City Life New Delhi: Cricket clash tests a nation

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THE POLITICS of personal disruption are a hallmark of life in New Delhi. Usually tolerated with relative good humour, these workaday annoyances have suddenlyescalated beyond endurance.

The people of the capital, long-suffering though they may be, won't let anyone mess with the cricket. Cricket is an obsession in the subcontinent and fans are truly fanatics.

The batsman Sachin Tendulkar and his Indian eleven loom like demi-gods from hoardings and are imitated on every strip of grass or alleyway by energetic amateurs and schoolboys alike. Whenever an important match is broadcast, the streets empty while people cluster around radios or televisions. Traffic virtually stops. Pride is on the line.

So when the Pakistan national team, nattily turned out in green blazers, finally rolled into the capital this week after first sending in a decoy bus to distract their potential attackers, the excitement was overwhelming. So was the security.

Elaborate searches have become routine and khaki-clad women police officers, most with icy fingers, keep patting me down at the airport or disco. The Pakistani cricketers are keen on Bangra, it seems, and nearly all the team showed up for ladies' night on the dance floor.

More police, armed withbamboo staves, stand shoulder to shoulder on Delhi's main streets. Are they anticipating the crack of leather on willow or the crack of clubs on demonstrators' heads? Muddling up sport with Indian politics and religious disputes is sending up the blood pressure of volatile cricket fans everywhere, but especially in Delhi.

Hindu radicals from the Shiv Sena party, who view the Islamic nation across the border as a nest for irredeemable enemies, have been campaigning all month to prevent a long-awaited Test series between India and Pakistan. "You play sports with your friends, not with enemies," their slogans read. Fans on both sides of the border gnash their teeth at spoilsport antics by these political fanatics.

The Shiv Sena maintains that cricket fans are anti-nationalist, and their tactics haven't been subtle: in the south, a severed pig's head - anathema to devout Muslims - was tossed on to a cricket ground. More vandals broke in and ransacked the cricket board's offices.

In Delhi, five saboteurs from the Shiv Sena dug up the manicured square of the cricket pitch at Feroze Shah Kotla stadium, and shouted anti-Muslim slogans while rain muddied the ruts. The national stadium was reduced to a quagmire.

Millions of cricket fans grew so incensed that the Prime Minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee, who promised to safeguard the cricketers for the first Indo-Pakistan Test in a dozen years, is under extreme pressure. He dispatched his home minister, Lal Krishna Advani, who once incited zealots to tear down a mosque in Ayodhya with their bare hands, to plead with the Shiv Sena supremo to allow play to begin.

Advani's sudden "air-dash" from Delhi to Bombay did the trick. Reports that the Bharatiya Janata party leader got down on his knees to beg for Shiv Sena thugs to be called off were greeted with nods of approval.

Although police arrested 18 people in Delhi for vandalising the pitch, more trouble is expected. Jai Bhagwan Goyal, who heads the Delhi branch of Shiv Sena, or Shiva's Army, disappeared after he threatened: "We will bomb. If that's what is needed to stop the match, we will blow the pitch."

Jan McGirk