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´Religion´ Of Cricket Binds People In South Asia


April 01 2004

Navin Kapoor kept a tight grip on the chair, while a friend sat on the edge of the sofa biting his nails. Another friend lay on the floor, his head on his arm.

The three men in their 30s stayed glued to the television for nine hours March 24 as India and Pakistan played the last of five one-day cricket matches. "There is nothing like this. Boy, this is out of this world," Kapoor said as an Indian player hit the winning shot. All three jumped, clapped and broke into a dance.

Such scenes were repeated all over India as the neighboring countries resumed cricket matches after 14 years. As people crowded around TV sets, offices, roads and shopping malls wore a deserted look.

So powerful was the impact that political observers are suggesting cricket may be the best vehicle to bring lasting peace between India and Pakistan, which were on the verge of a nuclear war three years ago. They have fought four wars since 1947, when both were created out of British India. A dispute over Kashmir, which each controls in part, has been a major divisive issue.

"The hold of cricket on the popular imagination in this country defies rational explanation," commented Vinod Mehta, editor of "Outlook" weekly.

Reports from journalists who went to Pakistan to cover the Indian team´s March 11-April 17 tour give glowing accounts of their hosts´ hospitality. Five one-day and three test matches were scheduled. A test match lasts five days.

"We went to Pakistan expecting a narrow-minded, fundamentalist and India-baiting country," commentator Karan Thapar wrote March 28 in "The Hindustan Times," a leading newspaper. "That, after all, is what we had been led to believe. What we found was an open, friendly people, liberal and welcoming, but above all else just like us," he continued.

Thapar says the people of the subcontinent have embraced each other after 50 years. "We may not be the same any longer but we are not that different either. In fact, we have much more in common than separates us," he wrote.

Reports said hundreds from both countries mingled and cheered for their teams at cricket stadiums across Pakistan.

The India-Pakistan bonhomie prompted South Asia observer Sudhir Kumar Singh of New Delhi´s Jawaharlal Nehru University to comment that cricket has become "almost like a religion in this part of the world." The game cuts across "prejudices of religion, caste and every other possible division," Singh told UCA News March 23. "Cricket is more effective than all the political and religious efforts to forge unity," he declared.

Parliamentarian Rajiv Shukla agrees. "I have never seen so much positive feeling between the people of two countries," the former journalist observed, describing the atmosphere as like a festival. "There is no talk of any animosity," said Shukla, a member of the Board of Cricket Control of India.

Pakistan held special visa camps for cricket fans from India. A special train for the occasion left Old Delhi Railway Station carrying among others Hindu holy men and people visiting Pakistan for the first time since the two countries were created through a bloody partition process.

Pushpinder Singh, who returned from Karachi, southern Pakistan, after watching a match, told UCA News the Indians were allowed to roam around the city without intelligence agency officials tailing them.

In India, newspapers reported people in Pakistan had arranged special vegetarian food for Hindus from across the border.

Cricket took precedence over other national issues and even found its way to the Supreme Court, which held a rare session late into the night March 11 at the chief justice´s residence to resolve a telecast rights controversy.

The speaker of the Delhi legislative assembly moved its March afternoon session to the morning of March 24 to allow its members to watch a match. The members passed a special resolution lauding the speaker´s decision.

While seeing off the Indian team before its departure for Pakistan, Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee had asked the members to win not only the matches but also Pakistani hearts.

However, it was Pakistani people who won the Indians´ hearts, says Rajdeep Sardesai, managing editor of New Delhi Television. "Indeed, the success of this Indo-Pak tour lies in the immensely powerful symbolism of goodwill" generated on both sides of the border, he wrote in "The Hindustan Times."

A senior Indian diplomat admits that cricket has proved a better confidence-building measure than diplomatic efforts to date. "If only we had regular cricket matches, all these tensions and violence would automatically subside," he told UCA News.