After a season of darkness, a season of light?

When the Pakistanis went on a victory lap after beating India in the Chennai Test in 1999, the sporting crowd rose to a man to cheer them. — Pic. V. V. KRISHNAN-

Sport can both divide and unite. And it is up to us — not merely the politicians but us, the people — to decide what we want it to do, writes NIRMAL SHEKAR.

CHENNAI, January 31, 1999: It is the sort of moment that die-hard romantics and peaceniks constantly dream of but seldom get to experience, the sort of moment that would make you want to pinch yourself, just to be sure, a time to play John Lennon's classic "Imagine'' and believe, too, that everything that the great singer and songwriter wrote could become a reality.

As Wasim Akram and his men set out on a lap of honour on the hallowed Chepauk turf after beating India by 12 runs in a thrill-a-minute Test that is won and lost in four days, almost every single person in the stadium stands up and cheers Indian cricket's "arch-enemy''.

The sporting crowd's reaction to Pakistan's success in a Test match which the peerless Sachin Tendulkar single-handedly promises to deliver for his team before falling fractionally short on tired legs is at once heart-warming and soul-lifting.

CENTURION, March 1, 2003: The little man whose genius couldn't deliver the goods four years ago in a Test in Chennai, this time makes all the difference for India in the World Cup. With a magnificent assault on the Pakistan bowling, the ultimate sporting version of Donald Rumsfeld's famous "shock and awe'' tactics, Tendulkar takes the match away from the Pakistanis in a jiffy.

``That's it. I don't care what happens from here on. I don't care if India loses every single match from here on. The World Cup is over for me. We have won. We have thrashed the Pakis,'' a middle-aged Indian waving the tri-colour tells his companion.

The couple had spent two years' savings to travel from Chennai to the Supersport Park in Centurion for the World Cup match. And a few weeks after the event, the man's lady friend relates her companion's reaction to me in Chennai.

EXTREMES. Always extremes. Through six decades we have never been able to find the emotional middle ground when it comes to India-Pakistan sporting ties.

Two nuclear-armed nations that were on the brink of war not long ago are, today, expected to remove all barriers instantly — not the least the sporting variety — thanks to the olive branch held out by the Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee.

And nowhere are the expectations more unrealistic, following the thaw, than in the field of sport. If you were to believe some sports officials — whose eyes are always on the fast buck — we'd soon be seeing a ticker tape parade for Sourav Ganguly and his boys in downtown Karachi and one for Rashid Latif and Co. on Marine Drive in Mumbai!

No doubt sport has the capacity to cut across all barriers, a great capacity to heal wounds and to bring up the promise of a better tomorrow. But then, in the present scenario, we are getting well ahead of ourselves.

Nobody can be so naive as to imagine that sport can surmount all political compulsions and thrive independently in a paradise all its own. After all, sport is only a sub-structure in society and it has to, per se, reflect politics, reflect life in general.

And sport, for all its influence and power, is still in no position to determine the course of politics in the nations of the world and continues to be a rather vulnerable sub-system.

A few belligerent words from politicians either side of the LoC and we begin to think Tendulkar will never again face a Pakistani bowler in his life. A few positive signals from a Vajpayee or a Musharraf and immediately we begin to think our cricketers and hockey players will catch the next flight to Lahore for Test matches.

I remember, about seven years ago, the Pakistan government set up an enquiry committee after the team lost to India in a World Cup match in Bangalore. And today Musharraf believes that the first priority on the road to peace and good neighbourly conduct is the resumption of sporting ties.

And a few hardened ones like me who understand the peculiar dynamics of the India-Pakistan sporting relationship will not really be surprised by any of these extreme knee-jerk reactions propelled by political considerations.

But, for all the talk of unity, except for a few sane moments now and again — as in the recent World Cup when the Pakistanis accepted defeat with considerable grace — and a few glorious moments as in Chennai in January 1999, the India-Pakistan rivalry has always produced rather dangerous sparks.

The sheer intensity of emotions that an India-Pakistan clash touches off, particularly in cricket, blinds many of us to the realities and makes us want to find hidden reasons for victory or defeat when none really exist.

Most of the time, the equation is simple: on a given day, one team played well and the other did not. It is as ridiculously simple as that.

For instance, anyone trying to probe the mysteries of the recent India-Pakistan clash, in the World Cup in South Africa, will find out in two and a half seconds that there are indeed no mysteries. One thing made all the difference: the genius of a little man from Mumbai.

Yet, each time the two teams play, the supporters of the losing side somehow manage to read more into the result than there actually is. While it might be ludicrous to see an India-Pakistan match as just another ballgame — the emotions apart — there may not be much more to it than what you might find in any other great rivalry.

And you don't need the enormous weight of shared history, spilt blood across the border and almost subhuman emotions to work up a healthy and entertaining rivalry.

Consider, for instance, the Australia-New Zealand rivalry. What absorbing contests they throw up from time to time — not the least when they met in a World Cup quarterfinal match in Chennai in the mid-90s.

So, where is the need for that "extra dimension'' — as some prefer to call it — in the India-Pakistan matches? And why read more into the results than there are, in actual sporting terms?

Then again, what does India's victory over Pakistan, or Pakistan's victory over India, in cricket or hockey or whatever sport, prove? Physical superiority? Cultural superiority? Intellectual superiority? Political superiority?

Nothing of that sort, really. We share a culture. And we share, too, most of the problems of the Third World, although India has made giant strides in the recent years and Pakistan has lagged behind.

The only kind of superiority that is reflected on the field of sport is the athletic variety — and even that is limited to a given day in a given sport. Nothing more.

The point is, sport can both divide and unite. And it is up to us — not merely the politicians but us, the people — to decide what we want it to do.

Adolf Hitler was not the first politician to use sport to divide and use sportsmen as puppets, nor were Saddam Hussein and his son Uday the last. From the days of the ancient Olympics sport has at once brought peoples together and sundered them apart.

And even in this global village of ours, shrunk remarkably by Internet and jetplanes and shared culture, sport still continues to be a stage for display of all sorts of differences — ideological, religious, racial, what-have-you.

What is more, when it comes to India and Pakistan a few more highly combustible items are thrown into the cauldron.

My point is, tread easy. The Kashmir issue is not going to be solved the moment India and Pakistan start playing Test match cricket. But, yes, things are moving the right way.

As the Chinese proverb says, "The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.''