Joy of victory briefly unites a nation scarred by conflict

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Scarcely had the players stepped off the field at Lord's when celebratory gunfire began to crackle nearly 4,000 miles away. Sweets were thrust into smiling mouths. Children danced with unrestrained glee. And cars raced through the streets, packed with revellers as they whooped with delight and waved the Pakistani flag.

For a country that has long endured a stream of bad news, the Pakistan cricket team's victory in the World Twenty20 final on Sunday proved a rare moment of common joy. The thunder of suicide bombings and battles against Taliban insurgents seemed, for once, to have been drowned out by the roar of millions cheering their biggest sporting triumph since former captain Imran Khan lifted the World Cup in 1992.

"We needed this so badly," said Ali Azmat, the former frontman for Junoon, a rock band known as Pakistan's U2. "In this country, people don't get food to eat. There is a war going on. Millions are displaced. There are political problems in each and every province. In some cities, we don't have electricity for 12 hours each day. This was really a great moment for us."

The scenes of jubilation underscored cricket's ability to unite Pakistanis in a manner that has only been rivalled by war with its neighbour India. The sport evokes passions that can outstrip religious fervour. In moments of crushing defeat, a pall of gloom casts itself over the country. By contrast, the bitter and deepening ethnic, political and sectarian divisions that scar Pakistan came to a pause yesterday.

"The team did something that our politicians have failed to," said Ayesha Tammy Haq, a talk-show host and columnist. "They made 170 million people feel proud to be Pakistani. For once, instead of party flags and partisan politics, the Pakistan flag was everywhere."

In Karachi, the stock exchange rose as traders hailed a brightening mood. In the militancy-racked North West Frontier Province, Pashtuns took pride from the performances of the captain, Younis Khan, player of the match, Shahid Afridi, and the leading wicket-taker Umer Gul. Punjabis boasted that the rest of the team came from the majority province. Members of the ruling Pakistan People's Party said it was no coincidence that the victory came as they marked the birthday of their slain leader, Benazir Bhutto.

Many Pakistanis hope that the cricket team's success will help improve their reputation abroad. The country was cast into sporting isolation this year after militant gunmen attacked the visiting Sri Lankan team in Lahore on 3 March. The Pakistani government was criticised, at home and abroad, for failing to provide adequate security.

"We have once again shown the world that united, this marvellous nation has an immense capacity to fight back and snatch victory from the jaws of defeat," said Farahnaz Ispahani, an MP from the Pakistan People's Party.