Why a Battle with Bat and Ball Is Exactly What India and Pakistan Need

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Mike Hewitt / Getty Images

Pakistan's Saeed Anwar takes a swing during a 2003 cricket World Cup game against India. The teams face off again on Wednesday

Serious sport, wrote George Orwell, amounts to "war minus the shooting." India and Pakistan have certainly done plenty of shooting in the three wars they've fought since being separated in birth by the departing British Empire in 1947. But on Wednesday, they'll channel their rivalry into another ritual bequeathed by the British when they face off in an eagerly awaited semifinal of cricket's Word Cup. Both countries' leaders will be among the tens of thousands squeezed into the stadium in the Indian city of Mohali, recognizing the sporting showdown as a rare opportunity to ease the geopolitical one.

"This is the mother of all matches," says Mushahid Hussain, a prominent Pakistani opposition politician. It is difficult to exaggerate the excitement built up on both sides of the border, with anticipation of the match having dominated the news cycle for days now on a subcontinent obsessed with the sport. Hundreds of millions of viewers are expected to watch the match on television, with absenteeism at work likely to reach record highs. Pakistan's Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, who will be at the match, has announced that government offices will close two hours before the opening ball is bowled.

Cricket is a rare source of cohesion in an increasingly fractured Pakistani society in which passion for the game is as widespread and embedded in the national identity as the embrace of Islam is. But whereas religion has proved to be a violent source of division in recent years, cricket unites Pakistanis across the dangerous fissures of ethnicity, sect and social class. But the violent fanaticism that cloaks itself in religion impinged on the sanctity of cricket when, in March 2009, the visiting Sri Lankan team was attacked by terrorists. No foreign team has toured there since. Were it not for the terror threat, Pakistan would be co-hosting the World Cup. Some say it is better that Pakistan was spared the embarrassment of hosting matches at Lahore's Gaddafi Stadium, named in honor of the Libyan dictator for his support of Pakistan's clandestine nuclear-weapons pursuit.

Terrorism has also sabotaged efforts to repair relations between India and Pakistan. After the November 2008 Mumbai massacre, New Delhi severed diplomatic links with Islamabad. The attackers were from Pakistan and were members of Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), a terrorist outfit that Pakistan had backed as a proxy in the anti-Indian insurgency in Kashmir — and had banned only under pressure from the Bush Administration.

The Mumbai attacks brought the nuclear-armed neighbors perilously close to war; now, partly thanks to cricket, the peace process is slowly resuming. On Monday and Tuesday, the interior secretaries of the two countries met for scheduled talks. In a breakthrough, Islamabad agreed to allow Indian investigators probing the Mumbai massacre to visit Pakistan. On Wednesday, the two Prime Ministers will also meet — at the match.

Once the two countries had beaten their quarterfinal opponents to set up the Mohali showdown, India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh didn't hesitate to invite Gilani to the game. "One can call it symbolism," says politician Hussain, "but in the checkered history of India-Pakistan relations, even symbolism becomes substance."

Cricket diplomacy has proved useful in easing tensions before. In 1987, Pakistan's General Mohammed Zia ul-Haq unilaterally decided to watch the teams play in Jaipur, India, a move that is said to have defused fears of a cross-border attack. And in 2004 and 2005, leaders from both countries traveled to watch cricket on both sides of the border as hostilities in Kashmir subsided and a back-channel dialogue got under way.

One side will have to lose Wednesday's match, but the politicians won't let that cloud a diplomatic opening. "Both leaders have shown wisdom in not letting this opportunity pass," says Sherry Rehman, a Pakistani lawmaker heavily involved in track-two diplomacy and also a cricket fan on her way to Mohali. "We must not expect major summitry here, as this is not a structured dialogue, but it can become a window for new beginnings, for turning a new corner. God knows both countries could use one."

Pakistan's security establishment remains obsessed with the idea that the country faces an existential threat from India, seeing Indian support for the Karzai government in Afghanistan as part of a scheme to encircle Pakistan. India complains that Pakistan has done little to crack down effectively on LeT, which despite being banned still holds public rallies to incite jihad against India. So there are limits to what cricket diplomacy can achieve. Gilani, after all, is forced to defer to Pakistan's powerful military in matters of national strategy, while India's Singh appears to be in a minority in his own Cabinet.

For many on both sides, part of what makes the political divide so frustrating is also what makes the cricket rivalry so enjoyable: "India and Pakistan are so close in many ways and so far in others," says H.M. Naqvi, a Pakistani novelist who recently won the award for best South Asian fiction at the Jaipur Literature Festival. "The rivalry is a function of our peculiar relationship. We all watch Bollywood, eat dhal, listen to qawwali [music] and enjoy cricket. And yet, despite all these commonalities, we've often been at daggers drawn."

The ritual combat of cricket, however, offers a more attractive — and bloodless — avenue of conflict. Even the most enthusiastic peaceniks fail to suppress their nationalism when it comes to the sport. "The competition on the pitch helps let off steam," adds Naqvi. "All our aspirations and anxieties are played out on the field. The rivalry also makes for a great goddamn match!" The two teams are among the best in the world, with a history of nail-bitingly close finishes. On this occasion, however, India is the favorite — a stronger team on paper with a powerful home-ground advantage.

But Pakistan needs the victory more. The national cricket team has become a metaphor for the national malaise, plagued by instability and a match-fixing scandal that has taken down some of its top players. And while India has keenly burnished a global image as a rising economic power, Pakistan's headlines are dominated by terrorism, assassinations, floods and deepening economic gloom. A cricket win would certainly lift morale.

Although Wednesday's game is only a semifinal, few Pakistanis care whether they ultimately win the World Cup. Fans merely dread a humiliation at the hands of the archrival next door. "Lose to any team you want," Pakistanis often say, "but never lose to India."