Cricket: Bats replace guns in war for heart of Asian sub-continent

Explosive brew: Warring tensions may be disastrously fuelled by alcohol at Old Trafford tomorrow
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The Independent Online
WHEN INDIA play Pakistan at Old Trafford tomorrow, every-day life in the sub-continent will come to a halt. Tens of millions of workers will stay home. The roads will empty of traffic. Every television set, from the huge screens set up especially for the World Cup in every five- star hotel to the battered black and white flickering at the back of the tea shop, will draw its crowd like bees round a hive.

A management consultant in Bombay calculated that India will be pounds 3.875 billion the poorer this year due to World Cup cricket-inspired absenteeism. A good chunk of that will go down the plughole tomorrow.

Cricket may have died in England, done in by football and the professional game's mediocrity, but it has been reborn in the sub-continent with the same qualities that once made it rivetting in the land of its birth: valour, elegance, charisma, defiance, team spirit, the tantalising flukes and freaks of fortune.

And then of course there is what no-one dare overlook: for India and Pakistan, cricket is vicarious warfare. `IT'S WAR NOW' screamed the headline in Bombay's weekly Blitz, over an article claiming: "Cricket's heart is in sub-continent."

The identification of cricketing and national fortunes is, of course silly, especially given the fluky nature of the one-day game. But in a part of the world where national passions burn like cordite, it is unavoidable.

When Bangladesh went home last week after their amazing - too amazing - victory over Pakistan, irony and suspicion were cast to the winds as the government declared a national holiday and Dhaka, the capital, a city not known for its joyfulness, came alive with thousands of revellers dancing and singing.

"The jubilation today," said prime minister Sheikh Hasina at the grand civic reception, her brain unclouded by thoughts of match-rigging, "reminds me of December 16 1971, when men, women and children came out of their homes to celebrate the victory of our independence war. Again the whole nation has awakened for another victory."

And Bangladesh, mind, were on their way home after performing just about as feebly in the World Cup as it is possible for a team to perform, the strange result at Northampton notwithstanding. In this way do poor and demoralised nations clutch at sporting straws. So how much more must be at stake for India and Pakistan when both teams and nations have so much more to play for?

Cricketing and political relations between India and Pakistan circle each other in strange, wary ways. At the start of this year, Pakistan were due to play their first Test series in India for years.

The two countries play each other frequently at neutral venues like Sharjah, but throughout the 1990s tours to each other's countries were banned because of the brutal civil war in Kashmir, where the Indian authorities ferociously suppressed an uprising by a Muslim majority egged on by Pakistan.

More than 20,000 lives were lost in that fight, but a sort of peace began to return to the Kashmir Valley, and in 1997 India toured Pakistan for the first time in the decade. In January it was Pakistan's turn to come to India, but a notoriously extreme Hindu nationalist party based in Bombay, Shiv Sena, vowed to stop the tour.

They dug up the pitch in Delhi, and threatened to jeopardise the tour in every way possible. Attacks on players were not ruled out.

It was a critical moment both in sporting and diplomatic relations, and, to general amazement, India's central government, a coalition led by other Hindu nationalists, rose to the occasion. Shiv Sena's bully-boy leader was talked round by the central government's almost equally hard-line Home Minister, and the government did everything it could to make the Pakistanis welcome.

It was not their fault that Tendulkar, the Indian batting star, was hurt during the Calcutta Test, the local crowd - the wildest in the country - went ape, and the match had to be finished in front of empty stands. Everywhere else the mood was almost eerily cheery.

It was no coincidence that less than a month later the Indian Prime Minister climbed aboard a bus in the Punjab city of Amritsar and drove across the border into Pakistan in the broadest symbolic act of peace-making seen here for years. Days of high-level political canoodling followed, culminating in the Lahore Declaration, and promises of a new peaceful Indo-Pak relationship. Cricket had done for sub-continental diplomacy what table tennis had once done for communist China.

Now, of course, it has all gone horribly sour again. For, even as India's brilliant leg-spinner Anil Kumble was doing a Jim Laker and taking all 10 of Pakistan's wickets in the Delhi Test, Pakistan-sponsored guerrillas in the high Himalayas were busy undermining the cricketers' good works.

On 6 May Indian troops in northern Kashmir discovered, to their horror, that guerrillas from Pakistan had infiltrated deep into Indian territory, where they had built fortified positions on impregnable mountain heights. They must have been there since January.

The bus to Lahore is now being seen, with hindsight, as a trick, a stunt to lull India into a false sense of security, and the cricketing thaw heralded by Pakistan's Test series is beginning to look equally rash and premature. For the past month, India and Pakistan (though Pakistan deny that they are directly involved) have been fighting a vicious and costly war in these rugged mountains, as India strives, with MiG and Mirage fighters and Mi-17 helicopter gunships and napalm, to drive the guerrillas out of the bunkers and back across the border.

So far India concedes more than 50 dead and 200 wounded. It claims to have killed between 200 and 400 guerrillas, including several regular soldiers in the Pakistan Army .

Is it a war? Not yet. It is "near-war" or "war-like". But it is more like war than anything between the two countries since 1989, and arguably since the last full-scale war in 1971.

But the World Cup must go on: with the front pages of the newspapers in both countries full of air strikes and school children or farmers killed by artillery and the plight of refugees and the state of ruined towns and villages; and the back pages giddy with the hopes and passions of cricket.

Quite apart from the war and the politics, both teams are the most dashing and brilliant - consistency of performance aside - in the competition.

The world's fastest bowler, Shoaib, the world's best batsman, Tendulkar, the most battle-scarred, hard-charging, inspirational captain, Wasim, the most spell-binding spinners, Saqlain and Kumble. Even if India and Pakistan enjoyed perfect amity, it would be a fight to the death. Against a background of "near war", it will be explosive.

Staging it in England adds two more imponderable factors: the patriotic passion that is incendiary in proportion to distance from home; and liquor. Many Indian expatriates ("Non-Resident Indians" or NRIs as they are called) and their Pakistani equivalents have prospered in the UK beyond the imaginings of their countrymen back home. Vociferous support for the national team may be one way of assuaging the guilt of that, re-affirming the patriotic link.

And then there is the demon drink. The Indian cricket legend-turned-commentator Sunil Gavaskar got in hot water with Pakistan last week when he said that trouble was possible at Old Trafford because "some Indian and Pakistani supporters start drinking early in the game and cannot hold their drink."

Pakistan's manager Zafar Altaf claimed that he and his team were shocked by the remark, and in the sub-continent it is indeed a pretty shocking notion.

There are no bars in cricket stadiums in either country - indeed getting a drink anywhere in Pakistan practically requires one to be a registered alcoholic. The passion for the game is quite fiery enough without pouring extraneous fuel on it.

In England, of course, things are very different. And, given war fever, the fact that there will be no separation of Indian and Pakistani fans, and the evil local example of football hooligans, trouble seems a near certainty. With Indian backs against the wall in Kashmir, if Pakistan win, which on current form looks more likely, there could be a riot. The other way round won't be a picnic, either.