Thatscricket - ODI Series - India~~s tour of Pakistan- Hostilities take back stage as fans celebrate

Published: Saturday, November 24, 2001, 23:04 [IST]
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Lahore:The great Indian influx into Lahore continues, spawning more and more tales of how decades of hostilities have been put on hold as cricket lovers across the great divide celebrate the game to which they bring a passion uniquely sub-continental.

Never since India was partitioned 57 years ago have so many Indians been on the Pakistani soil at the same time. And that has created a kind of identity crisis in this bustling Pakistani city as it plays host to some 10,000 cricket-crazy fans from across the border, about 2,000 of whom have trooped in since India's win on Sunday with many more on the way.

At the famous Anarkali food market total strangers are asking each other, "Bhaisaab, (brother) are you from India or Pakistan ?" It is a bit of a comedy of errors. A Pakistani poses this question only to learn that his interlocutor is a Pakistani too. But many locals find to their delight that the people they have posed the question to are indeed Indians and the vice versa.

In this unique, illuminated food market where the dishes you order are freshly prepared in your presence, it is indeed difficult to figure out who is an Indian and who is a Pakistani.

As a Sikh gentleman from Chandigarh put it last night good humouredly, "how does one figure out who is an Indian and who is a Pakistani? Same looks, same language. Only we the Sikhs stand out clearly".

So it is at Anarkali that Indians and Pakistanis, Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs occupy the roadside dining tables enjoying choicest mutton and chicken dishes as a band marches up and down the street as if it is playing for visiting Heads of State. The air is filled with the aroma of traditional Punjabi spices and bonhomie between the locals and Indian "invaders".

The Indian cricket team's visit to Pakistan appears to have cast some kind of a magic spell. It is as if Indians and Pakistanis have taken a break from decades of animosity.

Police vehicles with mounted machine guns escort the Indian team whenever it steps out of the heavily guarded Pearl Continental Hotel in Lahore. Smart-looking commandos with "No Fear" emblazoned on their black T-shirts throw a ring around the cricketers, but vice-captain Rahul Dravid, nevertheless, went to the crowded Anarkali shopping area where he was mobbed by Pakistanis.

Sachin Tendulkar, arguably the most popular Indian in this country, spent most of his time in the hotel room but the moment he came down into the hotel lobby, Pakistanis, young and old, besieged him for autographs on whatever paper they could lay their hands on, including the day's newspapers.

Two thousand six hundred (2,600) policemen and commandos were deployed at the Gaddafi Stadium for Sunday's game, but in the stands the Indians and Pakistanis, men and women, sat together, cheered together and jointly carried the flags of the two countries stitched together. It was as if they were supporting a joint India-Pakistan dream team against Australia.

Some Pakistani girls had the flags of both countries painted on their faces. Many Indian girls followed suit. Indians and Pakistanis exchanged national flags. One Pakistani ordered ice cream for a group of about 20 Indian supporters as they watched the duel on the wicket.

Perfect strangers became good friends. One Pakistani businessman invited a Punjabi family from Jallandhar to move out of their hotel and stay in his big house. The overwhelmed Indians said they would avail of his hospitality next time since they were returning home the day after the match.

Bowled over by courtesies, Balwant Singh, a bank officer from Chandigarh, who is with a group of 20 family members and friends at Anarkali, describes his visit to Lahore and the warmth with which they are being treated as "the experience of my lifetime." Truly unbelievable, he gushes.

India and Pakistan have played 86 One-day Internationals and 47 Test matches against each other before this series, starting with Pakistan's tour of India in 1951. Each of those matches have been like war, fought for the honour and prestige of each nation.

This has been called a friendship series. For sure, there is intense rivalry on the field, each cricketer knowing that he is playing for his country in a series whose significance goes far beyond the confines of the playing arena. The players are giving their best but the fear of losing that has characterised the past encounters is vastly diluted if not missing altogether.

When the combative Pakistani coach Javed Miandad has a long chat with Indian captain Sourav Ganguly at the nets and Tendulkar shows his affection for Pakistani captain Inzamam-ul-Haq's four-year-old son, the photos make the front pages of newspapers wherever cricket is played.

What is different now which was missing in the past? The Pakistani perspective is best summed up by 30-year-old Taimur Bandey, who teaches economics and International relations in Lahore.

"Cricket has always played an important role in Indo-Pak relations. When there is tension, we do not play because cricket is a second religion in both the countries. The fact that we are playing now indicates an atmosphere of peace. After years of cricket, starvation there was a sense of relief in Pakistan when Prime Minister Vajpayee cleared the tour.

"We are going out of the way to prove to Indians and the world that not all are Al Qaida or Jehadis. Moreover, there is a generational change in both countries. My generation does not carry the baggage of partition and has not fortunately witnessed an Indo-Pakistan war. It is an educated generation and wants peace and prosperity," says Bandey.

The Indian team's tour so far has been peace-lovers' delight, but they are keeping their fingers crossed and hoping that when the 16 Indians who constitute the cricket squad return home on April 18, they would have done much more for the two countries than playing on the 22-yard strip.

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