Cricket has healed the wounds. It will continue to do so.

Jan 30 - Feb 05, 2006

Up, close and personal via cricket was what expected from the Indo-Pak series. And the nations, the governments and the people achieved the target in 2004 with India's tour.

Pakistan further opened doors of friendship with their tour to India in 2005. The misconceptions in minds about Pakistan have been hit for a huge six! It's now the third series between the two nations in two years and this time, more importantly; cricket is more in focus than relationship. But on the ground, it is the biggest cricket contest in the world. If history is any guide, the faint-hearted are advised to avert their gaze when India and Pakistan battle on the cricket fields. It has the reason to say that the games are regarded as the ultimate rivalry in what was - note the past tense - called the gentleman's game. "It is even bigger than the Ashes played between Australia and India because millions of people watch it and it is exciting to be part of an Indo-Pak series," said Indian coach Greg Chappell. An entire stadium was once cleared of fans due to riots in Calcutta in 1999, players have been assaulted on the field and defeats have resulted in security threats to the cricketers and their families.

The contests have also produced chilling edge-of-the seat excitement and tight finish, like Javed Miandad's last-ball winning six at Sharjah in 1986 and Pakistan's 12-run win before appreciative Indian fans at Madras in 1999. There is rarely a dull moment when India plays Pakistan - on and off the field. Pakistani batting legend Hanif Mohammad suffered a cut on his right hand when he offered to shake hands with a persistent Indian fan through a train window during the 1960-61 tour. Unknown to Hanif, the fan had hid a sharp object between his fingers so that the batsman could miss the next Test at Bombay. Hanif, known as little master for his batting prowess, not only played the match but hit a memorable 160. "It was rivalry, and one can do anything in rivalry. When we toured India in 1952 it was not as intense as it is now. Pakistan vs India is the biggest rivalry and it can't get bigger in cricket," said Hanif. Millions of Indian hearts sank when the current Pakistani coach Javed Miandad smashed Chetan Sharma's last delivery for a winning six in the Australasia Cup final at Sharjah in 1986. The nightmare still haunts the Indian paceman, who recently said he was fortunate the fans did not burn or stone houses in those days. Pakistani cricketers felt the heat after losing their last three World Cup matches against India. Allegations of match fixing and reports of the legendary Wasim Akram's home in Lahore being stoned soured three excellent games. A Test match on Pakistan's last tour of India in 1999 had to be played before empty galleries at Calcutta's sprawling Eden Gardens after police forcibly removed some 90,000 spectators following rioting in the stands. It was earlier on the same tour that a packed Chepauk ground in Madras that hid their disappointment at India's loss in a Test match to give the Pakistanis a standing ovation. "It is moments like this that make a sportsman's day," said former fast bowler Wasim, adding, "cricket can achieve as much, if not more, as the politicians in bringing the two countries closer."

On India's Test tour of Pakistan in 1989, a spectator ran on to the field in the Karachi Test and lunged at the visiting captain Krish Srikkanth, tearing off the cricketer's shirt. When Pakistan played in India in 1987, captain Imran Khan ordered his team to field in the outfield wearing helmets after stones and fruit peels were thrown at the players during the Ahmedabad Test. Inzamam-ul Haq, now Pakistan captain, was once so incensed at an Indian fan in Toronto for calling him a potato that he leapt at him with bat in hand before security stepped in to cool tempers. The current Indian tour could further the rivalry. There were two lulls in Pakistan and India cricket. After the 1961 tour of Pakistan, the 1965 war kept cricket on the back burner. It took 17 years to revive the ties with Bishen Singh Bedi leading the Indian team to Pakistan in 1978. Mushtaq Mohammad led Pakistan to 2-0 win in the Test series so dominated by elegant Zaheer Abbas who thrashed the Indian spin quartet to submission. Imran Khan's sixes in Karachi and Javed Miandad-Asif Iqbal running between the wickets are still fresh in memories. That series sparked a huge cricket interest in Pakistan. Pakistan's tour to India in 1987 was also significant in the sense that it averted a near war between the two nations. The then military ruler Ziaul Haq used cricket as a tool to pacify the relationship. He chose to tour India during the Jaipur Test and an imminent war was averted and the term "cricket diplomacy" was introduced. Pakistan won a thrilling Test in Bangalore after five Tests ended in stalemate to win their first-ever series on Indian soil.

India's 1989 tour was forgettable as both teams, fearing a defeat, played out four draws and the only high points to remember were the arrival on the international scenes of Sachin Tendulkar and Waqar Younis. Tendulkar, now a batting legend with world records of 35 Test and 38 one-day hundreds, made his Test debut at Karachi alongside Waqar. Waqar established himself as one of the most leathal bowlers in the world cricket. There was a lull as no team could cross the border for ten years. It finally ended with Pakistan touring India for three Tests and a tri-nation one-day series in 1999. The pre-tour drama sparked fears of tour cancellation as the Hindu fundamentalists threatened to disrupt the tour and as a prelude to their threats dug pitch at Delhi stadium. Pakistan still toured under Wasim Akram and won two out of three Tests and the tri-series, which also involved Sri Lanka.

The great contests fell as a prey to political tension after both the nations tested their atomic bombs in 1998 and the intensifying tension forced New Delhi to ban the bilateral ties. Between 2000 and 2003 there was no cricket match between the two nations and it needed Indian government's clearance to have a World Cup match between India and Pakistan at Centurion, South Africa in March 2003. Six months later, Indian premier Atal Behari Vajpayee's "hand of friendship" offer the road to peace was put in operation. And nothing to surprise that cricket was one of the top most items as confidence building measures (CBMs). And cricket has since lived up to its reputation of harnessing peace and harmony. In fact it has gone beyond that. Despite Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs) in the form of Shoaib Akhtar, Inzamam-ul Haq, Mohammad Sami, Sachin Tendulkar, Virendar Sehwag and silent cannons like Rahul Dravid on fire, there is no war. The war was averted early 2003 and since then it has been thawing of relations. Thousands of fans took the pains of long queues at Pakistan High Commission in New Delhi, painstaking wait on getting the clearance, hazards of road travel and sleepless nights to witness the much awaited series in 2004. The same scenes were witnessed when Pakistan toured India as people opened their houses to hosts Pakistanis in Mohali and other cities. And the gift of exciting cricket, unmatchable hospitality, sumptuous food and hosts affection is theirs. Not many people are only interested in cricket. Some have taken the pretext of cricket to further their businesses or see their relatives or simply have sight seeing in both the countries. President Musharraf, a self confessed cricket fan, took the opportunity and toured India not only to witness the Delhi one-day but also created one more chance of having one-on-one talk with Indian hierarchy. Cricket has healed the wounds. It will continue to do so. Long live cricket, long live Pakistan and India.