India, Pakistan cricket clash

Read also: The Pakistani Side of the Great Cricket Game

While there are deeper issues between India and Pakistan, such as terrorism and Kashmir that need major sorting, the game of cricket has broken diplomatic ice and tempered relations that sometimes border on war.

Past instances of "cricket diplomacy" have involved Pakistan’s General Zia-ul-Haq and India’s Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in the 1980s and later President Pervez Musharraf and Indian Premier Atal Behari Vajpayee, who have used the gentleman’s game to defuse suspicions and initiate new dialogues.

Renewed cricket relations were integral to Vajpayee’s India-Pakistan peace process, especially in the wake of the Kargil incursions in 1999, when the two countries fought to control vantage areas in Kashmir and nearly went to a full scale war.

Obviously cricket diplomacy appears to have been a temporary remedy at best. In all the previous occasions in which the game has brought the two sides together, their amity has been sundered by renewed hostilities. Nonetheless, given such contexts, the semifinal clash between India and Pakistan this week at Mohali in Chandigarh as part of the ongoing World Cup cricket is a diplomatic opportunity that incumbent Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh did not want to miss.

It is perhaps the first real goodwill gesture by India post the 26/11 Mumbai attacks in 2008 that left 174 dead and more than 300 injured. Manmohan has invited his counterpart Yousuf Raza Gilani and Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari to Mohali to watch the high-intensity encounter between the two subcontinent teams whose fortunes are closely followed by the cricket-crazy populations.

Mohali is located in Punjab, a state that shares its border with Pakistan, along with deep cultural and language affinities with the other side that date back to the days of pre-partition 1947.

Gilani, meanwhile, has accepted the invitation and is traveling to India. In an official statement Islamabad has welcomed New Delhi’s gesture and as a goodwill move released an Indian citizen who has spent 27 years in a Pakistani prison, arrested on charges of spying. Such tenor is expected to continue during the home secretary level talks on security and "trust deficit" that began this week Monday.

Gilani has termed his upcoming informal meeting with Manmohan on the sidelines of the cricket match as a "timely opportunity to show the world that the two nations can play together as well as deliberate on issues of national importance." This is the first time that the Pakistan prime minister will travel to India, though he has met Manmohan twice earlier at regional summits.

As has happened in the past such friendly exchanges between India and Pakistan at the top level have found quick reactions from those who wish harmony between the two nations constantly at loggerheads.

There is a body of literature and also cinema that revolves around verbiage such as confidence-building measures, people-to-people contacts that in turn underlines a passionate undercurrent that actually unites the two populations that were part of one country at one time.

Examples include big-budget Bollywood movies such as Veer-Zaara, a star-crossed Montague-Capulet drama that features an Indian Air Force squadron leader and a the daughter of a rich Lahore familythat have delved into such cross-country relationships, emphasizing the victory of the human spirit over an artificially and politically motivated divide between the two countries.

There has been much talk about the comfort levels between former Premiers Rajiv Gandhi and Benazir Bhutto, who belonged to similar backgrounds, educations and legacies – and both assassinated by their own people. New connections are today drawn between Congress Party scion Rahul Gandhi and Bilawal Bhutto Zardari.

Yet it is important not to get carried away. Sections within powerful and deep-rooted institutions such as the Pakistan Army or the intelligence agency ISI, with vicious and vested strategic agendas that engender a dangerous terror and jihadi machinery will require much more than a cricket game to change their profiles.

So will relations between the two countries involved, involved as they are in a ceaseless arms race, given such vexed issues as terror, Kashmir, water sharing and building hydro dams along each other’s borders.

The ongoing court hearing of incarcerated Mumbai assassin Ajmal Kasab is a daily reminder to India of the assault and carnage the country faced at the hands of Lashkar-e-Toiba militants based-in Pakistan. Terror and a brazen attack on a visiting Sri Lankan team March 2009 have driven out Pakistan as a venue for international cricket matches.

As important as confidence-building measures are in building a constituency of peace between the two countries, it cannot be forgotten that politically the two continue to be on diverse planes, with influence over Afghanistan a new strategic playground, alongside the United States.

For now though, cricket has taken over. The tickets for the match were sold out long ago, spot television ad rates during match time were at an unprecedented high and so was the security at Mohali. Traffic, work and a lot more will be at a standstill as the two nations meet. Massive illegal betting or satta also accompanies such high profile contests.

New Delhi, meanwhile, has issued visas that are very difficult to come by otherwise to Pakistanis who wish to watch the match. An official of Punjab cricket has said that the visitors are being welcomed with "open arms."

Pakistan has never beaten India in a World Cup match and is seeking to rewrite history even as the team has struggled in the recent past to come to terms with severe match fixing allegations that has seen three of its best players banned.

India will be looking to repeat a feat achieved way back in 1983 by winning the cup again. They need to beat Pakistan to do that.

There will be plenty of attention on India’s iconic player Sachin Tendulkar who could log an unprecedented century of centuries in top class cricket, should he score a 100. Playing up the mind games, Pakistan captain Shahid Afridi has said that Tendulkar will need to wait.

Nobody minds such mind plays provided the happenings limit themselves to the battle field of cricket. That, sadly, is not often the case.

Siddharth Srivastava is a New Delhi-based journalist. He can be reached at sidsri@yahoo.com