SI Vault
S.L. Price
May 10, 2004
The world's biggest sports rivalry, India versus Pakistan, was renewed in a series of matches that promised either better relations between the two countries—or an explosion of violence
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May 10, 2004

Diplomacy By Other Means

The world's biggest sports rivalry, India versus Pakistan, was renewed in a series of matches that promised either better relations between the two countries—or an explosion of violence

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The man wandering outside the stadium is no one. He is not idolized like the athletes soon to take the field, not rich like the Bollywood stars who've jetted in for the match. He walks unnoticed past soldiers and policemen cased in riot gear—hundreds of hard men fingering Kalashnikovs, sawed-off shotguns, Mausers MP5 machine guns, Uzis and 3�-foot-long bamboo canes, which are surprisingly effective at beating back a crowd. It is Wednesday, March 24, nearing noon in the Pakistani city of Lahore, and a relentless spring sun hammers the man's face. Soon he will disappear through agate and take a seat, and his whitening beard and red turban will become just two more flecks of Color in the crowd. The man is nobody, really. Yet nobody here matters more. � His name is Davinder Singh. He is a Sikh and an Indian citizen. Fifty-six years ago, when he was four years old, he and nine members of his family deserted their home near Lahore during the partition of India and Pakistan and joined the violent migration in which millions of Hindus and Sikhs fled south to India, millions of Muslims fled north to Pakistan and half a million were killed. Since then, Pakistan and India, two nuclear powers, have gone to war three times and came very close in 2002. Singh had never returned to Lahore, but when he heard that Pakistan would grant 8,500 visas to Indians for this match, he got ready. He was scared, but home was a wound he had to heal.

As his train from New Delhi approached the border, Singh felt like singing and crying both. He was processed through Pakistani customs at Wagah, where in 1965 the Indian army came pouring through in a surprise strike at Lahore and where every Aug. 14 since then, on Pakistan's Independence Day, Pakistanis had massed and screamed, "Death to India!" Now Indians were coming through again, but the reception was different: Pakistanis on the street stopped to welcome them, shopkeepers refused to charge them. "We got so much love we didn't expect," Singh says.

Now, outside Lahore's Gaddafi Stadium, he watches kids with the Indian flag painted on one cheek and Pakistan's crescent moon on the other. Groups of men wave the Indian colors. "I've never seen this before," Singh says. "It's a dream come true."

Inside the stadium, in two hours, India and Pakistan will meet in a showdown that a Pakistani newspaper called in a front-page headline, ARMAGEDDON ON 24TH. But today feels nothing like the end of the world. Davinder Singh has come home at last. For a cricket match.

When, in February, it was announced that India's cricket team would tour Pakistan for the first time in 14 years, reaction fell into two categories: excitement and fear. Excitement, because Hindu-majority India versus Muslim Pakistan in cricket is the planet's supreme sports rivalry, a clash between blood enemies over the one passion they share. More than 160 foreign journalists—the largest contingent in Pakistan's sporting history—obtained credentials for the 39-day tour. Players on both sides knew that careers were about to be made and broken. "When we play India, we're passionate," said Pakistani star Abdul Razzaq. "We don't feel any fatigue. We played South Africa here, and nobody came—no life, you know? Against India, it's totally different. Now we feel that we are playing real cricket."

The fear, though, has been the defining element of all India- Pakistan encounters. The phrase sporting event can't begin to contain the religious extremism, unforgiven deeds and rabid jingoism that swirl around each India- Pakistan cricket match; the game is haunted by battle dead, and the air is charged with the ongoing dispute between the two countries over control of Kashmir. For generations cricket has been a proxy for war between the two nations. "It wasn't a game," Imran Khan, a cricket legend and current member of Pakistan's parliament, says of his matches against India. "Losing wasn't an option."

India beat Pakistan in last year's World Cup in South Africa amid death threats against the players from fundamentalists in both nations. In 1999, when the two countries met in a World Cup match at Manchester's Old Trafford stadium, fights broke out in the stands and flags were set aflame in the outfield. Earlier that year, during the Pakistani team's visit to Calcutta, a riot in the stands forced police to stop play and clear 70,000 people out of the stadium; the remainder of the match was played before empty seats. For its return to Pakistan in March, India insisted on reducing the planned five-day match in Karachi to one day. In a curious gesture of reassurance on the eve of the visit, Pakistan test-launched a Shaheen 2 missile, which could deliver an incinerating nuclear payload to the farthest corner of India.

But far different signals were also being sent. Last year India's prime minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee, began a series of peace overtures to Pakistan's president, Pervez Musharraf, but none, he knew, would seize the public imagination like a gesture involving cricket. When the British withdrew from the subcontinent in 1947, they left two legacies: the divisive issue of Kashmir and the oh-so-civilized game of the English gentry. Vajpayee hopes that the latter can help to resolve the former. Before the Indian team left for Pakistan, he presented it with a cricket bat bearing the inscription, PLAY THE GAME IN THE SPIRIT OF THE GAME, AND WIN THEIR HEARTS.

Americans, of course, have never embraced cricket. Batsmen hit balls over a boundary only four inches high. Players break for afternoon tea. Umpires graciously hold a bowler's hat while he runs toward the batsman and throws. Yet the elemental dynamic of baseball applies: A man hurls a ball toward another man with a bat. That this happens in the center of a vast field of grass—and that the bowler is aiming the ball at three sticks (the wicket) impaled in the grass behind the batsman—complicates things, especially when you consider that the batsman would sell his mother to ensure that the ball never touches his wicket. The batsman hits until his wicket is struck or a hit ball is caught on the fly (box, below), but in the modern, one-day cricket game (as opposed to the traditional five-day game), he and his 10 teammates face 300 balls and score as many runs as possible before changing places with the opponent. In short the equivalent of a baseball half inning can last four hours. To the cricketphobe, it's a miracle that the sport is played at all in the 21st century. But the real wonder of cricket is found on the streets.

No sport anywhere—not baseball in Cuba, not ice hockey in Canada, not even soccer in Brazil—has a more pervasive appeal than cricket on the Indian subcontinent. On nearly every dusty street in Pakistan, on every free patch of grass or dirt, a wicket has been fashioned out of stones or bricks or chalk marks on a wall. Balls ricochet off cars and the collapsing tombs of moguls, and from dawn till the sun goes down the poorest kids, the most devout Islamic students and even the blind can be found playing cricket. India won the World Cup in 1983. Pakistan won in 1992. In March some 450 million TV sets in India and Pakistan were tuned to the finale of the best-of-five series of one-day matches.

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