India-Pakistan: why we need to remember this is just sport

Sourav Ganguly's men are going to Pakistan and will be matching wits with Inzamam-ul-Haq's (inset) team. The Indian captain and his team must make the most of it there. — Pics. HAMISH BLAIR/GETTY IMAGES & AFP-Sourav Ganguly's men are going to Pakistan and will be matching wits with Inzamam-ul-Haq's (inset) team. The Indian captain and his team must make the most of it there. — Pics. HAMISH BLAIR/GETTY IMAGES & AFP

Cricket will not heal wounds. But perhaps it can play a minor role. Perhaps this experiment can only work if we remember it is just cricket, that no nation is a lesser one for losing, or a superior one for winning, writes ROHIT BRIJNATH.

IN 1996, I travelled to Pakistan for the World Cup cricket final. India, of course, were not playing, but having watched weeks of cricket across the subcontinent, a Sri Lanka-Australia final, laced with its own controversy, was impossible to miss.

I was apprehensive going to Pakistan, I was also incredibly eager. This was not just about one nation torn apart, this was also about personal history. Like so many Indians, both my parents were born in Lahore, travelling back to India prior to partition. In this land, now so reviled, rested a part of me.

I stayed with a Pakistani family and every apprehension was swiftly dissolved. My Indianness was embraced, it was met with a smile, with questions, with a hospitality I have yet to receive on any other shore. Language is our common starting blocks and there is no finish line to what we share. Lahore kebabs are not to be underestimated either.

Mostly we were too polite to talk politics, and discussing Kashmir seemed inappropriate. But when the conversation turned to cricket, to India-Pakistan matches, the air grew thick, the mood inevitably turned darker. This was never fun.

It reminded me of sitting in the stadium in Bangalore some weeks earlier watching India play Pakistan. Of all the cricket matches I had seen this was the most uncomfortable. This was not Indian passion sweeping out from across the stands, this was mainly jingoism. This wasn't sport.

In these matches, it was the players I pitied. No sporting contest should bring so much pressure, no contest between bat and ball should assume such significance. Surely there was something absurd, something totally contrary to the nature of sport, when people from both countries say: if you lose the World Cup we'll forgive you, but don't lose to each other.

The art of cricket was not so much secondary but unimportant, the pleasure of watching talent collide with talent became meaningless: only the result mattered. This was "winning is everything" at its most perverted.

Now India tours Pakistan and both nations are understandably agog. Of course, there are bigger issues at play here than cricket. Some weeks ago I wrote a column on this subject and was told by readers I was being unduly pessimistic. Perhaps they were right. If the game can bring conflicting nations even an inch closer, then no one should stand in its way. Cricket will not heal wounds. But perhaps it can play a minor role. Perhaps this experiment can only work if we remember it is just cricket, that no nation is a lesser one for losing, or a superior one for winning.

Perhaps if we applaud Shoaib Akhtar and the Pakistanis cheer Sachin Tendulkar hope will still flare. Perhaps if we remember that the joy that great skill brings should never be limited by geography we have a chance. Perhaps if embrace each other on a cricketing field then we can build on that. A generous and spirited Chennai crowd, in 1999, proved after all that it could be done.

Some of the responsibility rests with the players. Much of it lies with us, the watchers.

Men in white flannels have always been seen as sporting ambassadors, but here it will be taken literally. How they play will be important, how they behave even more so. It is unfair in a sense to ask Sourav Ganguly and his men to pose as diplomats, but perhaps most other ways have failed.

In Sydney, in February, Ganguly made one of his few errors of the tour. On the night the one-day finals ended, he was given an opportunity, which he did not take. He could have spoken about a terrific series between two nations, about the Australian crowds that had cheered his players, about the expats who donned Indian blue and arrived to support his team, about the two teams that played superb cricket mostly in an admirable spirit, about a rivalry that promises much.

Instead he got on stage, mumbled his way through a 20-second speech and was gone. Perhaps he was tired, disappointed, had said enough in a 100 press conferences, but it would have been a nice finishing touch.

Whatever, in Pakistan, he will have to do better. Playing cricket will not be enough. He will have to press the flesh, wave, talk, smile, suffer endless luncheons and long dinners. He is not short of charm but he will need all of it. India is going to Pakistan and his team must make the most of it. Pakistan no doubt will be fine hosts; it is equally important that we are good guests.

But eventually it is up to us, how we view the cricket, how much we invest in defeat and victory.

Till now it has only helped polarise us and what's the point of playing then.

Always, when these matches occur, I am reminded of one shining moment in Manchester during the 1999 World Cup. India was playing Pakistan, and it was not a pretty day. But in the morning of that match, I met two men, Bulwinder Singh and Tariq Malik. There they were sitting together, one dressed in a Pakistani shirt, another in an Indian one. They were friends, and this was cricket.

We talked a while and then one of them reached into his bag and pulled out a pair of one-inch-by-one-inch boxing gloves with the flag of India on one, of Pakistan on the other. "We bought this on our way to the stadium. This was as far as we were willing to go," said Tariq.

It is as far as sport should go.