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War Talk Evaporates on First Pitch : Zia's Cricket Diplomacy Gets High Score in India

February 23, 1987|RONE TEMPEST | Times Staff Writer

JAIPUR, India — President Zia ul-Haq of Pakistan said he came to India "to see a good game of cricket."

The Pakistani ruler, smiling and joking with other cricket fans, sat through a morning of sport as his national team met the Indian national side Sunday at a dusty desert stadium overlooked by Rajput palaces in this capital city of India's Rajasthan state. Later, Zia flew in an Indian air force helicopter to visit a Muslim shrine in nearby Ajmer.

Despite its casual appearance, however, his visit was more than a tourist pilgrimage to the cricket ground.

In the South Asia territory that was once the British Imperial Raj, cricket is more than a game. From the rugged tribal reaches of Baluchistan in western Pakistan to the mangrove forests of Bengal, it is practically a religion, a sport that dominates every open space from the Iran border to Burma, the Hindu Kush Mountains to the Andaman Islands. It is a powerful political symbol, a litmus test of relations between countries of the region.

In times of strain, for example, India and Pakistan do not compete in cricket. There were no matches during the 1961-1978 period when the countries fought two wars. In cricket terms, the wicket was too sticky.

Military tensions have been building again in recent months on the Pakistan-India border west of this desert capital, and for the first time since 1971, there was serious talk of war between the old enemies.

But as the air bristled with tough talk, the Pakistani cricket team arrived for its scheduled, months-long, series of matches with the Indian team. And almost as quickly as a fast pace bowler gets the ball to the stumps, the war-talk evaporated. Diplomats quickly signed an agreement under which both sides would pull back some troops from their shared frontier. The tension eased measureably.

Zia said Saturday that he had come in the same spirit.

"Cricket for peace is my mission," he quipped after arriving at Jaipur Airport from New Delhi, where he had dined Friday night with Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi.

"The aim was not to show that we are good allies," Zia said of his meeting with Gandhi. "But for two neighbors, it is important that we meet each other more often and discuss things. My sole purpose was to come and watch good cricket and in the process meet with the prime minister and see how we could solve our problems."

Privately, Indian officials said they were surprised by the Pakistan leader's visit, which Zia claimed was in response to an invitation by the Indian Cricket Control Board, the ruling body for the sport here.

Some complained that the wily old army general, who has ruled Pakistan since taking over in a 1977 coup, was attempting to score a public relations victory over the Indian prime minister.

Indeed, millions of Indians watching the match on national television did see the graying, smiling Pakistan leader joke and schmooze with their favorite players, many of whom enjoy status in Indian society greater than that of movie stars.

And Indian cricket followers were full of praise for Zia after meeting and lunching with him here.

"President Zia is a warm-hearted man," said Bishan Bedi, a famous former Indian player who now writes a nationally-syndicated newspaper column about cricket. "We all met with him and exchanged a few pleasantries."

Scored Well With Indians

So in some respects, at least, it appeared the Pakistani president had hit a "six"--the cricket equivalent of a home run--over the Indian side.

But in another way, the Indian cricket team Sunday scored a public relations victory of its own.

Pakistan is a Muslim country, created with the partition of India in 1947 on the theory that Muslims could not get a fair chance in this country with its Hindu majority.

To the distress of Pakistani nationalists, many Muslims remained in India after partition, and some of them starred on the Indian national cricket team. In fact, Mohammed Azaruddin, a young Indian Muslim, was the star performer against the all-Muslim Pakistani team.

In the second day of a match that will last five days, Azaruddin hit a "century," meaning that as a batsman, he scored 100 runs off Pakistani bowlers (pitchers). His effort, shown on Pakistani television, proved that a Muslim can make it in Indian society.

"A victory for secularism," one Indian journalist said with a smile.

President Zia acknowledged Azaruddin's triumph, although he was careful not to characterize it in religious terms. "He is a good Indian player in India," Zia said.

An Integrating Force

Cricket, like the English language that was also inherited from British rulers, often acts as an integrating force. India has had Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Jain, Christian and Parsee (Zoroastrian) cricket stars on its national team.

Even Pakistan has had a few Christian players and one Hindu star. At present, however, the Pakistan team is all Muslim, comprised mostly of players from Pakistan's Punjab state.

The sport is also a unifying force among nations.

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