Who would have imagined that the game that George Bernard Shaw ridiculed, as 22 flannelled fools being watched by 22,000 flannelled fools, would become so firmly entrenched in the sub-continent? Of course the flannels have been replaced by more casual wear but this colonial legacy, cricket, like the English language, is here to stay. There is no other game that has grabbed the attention of the South Asian countries as much as cricket. Sports analysts can talk at length about the damage that it has done to other sport but it is of no use. Ask any lad who his favorite hero is and you are sure to get the name of a cricketing icon and most likely it would be Sachin Tendulkar, and now maybe Irfan Pathan.
Even the Government of India is not above according the Indian cricket teams, the status of Gods. Recently the laws of the land were revised to make it possible for Tendulkar to bring his Ferrari into the country, without paying import duties or taxes for a Homologation test that would involve testing the roadworthiness of the vehicle in question. Sachin saved crores of rupees (the taxpayer's loss) and thanks to him, all future owners of imported cars need no longer take the Homologation test!
Of all cricket matches, there is nothing to catch the fancy of the Indian public as much as a match between Pakistan and India. Needless to say, the same goes for people of that country, seeing the way they came out in huge numbers to watch all the matches and cheer for both the teams, in the recently concluded India-Pakistan One Day Internationals held across cities in Pakistan. The fact that the two countries had not played each other in Pakistan in 15 years did make a difference to the way that the first phase of the series was viewed (Jeet lo dil was what it was called, after Mr. Vajpayee's exhortation to the Indian team about winning hearts, in addition to winning matches) but there is no denying the boost that it gave to Indo-Pak relations. While much has been said about Track 2 diplomacy that has been attempted by way of people-to-people contact, there is nothing quite like this 'Track 3 Diplomacy' that has the peoples of the two countries begging for more.
Starting from the time that Indians queued up outside the Pakistani Embassy in New Delhi waiting to get their visas to witness the clash of the cricketing giants in Pakistan, to Indian Airlines increasing their flights to accommodate cricket-loving Indians, it has been an amazing shift in perceptions. Kargil was forgotten; so was Kashmir, and all that people could think of was cricket!
Needless to say that the Pakistani economy must have got a great boost, as a result of the huge influx of Indian tourists visiting the country. Posters of Indian cricketers especially Dravid, Yuvraj, Sachin and Saurav were snapped up and have gone for reprints! Newspapers and television interviews are full of details of the mehmaan nawazi (honoring of a guest) that the Pakistanis are so proud of, and emails are in circulation about cab drivers, who refuse to accept the fare money the moment they come to know that the passenger is an Indian. Indian cricket fans said that they were made to feel at home everywhere and it was almost like being at home.
After India's win, there was an official celebration and Indian newspapers and TV channels warmed the heart with pictures and images of members of the two teams embracing each other. Some of this bonhomie was visible even during the matches, when both Pakistani and Indian spectators applauded good shots from both sides. There was a memorable moment when Shoaib Akhtar took Rahul Dravid's wicket at 99, and displayed absolutely no sign of exuberance after doing so. Rather, he had a wistful expression and applauded Dravid as he embarked on the sad walk, back to the pavilion. Despite the fierce competition between the two teams on the field, they share a good rapport (some even share the same tax consultants!) off it and that has been visible throughout these five one-day matches.
The oddest piece of news was about the organizers of bets in the two countries who united to help each other. Since no Indian worth his salt would be willing to bet on a Pakistani victory and vice versa, the two sets of betting agents got together and decided to share their spoils and cut their losses, whatever the outcome of the matches! Stranger things have happened!
The five one-day matches between the two countries have shown what can be achieved, if they are at each peace with each other. Agreed that there may be a hidden animosity at some level, because of cultural and religious prejudices, passed on from one generation to another about each other's practices, but on the whole, it is in the interest of both countries to promote peace. The winners, of course, will be the two peoples who can then watch films from both sides of the border (without having to buy pirated tapes, which is the case with films from India right now), visit their relatives from across the border, without red tape, and what is most important, live without the fear of some nuclear warheads going off resulting in the annihilation of both the countries. Another wonderful spin-off could be that the money now being pumped into the arms race, can be better utilized in development projects to help the poorest of the poor in both countries.
The losers of course will be the Western countries that sell arms to both Pakistan and India, while making a semblance of talking peace with them. Their interventions may not be needed when there is cricket and an understanding of the shared history that no one can take away. As one cricket lover interviewed at the Wagah border put it, 'It does not matter who wins.' Hum ek the, ek hain aur ek rahenge (We were one, are one and will continue to be one). Imagine the cricket team that would emerge if the two countries were to unite, in the manner of the Koreas. They would certainly be the most unbeatable of world champs in cricketing history!