Batting for diplomacy: India and Pakistan's big match

The one-day international in Karachi today carries a political burden unrivalled in any other sport.
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The days when cricket was a game associated with the damp green breezes of an English summer are long gone. This week's remarkable clutch of international fixtures confirms that modern cricket is a winter sport, played out under roasting sunshine on faraway, palm-fringed shores.

The days when cricket was a game associated with the damp green breezes of an English summer are long gone. This week's remarkable clutch of international fixtures confirms that modern cricket is a winter sport, played out under roasting sunshine on faraway, palm-fringed shores.

England in the West Indies, Australia in Sri Lanka, South Africa in New Zealand and Bangladesh in Zimbabwe ... thanks to modern television habits, cricket fans in the icy north Atlantic can put their feet up in front of these exotic contests and get jetlag without leaving their own armchairs.

But the big one starts today, in Karachi, where India take on Pakistan in a sporting event - five one-day games followed by three Test matches - that might be as charged with political and cultural tension as any games in any place and at any time. Celtic vs Rangers? England vs Argentina? Real Madrid vs Barcelona? These are minor, pantomime rivalries compared to that between India and Pakistan. If anything, they recall the ice-hockey or basketball rumbles between America and the old Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War, in which defeat was an unthinkable blow to national self-regard.

Cricket is so popular in this region, and its recent history is so fraught, that every encounter carries a burden of national significance and yearning which no sport can easily bear.

The present tour represents the thawing of a 14-year freeze. And it is not for those who think that sport and politics shouldn't mix. Today's game is a major step in the ongoing peace process being energetically pursued by Delhi and Lahore.

Once-dormant bus routes have been re-opened; trade embargoes are being lifted. The resumption of cricketing links is the biggest news so far.

The players, even those who cling to the idea that it is just another game, are mindful that they are also diplomats. The captain, Saurav Ganguly, has described this as "a goodwill tour", and his team left home after exchanging ceremonial bats with India's Prime Minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

Vajpayee urged the team to win but also to take care: "Play the game in the spirit of the game," he said, "and win hearts also". In supporting the tour so wholeheartedly, he is gambling with his political future. As several Indian commentators have pointed out, defeat will do him few favours in the elections due three days after the end of the five-week series.

To appreciate the power of cricket in the life of India and Pakistan, you have to imagine that it is something like football and pop music rolled together. The players are major Beckham-sized stars, especially in India, which has become not just the beating heart of modern cricket in terms of the affection in which it is held but also its bulging wallet.

In any international cricket negotiation, it is the TV rights in India, with its colossal audience, that are the major consideration. An estimated 400 million viewers will follow the ball-by-ball fortunes of their team in the coming weeks. And the tour is expected to generate more than £10m for the cash-strapped Pakistan Cricket Board. Business partners, friends or relatives in Britain had better save their phone calls till close of play.

The build-up to the series has seen some exorbitant headlines including Sachin Tendulkar's toe, the wrangling over broadcast rights, the security of India's players and the number of police expected at the game in Rawalpindi (3,500). The patriotic nature of the in-flight dessert on the plane that flew the Indian team to Lahore (a green-white-orange confection that echoed the national flag) is another matter that has been front page news for weeks.

One of the biggest stories was the lofty "memorandum of understanding" between the cricket authorities. India's insistence on a pull-out clause in the event of crowd trouble dismayed Pakistan partly because some crowd agitation is inevitable, and partly because they have not forgotten the greeting the Calcutta crowd gave Pakistan four years ago, when they rioted.

India's refusal to visit either Karachi or Peshawar, meanwhile, was granted for a guarantee that future Pakistan teams would not be obliged to play in Bombay, the spiritual home of Indian cricket but also the headquarters of the extreme Hindu nationalist movement Shiv Sena.

Tickets for today's game went on sale in Karachi last Sunday but the crowd surged out of control. The police had to quell a mini-riot and close the booths. When they reopened, the following day, 21,000 tickets changed hands within hours. Up to 8,000 Indian fans, meanwhile, have been queuing for visas.

There will be celebrities at the game - Bollywood film veterans and business magnates as well as political figures government officials and the quasi-royal children of Rajiv and Sonia Gandhi. Street traders are peddling blue jeans embossed with a dyed-in bat and ball on the thigh. Some of the cafés encroaching on the grounds of the Gaddafi Stadium have been torn down. The atmosphere will be fervent, to say the least.

It has been 14 years since an Indian team last made this trip, and even the tours before that were pockmarked by controversy (the 1984 series was aborted due to the assassination of Indira Gandhi). So Sachin Tendulkar is the only Indian player with any experience of Pakistani conditions. He made his debut on that tour as a prodigious 16-year-old, and celebrated by smashing 50 off 18 balls in Peshawar. He won't be doing that in this series. Peshawar, a gun-happy town just a few miles from the Khyber Pass to Afghanistan, is not on the itinerary.

In the past two decades, therefore, the clashes between the two teams have taken place abroad. This scarcity only adds to the passion aroused by a fresh bout. In 1996, India met Pakistan in Bangalore in a heated quarter-final that ended in a convincing home win.

The city was a mass of hooting motorbikes and jubilant flag-wavers, while, in Pakistan, one newspaper ground its teeth: "India Plunged into Euphoria".

