Cheek to cheek

People across the border love the game. But India-Pakistan cricket takes a hit yet again as politics takes precedence over sports

Qaiser Mohammad Ali, Hardnews

When the young textile mill owner Naeem Gulzar especially came down to Multan from Lahore to present a beautiful carpet to Virender Sehwag following his historic triple Test century on India's unforgettable tour of Pakistan in 2004, he emulated Zia-ul-Haq. The late Pakistan president too had famously presented an expensive carpet to Sunil Gavaskar on his 100th Test match in Lahore in 1984. Exactly 20 years later, Gulzar made the presentation in Sehwag's hotel room and had a quiet dinner with him.

These are amongst the many incidents that underline how intertwined cricket is with the masses in the two countries. It is also a very effective tool that politicians in both countries use frequently, unashamedly and selfishly. Therefore, when India's scheduled tour to Pakistan -- the third one in less than five years -- this January-February, was cancelled after the attacks in Mumbai, genuine fans and players mourned the decision. No one knows for sure when the bilateral series would now resume.

The first time the game was sacrificed at the altar of India-Pakistan politics was after the 1960 war. No series was held for the next 18 years. Later, a 15-year gap occurred between 1989 and 2004. During this period India did not undertake a tour of Pakistan due to political reasons, though a two-Test series did take place in India in 1999. Interestingly, the 2004 tour happened despite the Kargil war in 1999 and the failed Agra Summit between Atal Behari Vajpayee and Pervez Musharraf in 2001. Nobody could imagine that a cricket series would be played so soon because of the prevailing tension.

Bishan Singh Bedi, who was India captain on the path-breaking tour of Pakistan in 1978-79, is disappointed with politicians interfering with cricket. "I don't have good views about all this (repercussions of India's cancelled tour), that's why I don't want to say much," he said. The legendary left-arm spinner refuses to guess as to how long the suspension would last. "When we toured Pakistan in 1978, it was after 18 years. What happened?" Bedi probably implied that now the situation is different from what it was in 1960. Now, powerful voices are putting pressure on India and Pakistan to make up.

Former India all-rounder Manoj Prabhkar, who toured Pakistan in 1989 for India's last full-fledged Test series before the 15-year gap occurred, is also unable to predict. "It will take a long time. I can't see it starting soon in the present circumstances," he said.  A quiet change in world cricket administration has happened in the last few years with the International Cricket Council (ICC) becoming pro-active. It now tells countries to honour the Future Tours Programme, a long-term schedule for the Test-playing nations. An example of this was the Pakistan-Australia Test matches played in Sharjah in 2000-01, when the Kangaroos declined to tour Pakistan due to security reasons. If a country declines to tour another country without solid reason it faces fines up to $2 million. But in the Indian case the penalty doesn't apply since the government stopped the tour not the cricket board. Indian and Pakistani boards are reportedly mulling over Abu Dhabi in UAE as an alternative neutral venue. Although the facilities there are excellent, it boils down to government permission and arranging foolproof security.

In spite of the ICC stipulations, says Prabhakar, politicians have the final say in India-Pakistan cricket. "It is true that good relations are often built because of cricket. If these days former players like Wasim Akram, Waqar Younis or Ramiz Raja frequently visit India for TV commentary or coaching, it is because cricket has opened options for them," he said. "Politics ties the hands of cricket boards and players. You have to listen to the government. But if the public wants relations to be good between the two countries nobody can go against them," he said, referring to the 2004 tour during which thousands of fans from both countries mingled like never before. About 800 Indians visited Pakistan -- partly to watch the matches and partly to see their homes and mohallas that they were forced to leave after united India's tragic partition in 1947.

I was part of the huge media contingent that covered the 44-day tour in 2004 and watched the unprecedented scenes of camaraderie on and off the field. While some people from either country stitched the flags of India and Pakistan together and splashed them with innovative slogans of unity, others painted the flags of the two countries on either cheek. I vividly remember watching some youngsters in Lahore wearing shirts made of the two countries' flags. They shared food, anecdotes and placards in all the stadiums.

