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
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
"I would like to thank Wasim and Azhar for coming over to Colombo
when we were in trouble," then captain Arjuna Ranatunga said after
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
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 firstname.lastname@example.org)