"There are ignorant people everywhere who don't understand their religion properly, and they go into this negative nationalism—which is a disaster," said Khan early in Game 4 in Lahore, as Pakistan batted first and, led by captain Ul-Haq's mammoth 123 runs, built a score of 293.
Khan is not bothered by Akhtar's antics. "He's a showman," Khan says. "He also wins." But if the two Pakistani superstars differ in style, both men say that the governments of India and Pakistan should heed the message sent by the cricket crowds. "We're sick of war, sick of terrorism, sick of Kashmir. We've had it, mate," Akhtar says. "It's time to make money rather than enemies."
Still, once Pakistan finished batting, everyone at Gaddafi Stadium was in the mood for one confrontation: Akhtar against India's Little Master, Sachin Tendulkar, acclaimed everywhere as the greatest batsman alive. The two players have been linked since that wild 1999 test match in Calcutta, when Akhtar, legs shaking with fear, blasted the ball past the 5'6" Tendulkar for a humiliating first-bowl wicket. Then, in the second innings, Tendulkar collided with Akhtar while trying to score a run and was called out. The crowd rioted, the Indian team collapsed, and Pakistan won the series. "Pretty much changed my life," Akhtar says of beating India.
Every other cricketer says that nothing about the sport is one-on-one. Not Akhtar. He considers Tendulkar the best, and Akhtar's philosophy, delivered with a cartoon leer that suggests the tiger Shere Khan stalking Mowgli in The Jungle Book, is simple: "Go after him. Hunt him down." So with 25,000 fans howling, Tendulkar had just warmed up with seven runs when on came Akhtar, the music of the crowd pushing him faster. At full gallop, he slung the ball back over his shoulder, hit the line and, jumping as high as possible, snapped it forward like a catapult. Tendulkar swung—and sliced the ball into the hands of a Pakistani fielder. The umpire signaled out, Tendulkar's head dropped, Akhtar flashed his teeth. The night, it seemed, would go Pakistan's way.
And then, very quickly, it didn't. Akhtar claimed another wicket, but India's batsmen began to chip away. He bowled faster but sprayed balls, and soon he and Pakistan's other bowlers were giving away extras: bonus runs for errors such as bowling wide. Pakistan's collapse was so total that rumors of a fix began circulating before the match ended. The logic was twisted—that 22 players, two hostile governments and a crew of international umpires would conspire to give India its first-ever series win in Pakistan in order to improve relations—but it was nearly impossible to find a Pakistani fan who didn't believe it. At the post-match press conference a reporter asked Ul-Haq if, in essence, Pakistan had thrown the match.
"Shut up," Ul-Haq replied.
Nobody likes Mowgli's chances. Throughout Disney's animated version of The Jungle Book, a chorus of critics warns the little Indian boy—wide-eyed, high-voiced and unbearably cute—about Shere Khan's power. While it may seem odd to think of India, with its burgeoning economy and 7-to-1 population edge over Pakistan, as prey, the paradox of the two countries' cricket rivalry is that the smaller nation had always been the predator. The Indian players went into the deciding match in Lahore dragging 50 years of failure. Again and again, Pakistan had proved itself not only better, winning 52 of 86 one-day internationals, but also tougher: Despite death threats and hostile crowds Pakistan had gone onto Indian soil many times since 1986 and won often enough to brag. India, meanwhile, had never won a test match in Pakistan, much less an ODI series. It didn't help that in its last four finals against other nations India had gone out whimpering. No team in recent history had choked more often.
Tendulkar is India's wealthiest and most photographed sportsman—wide-eyed, high-voiced and unbearably cute—but he also has been its most conspicuous failure. Although, at 31, he is on pace to become the most productive test run scorer in history, he has consistently come up short when it counted most. Little Master, many said, could do anything but lead India to the big win.
If that plagued him, Tendulkar knew better than to show it. Control is his key. Emotions, grudges, confrontations can only cause trouble for a batsman. Told that Akhtar all but salivated at the thought of facing him in this series, Tendulkar wouldn't bite. "I would block that out," he said. "I want to maintain a stable line graph." He's as temperamentally suited for his task as Akhtar is for his, and he's everything Akhtar isn't: modest, serene, dull. "I'm very happy with my life," Tendulkar said when asked whom he'd like to be in his next incarnation. "I always wanted to be a cricketer and nothing else. I would want to be Sachin Tendulkar again."
Tendulkar made his test debut at age 16, in 1989; now he is India's oldest player. Against Pakistan he had often struggled: His body had broken down, and his batting average had sagged. This deciding game in Lahore, he knew, could break that pattern. "It is different," Tendulkar said of this series. "Both the teams are getting closer. The prime minister said not only to win the games, but also to win their hearts. It means much more than cricket."