The most touching incident was enacted at Hotel Melrose in Lahore where some Hindu Indian fans had stayed. They arrived during the nine-day Navratras when they avoid eating non-vegetarian food. The hotel management, which used to serve eggs at breakfast, immediately replaced eggs with fruit juices in respect of their "esteemed guests". No eggs were available for even non-vegetarians like me.

There were many incidents that touched the heart. Alas, politicians took little note of it. But the UN did. Acknowledging the teams as "catalysts of peace", it announced: "The national cricket teams of Pakistan and India are appointed spokespersons for the International Year of Sport and Physical Education 2005 in recognition of the outstanding example both teams have set in overcoming regional tension and encouraging peaceful relations."

When the Pakistani team visited India in 2005, Musharraf cleverly used the opportunity to have a dialogue with Manmohan Singh. He watched the Delhi ODI at the Ferozeshah Kotla Stadium. But, today, no one is ready to predict when Singh and President Asif Ali Zardari would meet and when cricketing ties would resume.

India-Pakistan cricket history is littered with politics, with politicians making maximum use of the game. There are many examples: suspension of cricket ties for 18 years following the war in 1960, Bal Thackarey's resolve to not ‘allow' Pakistan to play in Bombay -- the last time Pakistan played there was in 1987 -- Shiv Sainiks digging up the Kotla pitch just before the 1999 Test match in Delhi, and an activist tearing the shirt buttons of captain K Srikkanth in Pakistan in 1989.

Interestingly, when cricket is on, the same politicians vie with each other to climb the cricket bandwagon to gain maximum mileage, blurring party lines. When India played the Karachi ODI in 2004, Rahul and Priyanka Gandhi, and BJP leader Arun Jaitley, together, watched the action at the National Stadium -- seen by millions on TV back home. Remember, it was the first match of the historic series and the security threat there was most intense. In Lahore, more politicians poured in and Ravi Shakar Prasad, then minister of information, went to the city's famous Food Street along with captain Sourav Ganguly well past midnight.

Musharraf visited the venues thrice and personally hosted the Indian team on high tea in 2004 as well as in 2006. He seemed to enjoy the borrowed glory from the cricketers, and so did many local politicians and governors who hosted dinners and organised qawwalis.

Zia-ul-Haq too had used cricket for diplomacy to good effect. Three years after gifting the carpet to Gavaskar at the Gaddafi Stadium, Lahore, Zia flew down to Jaipur to watch the test match in 1987. His visit occurred when a war looked imminent. Zia's unscheduled visit and Indian politicians' shaking hands with him helped defuse the volatile situation. It was during that series that captain Imran Khan did the Cinthol commercial free of cost for his friend Parmeshwar Godrej. And Gavaskar had gone on record saying that he played the 1987 series, his last, only because his friend Imran wanted him "to have a go at each other".

Despite the politics, cricketers enjoy playing against each other. Many of them have close relatives living across the border. Off the field they are hosted, feted and showered with gifts. Prabhakar cherishes the 1989 tour. "We were welcomed like we were one of their own."  Javed Miandad never gave an inch on the field, but proved to be a gracious host off it. Gundappa Viswanath and Dilip Vengsarkar told me in Lahore in 2006 that on previous tours Miandad used to host dinners for them at his home.

The lucrative IPL has blurred the boundaries. Shoaib Malik and Mohammed Asif played under Virender Sehwag for the Delhi Daredevils while Shoaib Akhtar was a member of Sourav Ganguly's Kolkata Knight Riders. A year before the IPL was played in April-June 2008, no one had even dreamt of this happening. And when Malik visited Sehwag's home after his father's demise in October 2007, a new chapter was written.

The IPL raises hopes. With massive money at stake, it is likely that players and administrators might approach politicians to allow the teams to play again. For that to happen, at least one of the two governments will have to take a bold initiative, much like Vajpayee and Musharraf did in 2003.