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India, Pakistan Do Another Test: a Cricket Match

Instead of unleashing nuclear weapons, the two countries use their favorite pastime to try to bowl each other over.

January 29, 1999|DEXTER FILKINS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MADRAS, India — As played in its adopted home on the Indian subcontinent, cricket is a game of finesse, timing--and diplomacy.

The historic bitterness between India and Pakistan weighed heavily on the national cricket teams of both countries here Thursday as they began their first high-level match in 10 years. Yet along with the enmity came hope that the manners and conduct demanded by the nations' favorite game will teach their political leaders a lesson.

"India and Pakistan are like a big family that was separated," said Suresh Kumar, a Madras real estate broker attending the match. "Politics has failed us. Perhaps sports can bring us together."

Predominantly Hindu India and what is now Pakistan, which is largely Muslim, were ruled by the British until 1947, when they split along religious lines. Cricket, left behind by the British, took hold in both countries and is now followed with a devotion unmatched even in the mother country.

Yet bad relations--India and Pakistan have fought three wars since 1947--have intruded often to spoil the sport. The teams have not played a "test match"--the highest level of international cricket competition--since 1989, when they met in Pakistan. The Pakistani cricket team had not visited India since 1987.

The lapse in Indo-Pakistani cricket parallels a deterioration of political relations. Pakistan supports a guerrilla insurgency in the disputed state of Kashmir. Last spring, both nations tested atomic weapons--with the other in mind.

The five-day India versus Pakistan "test match" that began Thursday in this subtropical city represents an effort by both countries to transcend politics.

"People want to see good cricket," said Shahriyar Khan, manager of the Pakistani team. "No matter what the politicians want."

Oddly enough, Khan was once Pakistan's top diplomat--its foreign secretary--and was named manager of the national team only last week. Khan's appointment followed weeks of turmoil in India over the decision to host the Pakistanis.

Earlier this month, Hindu nationalists protesting the decision to invite the Pakistani team destroyed the pitch--the crucial patch of field between batsman and bowler--at New Delhi's main stadium. Thugs ransacked the offices of the Board of Control for Cricket in India. Bal Thackery, leader of the extremist anti-Muslim Shiv Sena party, threatened to disrupt the match by dispatching suicide squads to the stadium and releasing poisonous snakes to scare away crowds.

However, Thackery backed off, folding under intense pressure from his Hindu nationalist allies in the New Delhi government. Coaches and managers on both teams say the Madras match went forward only because of the personal commitment of the nations' prime ministers, Atal Behari Vajpayee of India and Nawaz Sharif of Pakistan.

The hope is that cricket will help bring together two countries that, despite their divisions, share history, culture and deep family roots.

The partition of 1947 that created Pakistan sent many Indian Muslims to the new country and many Hindus in the area to India. Khan, for instance, was born in India, and much of his family migrated to Pakistan.

His first cousin, Mansur Ali Khan, stayed behind and was captain of the Indian cricket team in the 1960s and 1970s. The family of two brothers who star on the current Pakistani team, Moin and Nadeem Khan (no relation to their coach), migrated from India.

Many Indians and Pakistanis say it is exactly this history that makes their feud so fierce. In 1996, when Pakistan lost to India in a one-day World Cup cricket match, angry Pakistani fans stoned the home of the Pakistani team captain. When India lost in a later round, Pakistani fans celebrated in Karachi.

In Madras on Thursday, thousands of police patrolled the stadium, but the crowd behaved.

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