When passion & expectation rule

WITH the thorny issues like venues, security and telecast receding into the background after prompting intense debate, anxiety and uncertainty, the stage is set for what should be an exciting phase of cricket between India and Pakistan.

WITH the thorny issues like venues, security and telecast receding into the background after prompting intense debate, anxiety and uncertainty, the stage is set for what should be an exciting phase of cricket between India and Pakistan. That there has been a six-year hiatus between the last visit and this one is a commentary on the nature of ties involving the two countries in several spheres.

The element of passion that gets enmeshed with the expectations on both sides needs no reiteration here. The decibel levels at the grounds will convey the involvement of the multitude. That India will issue no less than 10,000 visas is another indication of the emphasis placed on strengthening the bonds of friendship.

There has been a noticeable improvement in sporting contacts between the countries now. Aside from cricket, the two played an eight-Test hockey series after the Athens Olympiad, where neither did credit for itself in ratings. As many as 10 Pakistanis figured in the inaugural Premier Hockey League (PHL) at Hyderabad last month. The frequency of Pakistan players crossing over for squash, golf, and polo tournaments, apart from exchange of visits other than political, has helped narrow down differences in several sectors.

Nothing raises the emotions as much as cricket. The rivalry is always marked by an intensity that must be seen to be believed. The mystique of nationalism obviously contributes to generating the unprecedented mood of euphoria since the cricketing contacts surfaced five years after Independence.

The Indo-Pak. Test series began in 1952 under two charismatic personalities of that time, Lala Amarnath, himself from Lahore before partition, and the aristocratic Oxonian, Abdul Hafeez Kardar, who had donned the India colours too in 1946. Since then, every contest has proved an event. Almost a generation had gone by before Pakistan recorded its first series victory in India in 1986-87 under the imperious Imran Khan.

It would be absurd to showcase Indo-Pak. cricket in the perspective of figures. True, there have been some outstanding instances like Gavaskar touching his magic mark of 10,000 runs in 1987 at Ahmedabad, the unfolding genius of Tendulkar in Karachi in 1989, Kumble performing a perfect 10 in New Delhi, not to miss out the classic consistency of batsmen like Zaheer Abbas and Javed Miandad, the fiery spells of Imran Khan, Sarfraz Nawaz, Wasim Akram and the rest.

What however must be acknowledged is that the quality of cricket always rose a few notches whenever the teams met. If Hanif Mohammad symbolised the essence of concentration and grammar in batting in the early phase, it was the grace and elegance of players like Saeed Ahmed and Zaheer Abbas that projected the touch of aesthetics. It is difficult to identify in contemporary cricket a bowler as beautiful in action and as devastating in swing like Fazal Mahmood who essayed an overseas victory for Pakistan over England long before India accomplished that. In 1952, Fazal's remarkable spell on a matting pitch at Lucknow laid India flat by an innings and 43 runs.

Much water has flowed down the Indus and the Ganges since those halcyon days when cricket was pure romance, unaffected by the canker of commercialism, media hype, ball tampering and match fixing allegations. When the phenomenon of reverse swing surfaced it was observed that it was an invention of the Pakistani bowlers, who tampered with the seam. But today it is accepted as part of a speedster's armoury.

For all the image bashing about the sub-continent by western media and administration on issues like betting, pitch tampering, poor umpiring and crowd discipline, it is the interest generated by an Indo-Pak.series that provides the oxygen to the sport. No other match-up evokes such an audience response on television, be it a Test or an ODI. The two countries were instrumental in spreading the interest in the United Arab Emirates and Canada.

It has never been easy to divorce sports from politics, especially in the context of India-Pakistan cricket. There was a national wave of anger against playing Pakistan after the Kargil war. But, thankfully, it was not carried beyond proportion. The spontaneous ovation by spectators when the Pakistanis did a victory lap at Chepauk in 1999 demonstrated the sanctity of sport traversing beyond boundaries, race and nationalities. That perhaps was the governing spirit in Pakistan when India toured last year lapping up victories in a sensational sequence. The mingling of flags conveyed the triumph of human spirit.

As the Pakistani captain, Inzamam-ul-Huq, said recently, what matters is the spirit than the outcome. This engenders hope that the series about to unfold will ensure that the ultimate winner is cricket.