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Thursday, March 11, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

More than cricket on line during India-Pakistan matches

By Liz Sly
Chicago Tribune

Pakistani cricket players offer evening prayers last month prior to practice for the upcoming series of matches against India.
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NEW DELHI — For the next six weeks, the bitter rivalries that have kept India and Pakistan in a near-perpetual state of war for decades will be fought not on the battlefield but on the cricket pitch.

Yesterday, India's cricket team arrived in the Pakistani city of Lahore for a historic series of matches that could make or break the fledgling peace process initiated in January by Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf.

It is the first time in 15 years that the Indian team has toured Pakistan, and the stakes are high.

A successful series of games could cement the mood of reconciliation that has taken hold since the peace process began. A terrorist attack, a humiliating defeat for either side or an unforeseen mishap would risk sending the cricket-obsessed nations hurtling back toward war.

Cricket, like the disputes over which India and Pakistan have fought four wars, is a legacy of British rule, and the game is viewed by both nations with a passion that transcends religious, political, class and caste divides.

Cricket encounters between the two nuclear-armed neighbors, who stood on the brink of a fifth war two years ago, take on an almost mythical significance.

"Everybody loves cricket all the time, but when it's India against Pakistan, people go crazy," said Rahul Sawhney, a television salesmen who expects a big crowd to gather on the street outside his shop to watch the games through the window. "Everybody wants to prove that we are superior and that they are not superior."

By the numbers

A television audience of 600 million is predicted for the series of cricket matches between India and Pakistan. That's four times the American audience for the Super Bowl.
A television audience of 600 million is predicted for the series. People who don't have access to a television will listen to radios and those who don't have radios will find neighbors who do. There was a riot in the Pakistani city of Karachi when tickets for the first match went on sale. Indians have been camping outside the Pakistani Embassy in New Delhi in the hope of securing visas.

Reflecting the tour's importance, Vajpayee held a private audience with the Indian squad recently, telling the players that they not only had to win games but "win the hearts" of the Pakistani people.

For Pakistan, keeping the Indian team safe is perhaps the biggest challenge. Musharraf's own life is endangered by the Islamic militants who twice tried to kill him in December, and the risk of a terrorist attack against India's cricketers by extremists opposed to peace is real.

The Indians were greeted by hundreds of armed police upon their arrival at Lahore airport and will travel around in a bulletproof bus. When they play their opening one-day international match Saturday at a stadium in Karachi, a small army of 10,000 Pakistani police and paramilitaries will be on hand to make sure nothing goes wrong.

Terrorism isn't the only worry. A fraught game, a misaimed ball or a bad refereeing decision could quickly sour the mood on either side. When a referee made a disputed call during an Indian-Pakistani encounter in India in 1999, the spectators rioted.

A crushing defeat for either side could spell disaster by reminding cricket fans why they don't like each other, said Ramachandra Guha, an author based in Bangalore, India, who has written several books on cricket and is skeptical about the chances that the matches will help peace.

"If India is comprehensively beaten by Pakistan, there will be a reaction first against the Indian cricketers, followed by a larger feeling of national defeat and humiliation and a collective desire to disengage from Pakistan," he said.

A defeat for India could also wreck the re-election hopes of Vajpayee's ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. The series ends April 17, three days before voting starts. Last month, India's hawkish deputy prime minister, L.K. Advani, tried to call off the tour out of fear that an Indian loss would translate into an election defeat.

The teams are finely balanced, and experts aren't expecting a one-sided result. History favors Pakistan, because India never has won a tournament on Pakistani soil. Recent form gives India an edge, though that could be eroded by the pressure of playing on hostile territory surrounded by armed guards.

But if there is no violence, and if each side wins enough games to satisfy their supporters, then there is indeed hope that cricket will help heal wounds — by reminding Indians and Pakistanis just how much they have in common, including a shared history and a mutual passion for a game that not many people elsewhere in the world understand.

"This series is more than just cricket," Pakistani coach Javed Miandad said. "It is about building bridges between Pakistan and India and promoting peace."


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