Test of Endurance

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ANTHONY SPAETH New DelhiAre sports a sublimated form of war? On the subcontinent, it's easy to make the case when arch rivals India and Pakistan take to the pitch for a game of cricket, the only sport in South Asia that truly matters. Business in both countries grinds to a halt. Dinner parties decant into hushed television rooms, as if tanks were rumbling across borders. In sports stadiums, Pakistani cricket commentator Omar Kureishi says, a kind of rapt, glassy-eyed ardor possesses the crowd. These are not people going to a cricket match, Kureishi describes. These were people going into battle.For a moment last week it looked as if the mother of all cricket battles was brewing in India. Pakistani cricketers flew in for a pair of five-day Test matches, the first since 1990, and all hell was breaking loose. Outraged Indian protesters, whipped up by a radical Hindu political party, had already torn up a cricket pitch in New Delhi and trashed the Bombay headquarters of India's Board of Control for Cricket, the national governing authority. Then, in the far-off southern city of Madras, a public transport driver unsuccessfully tried to immolate himself, and three would-be spoilers were arrested in the possession of five severed pigs' heads, which they intended to dump at the local sports stadium to taunt Muslims, both locals and those visiting from Pakistan. (Islam deems the animals unclean, and severed pigs' heads are a time-tested way of sparking religious riots.) If that wasn't enough, a suicide squad of 51 men reportedly stood ready to stop the games by taking their own lives.PAGE 1  |  
As with many subcontinental conflicts ostensibly about religion or other divisive social issues, the cricket spat was mainly a nationwide public-relations campaign by the Shiv Sena, a political party that controls the governments of the western Indian state of Maharashtra and its capital, Bombay. The Shiv Sena was behind most, if not all, of the attacks, and its threats to disrupt the matches were taken seriously by both New Delhi and Islamabad. The Pakistani team and some top Indian players were given the kind of security normally afforded heads of state. Pakistan took the unusual step of naming Shahryar Khan as manager of its team for the duration of the trip. Khan's only experience with sticky wickets has been metaphorical, including a stint as Pakistan's Foreign Secretary, or chief diplomat. He was sent along to make sure cricket didn't derail the already tense relations between the two countries, both of which tested nuclear devices last summer. Before embarking on his career change, the ever-diplomatic Khan said, I'm looking forward to an exciting contest.Things calmed down late in the week when the Shiv Sena abandoned its demand that the matches be called off--an unexpected climb-down, given that the party had managed to abort two earlier Test match series and an amateur golf tournament, and had forced a major international squash tournament to transfer from Bombay to Doha, the capital of Qatar. Shiv Sena supremo Bal Thackeray, a former cartoonist turned political boss, maintains that India should have no contacts with Pakistan as long as Islamabad supports anti-Indian or pro-independence separatists in the states of Jammu and Kashmir. Our stand is based on patriotic fervor, says Thackeray. It's all part of the populist platform that gets Thackeray votes. Aside from being more-Hindu-than-thou, he champions the cause of Marathi-speakers, the majority linguistic group in his state. (It was for them that he got the name of Bombay changed to Mumbai, a Marathi-derived moniker.)The amazing thing for some onlookers is that the characteristically unsportsmanlike, brutal-when-necessary Shiv Sena backed down. From New Delhi's point of view, this was extremely important, says Amitabh Mattoo, an associate professor of international studies at the capital's Jawaharlal Nehru University. If there were trouble, it would seem as if the Shiv Sena had hijacked not only sports, but India-Pakistan relations as well. For the increasingly hapless government of Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, the cricket fracas had become an extremely heavy political football. Vajpayee's Bharatiya Janata Party thrives on a similarly pro-Hindu stance, but it wanted to show the outside world that, despite having nuclear armories, India and Pakistan can coexist and even be civil, at least on the cricket field. That may now be possible: the Test matches, and two regional tournaments, will be played across the subcontinent for the next several weeks. With the Shiv Sena's capitulation, cricket fans can focus not on cross-border tension, but merely on which team will prevail.Reported by Ghulam Hasnain/Karachi, Talat Hussain/Islamabad and Maseeh Rahman/New Delhi  |  2