Four years later, the teams met, at Old Trafford in Manchester, where Pakistan came out on top, accompanied by some minor skirmishes and flag-burnings on the outfield. In the 2004 World Cup in South Africa, Pakistan came up short again, losing to India after one of the competition's more curious performances: a lethargic two-and-a-quarter hour 41 by the present Pakistan captain, Inzamam-ul-Haq.

But they are still able to relive various triumphs in the Sharjah tournaments over the years. One of these, the final of the Austral-Asia Cup in 1986, burns brightly in Pakistani folklore. India batted first and scored 245, with Sunil Gavaskar contributing a semi-sprightly 75. The run-chase was led by Javed Miandad, who somehow kept up with the nine-an-over run rate and prepared to face the last ball with Pakistan nine wickets down and needing four to win. It was one of those perfect climaxes that only come once in a decade or so, and Miandad rose to the occasion, flaying the last ball over the ropes with a flamboyant stroke that triggered an all-night party and a shower of gifts from fans.

Miandad (116 not out) was the happy recipient of "a camel train of gold and jewels": his famous final strike went down in myth as "the six that made a million".

It isn't clear if the fans of either side could cope with such breathless finishes this month. India are the team to beat, having just given Australia a fright (almost a drubbing). But they have never won in Pakistan, and this might not be time to break with tradition: there are notoriously bad losers among both sets of supporters.

No one should be surprised to see the most inert batting wickets ever produced in the history of the game. Look out for lots of double centuries, and some disconsolate bowlers.

It might even be a good thing for world peace that both of India's most dangerous bowlers, Anil Kumble and Harbajan Singh, are injured. It would hardly be surprising, given the inflammatory nature of today's contest, to learn that their medical progress was being closely monitored by the United Nations.

In English cricket circles, where a loose tie or poor shaving technique can lead to high-level talks at Lord's, the mutual antagonism stirred by Indo-Pakistani cricket often seems surreal. But it is not imaginary.

It has roots in the bloodletting that accompanied the birth of the two modern nations. After Partition in 1947, millions were slaughtered in the violence that fell on Muslims fleeing north to Pakistan, and Hindus rushing south.

The Punjab was torn in half: what was once a two-hour walk to a nearby village became a two-day odyssey that brought you back to the place you started. In the half-century since Partition, little has been forgotten. The two nations have fought three wars (two of them over Kashmir) and almost came to blows again, in 2002.

In recent years, both have become nuclear powers, so any friction between them (and friction is a polite term for the hatreds that glare across the border) is a matter of international consequence.

Missile launches and the tragedies of Kashmir have not proved sufficient to knock cricket into the background this week. All such matters have been relegated to the inside pages. Ten days ago, 44 people were killed by suicide bombers in Quetta. And on the eve of India's arrival in a diplomatic initiative reminiscent of Larwood and Bodyline, Pakistan tested a new ballistic missile, with a range sufficient to obliterate every city in India.

But these were mild items beside the arrival of the cricketers. "The heat is on" said the The Nation in Pakistan, while Tendulkar pleaded for people to keep "a balanced mind".

That may well be "hoping for the moon", as the Pakistan News put it. "They are pawns in a game they do not understand," wrote one columnist. "If they are part of the peace process, they will be the targets of terrorists who are against the peace process. Isn't that obvious?" The players have been urged not to leave their hotels without permission, and are surrounded by president-level security. How well they will sleep is another matter.

The idea that geopolitical tensions of this magnitude can be soothed by a simple cricket match seems magnificently old-fashioned, a daring piece of Boy's Own diplomacy. Can twenty-two flanneled fools wielding willow and leather on a green oval really rescue such a damaged relationship?

Many complain that there is too much cricket these days, that it has lost the rarity value that made it so precious: but this is one fixture that could usefully do with growing tame through overuse. A period in which India and Pakistan's millions of cricket lovers grew used to winning some, and losing some, and were able to take both outcomes in their stride .... a period like that, which the present tour is supposed to herald, might represent potent political progress.

And the idea that sportsmen might be politicans is not so strange in the subcontinent as it is in Britain. Imran Khan and Bishen Bedi have parlayed sporting celebrity into political campaigns in a way that would seem odd in Westminster: it requires us to imagine Tony Blair sparring over the dispatch box not with Michael Howard, but with Michael Gatting.

One thing is certain: the players are taking a risk few modern sportsmen would entertain. Tempers will almost certainly fray, whatever the "memorandum of understanding" says. It won't be fun being escorted by thickets of semi-automatic machine gunners. Nor will it be relaxing to field near the boundary, since what happens beyond is so heated and sharp-edged. But the fact that the tour is no laughing matter has not prevented it from inspiring some jokes.

One concerns the Indian fan who dies and goes to heaven, only to be told that admittance is restricted to those who have shown exceptional bravery. "Hmm," the man begins, his life flashing before his eyes, "well I did once wrestle a tiger to the ground, to save some children walking in the jungle."

"Not bad. Anything else?"

"There was that time I leapt in front of a racing lorry and plucked an old lady out of harm's way. Broke my shoulder in the process."

"That might do it. Sure there's nothing else?" The man thinks for a while, and then says: "Well, I was once the only Indian to go to an India versus Pakistan match in Pakistan."

"That's extraordinary. A clincher all right. Congratulations. When on earth was it?" The man sighs: "About two minutes ago," he says.

It's only a game, we like to say. But in Karachi, today, there's nothing only about it.