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Flashback to 1996, and that joint India-Pakistan team

Tuesday March 29, 2011 01:51:14 PM, Minu Jain, IANS

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New Delhi: Cricket pitch or battleground? As excitement builds up to a frenzy ahead of the India-Pakistan World Cup semifinal and aggressive patriotism rises to the fore on both sides of the border separating the often uneasy neighbours, time perhaps to rewind 15 years back to a sunny morning in Colombo when the two nations played together as one.

It was another time, another place, another World Cup in the subcontinent when Pakistan's Wasim Akram and India's Mohammed Azharuddin led a joint India-Pakistan team to play a friendly in the Sri Lankan capital.

In 1996, Sri Lanka was grappling with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and frequent terror attacks. A couple of months before the World Cup, the group had in January carried out the ferocious Central Bank bombing when some of its cadres drove an explosives laden truck into the highrise building in the heart of Colombo.

Panic was in the air. Australia and West Indies refused to travel to Sri Lanka to play their matches, willing instead to forfeit their points. The Sri Lankan government, and the people, were outraged with then foreign minister Lakshman Kadirgamar castigating Australian Shane Warne's comment - that he could be targeted by a bomber while shopping - with the famous stinging retort: "Shopping is for sissies."

It was in this charged atmosphere that Akram and Azharuddin travelled to Colombo with a joint team to play an exhibition match against the Sri Lankan team at the Premadasa Stadium. It was a sign of subcontinental unity, a symbol of faith in the embattled Sri Lankan government.

Emotions ran high in the packed stadium as the bus with the Indian and Pakistani players drove up and the cricketers walked in. The roar was deafening as grateful Sri Lankans acknowledged the gesture of the Indians and Pakistanis.

There were loud cheers and many a lump in the throat as the three flags went up together - the Indian, Pakistani and the Sri Lankan.

"I will never see something like this again," said an overwhelmed Sri Lankan cricket fan and journalist. The symbolism of that moment was etched in many minds.

The World Cup had begun auspiciously. When Sri Lanka went on to win, beating the Australians, in the finals in Lahore, joyous crowds spilled on to the Galle Face promenade, many hugging the Indians they could find in the crowds to say, "We could not have done this without you."

"I would like to thank Wasim and Azhar for coming over to Colombo when we were in trouble," then captain Arjuna Ranatunga said after the win.

As another World Cup draws to a close a decade-and-a-half later, that sentiment of oneness seems distant.

Sri Lanka is now peaceful, the Tamil Tigers vanquished, and India and Pakistan are locked in an endless cycle of conflict, their rivalries sharpening with the semifinal to be played in Mohali in the Indian Punjab.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has invited his counterpart Yousuf Raza Gilani to watch the match, an effort at lowering tensions labeled as "cricket diplomacy".

Cricket, an abiding obsession in the subcontinent, politics and age-old tensions have made for a combustible mix. As Indians and Pakistanis prepare to watch the match with a zeal bordering on jingoism, everybody knows that this is not just a sport, not just a game.

The baggage of recent history with the two countries playing each other for the first time since the November 2008 terror attacks in Mumbai, blamed on Pakistan, lies heavy. And the pressure builds up on both teams, the hype and rhetoric casting long shadows on what is more than a match.

This is cricket, as only India and Pakistan know it.



(Minu Jain can be contacted at minu.jain@ians.in)

 

 

 

 

 

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