Pakistan and India are the terrible twins of world politics (even to write them in this order is to invite accusations of bias). A rooted condition of political suspicion and military confrontation, punctuated by intermittent warfare, glacial skirmishing and religious terrorism, is hardly conducive to a stable or amicable relationship as the fifty-six years of their intimate enmity has abundantly demonstrated.
But they also share a common love, lore and loyalty: cricket. This is the one national pastime which not only commands the intense interest of ordinary people on each side of the great divide, but also connects them to their neighbour in ways that can be surprisingly affectionate as well as raucously embittering.
The current tour of Pakistan by Indias cricket team for a series of five one-day matches with the host country occurs in an atmosphere of cautious thawing in the countries fractious relationship symbolised by the meeting between their two leaders in January 2004, the subsequent high-level summit, and signs of progress on the most difficult of all issues between them, Kashmir.
(August 2001) only in openDemocracy
In such circumstances, the arrival of Indias team was an occasion for some optimism about the social effects of the tour and thus far, after the first two thrilling matches, this has been resoundingly vindicated. There has been an efflorescence of amity symbolised by the notoriously partisan Karachi crowd cheering the Indian team, excited schoolgirls chasing the hearththrob visiting players for autographs, and a small Pakistani boy wearing an Indian shirt because he loves Indian hero Sachin Tendulkar.
To this observer born in India, raised in Pakistan, resident in England, and lifelong citizen of the republic of cricket the compelling spectacle raises vivid memories of the intertwining of sport, politics and personal fate.
With Allah on our side
Almost a century since cricket was introduced to the sub-continent, cricket manages to touch just about every south Asian. It does so because people learn from it things that religion and politics do not teach them tolerance, equanimity, fairplay.
In Pakistan, not all Islamists have yet condemned it as a Satanic deviation and there have always been one or two mullahs in the national team. Indeed, it is one of the few things that Pakistanis do together which they are actually good at (another is nuclear technology, as if you didnt know).
But as with most things Pakistani, there are conditions. The national team has to go on winning, especially against India because whenever it loses, Islam becomes endangered and patriotic fervour falls. All Pakistanis playing or watching competitive cricket feel the burden of that responsibility. It becomes even heavier when emotive religious slogans What is the meaning of Pakistan Allah, the only one Allah and The slogan of prophesy O, prophet of Allah raise the atmosphere to a fever pitch of combativeness.
Once raised, however, the temperature is hard to bring down. The result has often been the invasion of pitches, arson in the stadia and general destruction of public property. For newcomers, the quasi-religious fanaticism Pakistanis invest in their cricket encounters can be scary.
This attitude finds echoes on the other side. On the recent Indian cricket tour of Australia, saffron-robed sadhus in the crowd twirled black-beaded strings and carried begging-bowls, cheerleading their side with full-throated mantras and tinkling prayer-bells.
Close encounters of the cricketing kind
I have had three close encounters with the cricket world. All have turned me inside out.
The first occurred in 1951 when the MCC as the England team were then known visited Pakistan to play two unofficial test (international) matches. I had just graduated from gulli-danda (a south Asian boys game) to street cricket. As sons of a middle-ranking bureaucrat in Karachi, my brother and I received tickets to the pavilion area.
The invincible Englishmen drew the first match and lost the second. It was enough to secure official test status for Pakistan. The whole country went cricket mad, and we used our privileged access to shake hands with and seek autographs from the living legends of English cricket Brian Statham, Trevor Bailey, Tony Lock, Tom Graveney.
1951 was eventful in Pakistan. The countrys first prime minister, Liaquat Ali Khan, was assassinated. In the fallout, one Ghulam Mohammed was made governor-general, and he soon ordered his staff (my father among them) to find the man who had helped young Haneef Mohammed, our first local cricketing hero, to become Pakistans best cricketer. Ghulam wanted this man to perform the same transformation on his spoilt grandson.
That man was the legendary coach Abdul Aziz, a retired pre-partition cricketer who had played for united India in the 1930s. He was a one-eyed giant of a man, who (it was said) had lost the other eye to a ball that leapt up at him in the days when cricketers didnt wear helmets. Aziz had played against the fastest and best, and he created a governor-generals house team of eleven that included the sons of various menial employees two of whom went on to become national cricketers.
