Aaah, this is cricket at its soap-operatic best: two great teams act out the latest installment in a drama that spans generations. A cast of 22 men in white, guided by the ghosts of their forebears, perform with high skill and raw emotion. Watching the new series unfold, millions of spectators travel through the ages, their minds turned time machines, recalling the excitement and the anguish of previous episodes.
Australia vs. England? Could be, but here we're talking about cricket's other great rivalry: India vs. Pakistan. In 51 years, the subcontinent's sworn enemies have fought scores of battles on the cricket pitch, often mimicking the intensity of their three wars off it. More than a billion fans in the two cricket-mad countries relish these encounters as much as--perhaps even more than--Australians and Englishmen. But for the past nine years, they have been denied their favorite spectacle, for reasons that have nothing at all to do with sport.
The last time an Indian team toured Pakistan was in 1989, shortly before Islamic separatists stepped up their rebellion in disputed Kashmir. Since then, the Pakistanis have twice canceled cricket tours of India, citing security concerns. Their fears stem mainly from the vitriolic statements of Bal Thackeray, Bombay's political boss, a Hitler-loving Hindu extremist who has declared India off-limits to Pakistani cricketers. He has warned that his supporters will "break the legs" of Pakistani players if they set foot on Indian soil. Rising to Thackeray's bait, some of his counterparts on the lunatic fringe of Pakistani politics have issued similar threats against Indian players.
As a result, Indo-Pakistani cricketing encounters have been restricted to the shorter, limited-overs version of the game--and have mainly been held on neutral turf, like Sharjah, in the United Arab Emirates, and Toronto. These distant encounters produce revenue--sponsors are attracted by the potential TV viewing audience of one billion--but little passion. Still, fans would rather see their teams play in some faraway place than not at all. But consider the irony: an Arab or a Canadian has a better chance of seeing the subcontinent's greatest sporting event--live--than does any denizen of the subcontinent. It's as if the Ashes were to be played for in Belgium, or, for that matter, Sharjah.
Besides, the one-day game is--how to put this politely?--not quite cricket. The shorter version is usually fun, often dramatic and always colorful. And there's no denying that the traditional five-day cricket match can be frustratingly slow (no one likes matches ending in a draw, either). But traditions carry weight in cricket: after all, they wouldn't be calling the upcoming series the Ashes if England and Australia were simply playing a string of one-day games--and the press in both countries wouldn't be in such a frenzy about it, either. Encouraged (and enriched) by the Sharjah/Toronto formula, some sponsors are keen to organize Test matches in neutral territory. Bangladesh, with its sizable cricket-savvy population, is spoken of as a likely host for the subcontinental showdown of the decade, perhaps as early as February. If the proposal gets off the drawing board, its success as a TV event is assured. But it would weaken, if not kill off, attempts to get India and Pakistan to play on each other's turf. And that would represent a moral victory for Bal Thackeray and his kind.
It would also defeat the best traditions of Indian and Pakistani hospitality. Former players wax rhapsodic about the genuine warmth they used to encounter on "enemy" soil. Sure, Pakistani batsmen would be accompanied by 100,000 raspberries on their way to the crease in the Calcutta caldron so optimistically named Eden Gardens--but the same 100,000 voices would rise in salute when he returned to the pavilion after a well-crafted century.
In turn, a Karachi crowd would encourage their fastest bowler to knock the head off his opponent's shoulders, but an Indian's well-executed square drive would be greeted with a mighty roar of approval. Off the pitch, fans from Hyderabad (in eastern Pakistan) to Hyderabad (in southern India) reserved their brightest smiles and heartiest hugs for players from the other side of the border. Tales abound of Lahore carpet merchants who cheerfully refused to accept payment from Indian players on a shopping spree, pointing out that Bombay goldsmiths extended the same generosity to Pakistani players.
Such gestures of good neighborliness are all too rare in the history of acrimony and animosity between the two countries. They are too precious to be allowed to fade away. Fans on both sides can draw some hope from the knowledge that previous attempts to politicize cricket eventually petered out. But between 1962 and 1977, when no cross-border Test matches were played, two generations of players on both sides were denied the opportunity to match skills. That should never be allowed to happen again--insha'Allah and by the grace of Ram.