

"We play the best cricket against each other," Akram said. "But we should play more against each other so that the tension is less."

If only the politicians and the professional spoilsports can bring themselves to stay away.

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