This led to my second close encounter with the cricket world, three years later in 1954. Then, in my 14th year, I was an extra player in a match involving Haneef Mohammed (who would later set the world record for the highest individual number of runs in first-class cricket). Even I put the score-book aside to bat at number ten. It was an unforgettable experience.
Abdul Aziz was a good coach but after a year even he had failed to make a cricketer out of Ghulams offspring. Aziz stopped coaching the crown prince, and he was even unjustly denied the payment he had been promised. My own first encounter with high-class cricket also fizzled out.
The Sharjah intoxication
My third cricket encounter arrived a full thirty years later. Pakistan had by then lost three major wars and half of its territory, and been economically and politically overtaken by India. The country was desperate to find an area where it could meet its ancient Indian enemy on equal terms and redeem its lost honour. This turned out to be a cricket ground in the middle of the Arabian desert.
The arrival of cricket in Sharjah (in the United Arab Emirates) came via the same commercial imperatives that had filled the once desolate region with 300,000 Pakistanis and over 1 million Indians, as well as 72 other nationalities. These south Asians had brought old enmities, communal prejudices and national hang-ups along with their skills and manpower.
By then, I was a senior reporter in the largest English-language newspaper in the territory (though my job was less proper journalism, more tightrope-walking where one slip could lead to demands for your immediate deportation). Moreover, as an Indian (by birth) and Pakistani (by migration), I was doubly cursed in the eyes of those seeking evidence of national bias.
Then Abdul Rahman Abu Khatir, an enterprising, Karachi-educated Sharjah businessman leased a stadium, lined up commercial sponsors and organised a lucrative cricket tournament. India and Pakistan sent their teams. If the conditions were good, the crowd support was incredible. Tens of thousands flocked to watch the cricket matches.
Cricket changed the perception, even the style of expatriate life in the emirates. One tournament followed another until there were three or more a season. Satellite television entered, multinational giants made it big business. Gambling syndicates started, Bollywood stars arrived. Cricket put Sharjah on the world map.
Here, Pakistan found the arena where it could take on India on equal terms. Even more, its team soon became a regular winner in their contests. The Pakistanis in Sharjah, team and community alike, were triumphant. India may be the far bigger country but it was the Pakistanis who won most of the cups and prize money in Sharjah.
For the most vociferous Pakistani supporters this was a triumph of Islam against the infidel. Religious slogans became fiercer, old enmities returned with new venom to the sporting field. The national rivalry even continued by proxy: when Australia defeated India and England defeated Pakistan to reach the final, the tournaments climax was played out to the bizarre sight of Aussie supporters wearing shalwar-kameez and uttering full-throated roars of Allah-u akbar.
Make cricket, not war
In my last year in the Gulf, the India-Pakistan cricket war came to an abrupt halt. India started to smell a rat: why do we never beat Pakistan in Sharjah? Allegations of Pakistani match-fixing and wicket-tampering flourished. Then, a series of terrorist attacks and threats of sectarian warfare in Pakistan itself gradually consigned the country to cricketing isolation.
In politics, things were just as bad. An elected government of doubtful democratic credentials was overthrown by a general; relations with India continued to worsen. The climax came in a tense confrontation where either side made fearful threats of nuclear strikes. When the two sides pulled back from their deep look inside the chasm of mutually assured destruction, saner options than the road to perdition very slowly began to emerge.
A number of factors helped. Through the thin veneer of contrived democracy, Pervez Musharraf has taken his country to the brink and back, then out of the political corner it has been trapped in for fifty years. Pakistanis are beginning to realise that they cannot seize Kashmir by force, while the ruling BJP in India - Hindu fundamentalists who are the mirror-image of Pakistan's Islamists - understand that they cannot hold their three-quarters of Kashmir by force either. Each side needs to drop the rattling sabres and learn to speak a language of respect and compromise.
It has been a long, hard road, and is far from finished. The internal politics of both states show that the process of rapprochement is not risk-free. Yet, in part as a result of Americas wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, India and Pakistan are learning to see each other as partners in a promising and exciting era of cooperation.
What better place to launch the new era than a cricket ground? And as I cancel my break from enforced retirement, get a better pair of pillows and settle down in bed to watch the battle rage on television, I, for one, have more faith in cricket than in the political process as the bridge across the chasm.