When everyone was a winner

Facing page: Sourav Ganguly with the Samsung Cup. - Pic. AFP.-

It was clear that cricket was indeed bringing the people of both countries closer. Towards the end of the series in Lahore, we saw several fans holding banners with both the Indian and the Pakistani flags inscribed on them, writes S. DINAKAR.

FIREWORKS lit up the night sky, the floodlights were shining, but the spirit behind the series gleamed brighter than everything else at the Gaddafi Stadium on March 24.

The goodwill tour had passed the test with flying colours, at least with regard to the ODI series. The supporters of India and Pakistan had, from one stand, cheered their team on and there was not a single dark moment. This was the biggest victory of the series.

Finally, we have come to realise that an India-Pakistan duel on a cricket field is nothing more than a wonderful, at times passionate, test of skills. And it is not `War.'

The cabbie driving a bunch of Indian journalists back from the Gaddafi Stadium after the final and decisive match of the Samsung series echoed similar sentiments.

"It is only a game of cricket and we should enjoy it and get on with our lives." Fine words indeed.

There were apprehensions at the beginning that if the matches went down to the wire there would be some tension in the stands. Nothing of that sort happened; in fact the Indian and the Pakistani fans went hand in hand.

If the theme of the series was `winning hearts apart from matches' it was a sure-fire success. The game won by a distance, as reflected in the song specially composed for the series by Indian and Pakistani groups, Euphoria and Strings.

There were fears before the series that Karachi, which was hosting the opening match, would be a troublesome venue. Again the doubters were wrong. The crowd at the port city turned out to be the most sporting, with players of both teams applauded for good cricket. Karachi was a sign of heart-warming things to come.

It was clear that cricket was indeed bringing the people of both countries closer. Towards the end of the series in Lahore, we saw several fans holding banners with both the Indian and the Pakistani flags inscribed on them.

Even in the deciding match of the ODI series, when it was apparent that Pakistan, despite a spirited fightback by the lower order, would go down, the home fans accepted the verdict gracefully.

An Indian spectator waves both the nations' flags at the Gadaffi Stadium. The people of both countries mingled so well at the cricket matches that a new chapter was written in India-Pakistan relations. - Pic. PTI-

The concerns over security notwithstanding, the Indian cricketers shopped at the busy Peshawar markets, skipper Sourav Ganguly also spent some time at the fascinating Anarkali Bazaar in Lahore, and Rahul Dravid, along with Murali Kartik, visited Taxila.

As the series progressed, it was clear that the barriers between the people of the two countries were crumbling. The sheer joy on the faces of the Indian fans — there were at least 5000 of them — on making it to Lahore to witness an India-Pakistan cricket match told it all.

It was no different with the Pakistani fans, who welcomed them with open arms. There were countless banners too on India-Pakistan friendship at the Gaddafi Stadium.

The hospitality of the Pakistani people has been heartwarming. In fact, after the big game on March 24, almost everyone — from the stadium staff to the men at the hotel reception — congratulated the Indian media for the success of the Indian team; they were quickly told that presspersons were expected to stay neutral.

On the field, both teams had a critical role to play — they had to send out the right message. Though the matches were tense affairs with see-sawing fortunes, the emotions of the moment did not lead to any ugly situation.

This does not suggest that the competitive edge was lacking. Both captains had made it clear that no effort would be spared on the field to win.

It is also true that Sourav Ganguly's statement on Shoaib Akhtar — "You can judge for yourself on television" — was blown out of proportion by a section of the media. At no stage did the Indian captain say that the Pakistani paceman chucked.

The incident between Mohammed Sami and Yuvraj Singh in Peshawar was nothing more than a minor flare-up. In fact, the relations between the players of both sides was tremendous. Indeed, a lot of factors contributed to the series being delightfully competitive. In the end, India triumphed, and this was a laudable achievement since Ganguly's men were without three of their key bowlers, Anil Kumble, Harbhajan Singh, and Ajit Agarkar.

However, the manner in which the Indians combined as a team enabled them to overcome bowling shortcomings.

The matches, except in Peshawar, were played on virtually barren pitches, which aided the batsmen; while the Indian batting bloomed, the bowlers learnt to cope with the conditions.

All credit to Irfan Pathan for his spirited spells at crunch times; this youngster does give everything that he has. Importantly, Irfan swung the ball, so he was not entirely dependent on the pitch.

As the tour progressed, Balaji learnt the virtues of pitching the ball up, and allowing it to swing. Left-arm spinner Murali Kartik came back strongly in the vital games at Lahore, bowling with control and guile.

The Indian batsmen, expectedly sizzled, though the middle-order did not always convert the good starts into big scores. From an Indian perspective, Dravid's efforts in Karachi (99) and Lahore (76 not out, first game) were utterly critical, so too was the gifted Laxman's strokeful century in the second match in Lahore. Not to forget Mohammad Kaif's fine effort (71 not out) in the fourth ODI, at the Gaddafi Stadium.

For Pakistan, skipper Inzamam was in prime form and it was that sensational catch by Sachin Tendulkar to dismiss him in the final game that tilted the scales in India's favour.

Among the younger crop, promising opener Yasir Hameed caught the eye; he is a compact little batsman, who is able to effectively blend caution with aggression.

The Pakistan bowling disappointed with the pace pair of Shoaib Akhtar and Mohammed Sami only able to sparkle in patches. And while Shabbir Ahmed, whenever he hit an off-stump line, produced some incisive spells, he was also wayward. In fact, the Pakistan attack in the series was quite erratic, with a number of no balls and wides being sent down.

Ganguly's captaincy was more positive and direct, while Inzamam did let the game drift on occasions. On the field, the Indians were charged, and in the end the catches plucked out of thin air made the difference.

The Indians clinched the ODI series, but both sides won hearts. This was a series with a difference. Everyone came out a winner.