Politics pushed aside as love of the game unites India and Pakistan

Hopes are high for peaceful Test series as fans swap shirts and share flags.
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The Independent Online

Five and a half years ago, the last time I was here, the ordinary Pakistani in the street made their feelings clear to me. "Indians are bad," they bleated. It was just a few months after the two countries had tested nuclear devices. But two days ago, it was not easy to find anyone who echoed that sentiment, despite India's dramatic win in the one-day tournament, the first leg of the tour.

Five and a half years ago, the last time I was here, the ordinary Pakistani in the street made their feelings clear to me. "Indians are bad," they bleated. It was just a few months after the two countries had tested nuclear devices. But two days ago, it was not easy to find anyone who echoed that sentiment, despite India's dramatic win in the one-day tournament, the first leg of the tour.

And the crowds were warm-hearted and good-natured. Indian fans helped run with Pakistani flags through the stands while some Pakistani fans even swapped shirts with their Indian counterparts.

Throughout the series, visiting fans have been struck by the welcome they have received from their hosts, with some even saying that they feel more comfortable in some of the Pakistani cities than at home, despite the hike in rates for city hotels. Banners of the countries' conjoined flags have been carried by Punjabi women wearing shalwar kameez, their face paint being the only way to distinguish which side of the border they live on. Language, food and, of course, their love of cricket are shared.

Politics, in the grand sense, is taking a back seat. Such is the feeling for cricket in this region, reports are emerging that this tour could affect the upcoming Indian parliamentary elections. Pakistan's president, Pervez Musharraf, made appearances at matches with Indian VIPs and politicians, the last, ironically, in army camouflage.

Meanwhile, in the tribal areas, which are only nominally under government control, there is an ongoing military operation to root out anti-social militants. But this only highlighted the absence of any trouble in the match cities - security has not been a problem.

There have, however, been a good number of fake tickets discovered at matches. At the third match, in Peshawar, many people with genuine tickets were locked out after the ground had filled to capacity, and in the fourth match, at the Gaddafi Stadium, Sharayar Khan, the chairman of the Pakistan Cricket Board, said that 1,500 people were refused entry because of the forgeries.

Rashid Latif, the former Pakistan captain, made an allegation that the fourth match had been fixed. Latif, who stepped down as captain after the tour with South Africa last year, told the Indus television channel: "Even a common man could observe that the players were acting on a script because the body language of the players was not as it should have been."

The International Cricket Council's chief executive, Malcolm Speed, called on anyone making such claims to produce evidence or withdraw the allegations. But Latif offered no evidence.

The victory in the one-day series has given the visitors a clear psychological edge as the heat builds for the first of the three Tests. This is the first full Test series in Pakistan since 1989-90, when the teams played out four draws. India leapt into fifth place in the rankings for one-dayers while Pakistan dropped down a place to sixth. Going into the series, India were placed seventh with 105 points while Pakistan had 107. India now have 107, while Pakistan's points have now fallen to 106, placing them narrowly ahead of England.

Sourav Ganguly, the India captain, may miss the Multan Test after he injured his back diving to stop a shot from his opposite number, Inzamam-ul-Haq. The 31-year-old was carried off on a stretcher, but later appeared to speak to the press. Rahul Dravid, the vice-captain, may have to take the reins.

Ajit Agarkar and Anil Kumble have both been recalled to the India squad for the Test series. Injuries kept both players out of the squad for the one-dayers - The leg-spinner Kumble was nursing a shoulder strain, while Agarkar had a shin problem.

There were few other surprises in the 15-man line-up, with Yuvraj Singh grabbing the extra batsman's spot, while Ramesh Powar and Murali Kartik, who were part of the one-day squad, were retained. They have also called up the opener Akash Chopra.

Pakistan, meanwhile, have dropped their all-rounder Shahid Afridi and experienced middle-order batsman Younis Khan, as well as the medium-pacer Rana Naveed-ul-Hasan, who played in the first match in Karachi.

The batsmen Misbah-ul-Haq and Asim Kamal, medium-pacer Umar Gul and leg-spinner Danish Kaneria received call-ups to the 16-man squad.

Pakistan's chief selector, Wasim Bari, said Younis, who has played 28 Tests and 101 one-day internationals, and Afridi had not been considered for the first Test because of their inconsistent form in the one-day series.

Taufeeq Umar remains in the squad despite a poor showing in the final match, dropping catches and scoring a meagre 18. Kaneria, who has a Test record of 65 wickets in 16 matches, and Gul played in the recent Test series in New Zealand. Kamal made his Test debut against South Africa last year in November, scoring 99 runs, while Misbah's last Test appearance was against Australia two years ago.

It is clear that Pakistan have worked on problems they have had in the bowling line-up. They gave away 145 extras in the first four matches to India's 88, but in the final game their gift to the Indians consisted of just 10 wides and no-balls. But after that showdown, Inzamam still had some concerns. He said: "I'm worried about the bowlers. They were never at their best in the series. The rhythm was just not there. I'm hoping they can come back in the Test matches. It's a different game and I've a lot of confidence in their ability."

If this series is a metaphor for war, as is so often used when these two sides play each other, the spectators are having a rather loving conflict.

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