"It's an incredible mania," says Shaharyar Khan, who served as Pakistan's foreign secretary before becoming chairman of the Pakistan Cricket Board. "Here we have all sorts of schisms—Shia-Sunni, north-south, Punjab-Sikh—but all this is submerged when it comes to cricket." But such devotion is like a knife, employable as either weapon or tool, and neither Vajpayee nor Musharraf could predict to which use it would be put during the Indian team's visit.
The March 10-April 18 tour comprised a best-of-five series of one-day international (ODI) matches followed by a best-of-three series of five-day test matches, but it's the ODIs that pack stadiums and stir emotions. When tickets for the opener in Karachi sold out, police trying to shutter the booths had to dodge rocks from rioting fans. When the two teams entered National Stadium in Karachi on March 13, nearly 3,500 security men swarmed the grounds.
India, batting first, scored a seemingly insurmountable 349 runs. But Pakistan, led by captain Inzamam Ul-Haq, chipped away hour after hour, revving up the crowd of 33,177 until, on the final ball, Pakistan needed just one six—the equivalent of a home run—to win. India's Ashish Nehra bowled, Pakistan's Moin Khan swung, and the ball dropped harmlessly into India's hands. But one of the best ODI matches ever was about to get better: Vajpayee's charge to win the Pakistanis' hearts had been splashed on banners everywhere, and now the Pakistani crowd stood and applauded India's win.
Three days later, in Rawalpindi, the public again welcomed the Indian team, and Pakistan tied the series. Even when play moved to Peshawar, hard by the Afghanistan border and the front line in the war on terror, nothing changed. Indian players felt so safe that they ventured out of their hotels to buy carpets and shoes. "It's incredible," said Imran Khan after the match, which Pakistan won to take a 2-1 series lead. "I've never seen an India- Pakistan series played in such an atmosphere."
But the real test was yet to come. Only a few Indian fans had traveled to the first three ODI matches, but for the final two, in Lahore, the heart of Pakistani cricket, thousands descended on the city, increasing by the minute the chance of friction. Like many of the visiting Indians, Pakistan's Abdul Razzaq, who scored 53 runs off 52 balls in Peshawar to seal his country's win, was coming home. He had grown up in Lahore, in a one-room house with seven relatives, and had learned his cricket in the streets. Everyone else might have been talking about the "feel-good factor" in this series, but for him nothing about the matches was fun. "All our people want to see is a win," Razzaq said. "We feel only pressure. It's very tough to go through this."
Shoaib Akhtar lives for speed. He brags about beating a ticket for driving 120 mph, he loves to feel his face cut into the wind on a bungee jump, he bowls faster than any man in the world, and he can't be bothered to humble up his act. He's all about blowing the ball past a great batsman and hearing the fans scream because they've come to see rocket launches and they want to see Akhtar celebrate them by spreading out his arms and flying around the wicket like a happy jet plane. His hair cascades into his eyes, the girls blush, and Pakistani old-liners grumble: Akhtar is just not cricket enough. He has little use for coaches, he revels in his celebrity, and as Pakistan's venerable cricket writer Omar Kureishi puts it, he "sees himself as a free spirit who enjoys immunity from mundane rules of discipline." Translation, courtesy of one cricket insider: "He's a spoiled brat."
Not that he's too concerned about what the oldsters think. At 28 the Rawalpindi Express, as Akhtar is called, is one of the sport's biggest names, and he gets paid plenty to play county cricket in England. He's looking to bowl faster than his record of 100.9 mph and toying with the idea of testing his wondrous double-jointed arm against the New York Yankees. The perfect Akhtar story? After he was quoted last year criticizing some former Pakistani cricket greats, a fan sued him for defaming the country and causing him "mental torture." Once the India- Pakistan series began, though, the suit was dropped because, the fan said, he wanted Akhtar to focus on India.
"Defame Pakistan, my country?" the bowler says, laughing. "Don't I look like a reasonable person?" The answer, he knows, is not exactly—which in so buttoned-up a game makes him impossible to ignore.
"I don't do anything intentionally to make myself famous," Akhtar says. "I do things that I enjoy. I fly around the wicket-it's my style. If someone doesn't like it, I don't care. I feel the music of bowling. You've got to make emotion when you're playing. You've got to have a good laugh, play hard, take pride in yourself. You can't just stand. You cannot be boring."
Like Akhtar, Pakistan has a rogue image: unpredictable and deeply in love with its own firepower. Any place that names its premier stadium for Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi has a suspect sense of propriety, and Pakistan's post-9/11 emergence as a U.S. ally has been nearly as confounding as the news that its top nuclear scientist peddled atomic secrets. Only in cricket has Pakistan been consistent, its reputation built over two decades by the steady will of Imran Khan. Intolerant of losses, corruption or excuses, Khan transformed Pakistan's program into a world power, capping a two-decade long career with the 1992 World Cup title. Then the devoutly Muslim Khan retired and became an advertisement for tolerance—marrying a British Jew, forming a political party called Movement for Justice and criticizing extremists from both East and West.