India + Pakistan = World power

As India embark on another tour of Pak, Kadambari Murali captures the frenzy that followed the cricket caravan in '04.

india Updated: Jan 06, 2006 21:10 IST

Scintillating start

The high point of this series for me happened right at the beginning, in Karachi, during that first intoxicating one-dayer. If you weren't one of the blessed, sitting there among the 35,000-odd people who had squeezed into the National Stadium, you had missed on one of life's big experiences. But I'm getting ahead in my story. The context of the almost tangibly tense atmosphere that hung over Pakistan's business capital during those two days of March that the Indian team and its extended caravan descended on it, goes back some way. To February, when the security expert among the team of three officials on a reconnaissance mission for the BCCI (Board of Control for Cricket in India) and Indian government 'recommended' that Karachi should not host a Test match (the Pakistan Cricket Board had wanted the first Test to be in Karachi).

The recommendation was more or less a diktat of sorts. Even as we reporters were doing story after story trying to gauge which way the series would go, we all knew that whatever happened, Karachi and Peshawar were out for the Tests.

When the team got back, and the usual confabulations were done with, a joint secretary in the sports ministry sent a letter to Jagmohan Dalmiya with the government's recommendation that the tour go ahead but with certain clauses. One of them was the Karachi one.

It was a decision that, at the time, we were expecting and didn't react much to - there was no point wasting time over a futile argument. The PCB was expecting it too but they were not happy. I remember talking to a senior PCB official at the time and he was very upset. 'Why are there two standards for India and Pakistan?' he asked. 'The last major bomb blast in the region was outside the Taj hotel in Mumbai, not the Sheraton in Karachi. New Zealand still came to India. You will still have matches in Mumbai.' PCB chief Ramiz Raja also said more in the same vein.

And the people of Karachi were extremely hurt. How much they were hurting we realised only when we went there for the first one-day game. And how embarrassed we were made to feel by the grace with which they reacted to what, in their eyes, would definitely have been a slight.

The city was festooned with blue and white banners that had signs like 'games and sports for love and peace,' 'Karachi welcomes our Indian guests' and 'We welcome the Indian cricket team.' Lahore, where we landed, had no obvious signs (other than at the official hotel) that a significant series was in the offing. Karachi was an utter surprise and a great start. Everyone from the uniformed cleaners sweeping spotless roads to the big-built armed Pakistan Rangers and machine gun-wielding cops on moving cars constantly scanning everything, wanted to chat and offer help the minute they realised you were from India.

But the most emotive manifestation of the whole thing was left to that perfect, perfect one-day game at the National Stadium, one that many said could have been scripted by gods.

Even as the match ended in an Indian win, the Karachi crowd spontaneously stood up and applauded the Indian players in a gesture that perhaps, will forever symbolise a new beginning. The Indians too applauded that gracious crowd as they walked off the field. Many would later say that they had never had quite the same feeling anywhere.

A couple of days after we left the port city, emotionally drained but on an inexplicable high, came the news that a huge cache of RDX had been found outside the US consulate there, something to do with General Musharraf's visit or perhaps, US Secretary of State Colin Powell's. Many of us nervously joked that whoever had planned it was kind enough to wait for all the Indians in town to leave the city. A Pakistani journalist who heard us laughed and said, "They probably did. Only you guys think that Pakistani people have a problem with you. Many are anti-American, but other than some fanatics, no one is anti-India."

We were to find that sentiment repeated as we moved through Pakistan. As for Karachi, all of us wished that we had the advantage of hindsight and had been able to witness a Test there. It is a living, breathing city that also loves its cricket. It was bustling with life and a joie de vivre that we never found anywhere else in Pakistan. Even though Lahore, which most of our motley crew came to think of as a home of sorts, had a comfortable, uncomplicated atmosphere, there was no question that the Karachi experience was the most potent expression of what this tour was supposed to be about - the coming together of two warring nations, at least of two peoples.

Yasir’s identity crisis

For me, one of the quirkier moments of the tour happened in Islamabad, just before the second one-day international at Pindi (Rawalpindi). I was getting into the lift at the Marriott hotel and was followed in by Rahul Dravid and Amrit Mathur, the BCCI's director of communications, who was the team's media manager for the tour. Just as the doors were about to close, I saw a Pakistani player running towards the lift, so I pressed the button to hold on. It was Pakistani batsman Yasir Hameed, who had not done anything of note in Karachi.

He walked in and politely smiled all around. Dravid, the quintessential gentleman, probably felt that he had to respond. To my utter bewilderment, he told Hameed, "You bowled very well at the nets today." Hameed looked a little confused and before he could say anything, the vice-captain put his foot further by asking if he was "Saqlain's brother". I just heard Yasir's reply, "Actually, I'm an opening batsman," when my floor came and I couldn't hear the end of this fascinating conversation.

Two days later, even as Shahid Afridi (eventually out for 80) tore the Indian bowling to shreds, Yasir, at the other end, played a superb mature innings to top score in the game with 86. Their opening partnership of 80 off the first 10 overs gave rise to speculation that this match might well see a repeat of Karachi, this time for Pakistan. But another superb spell from Nehra brought on after Balaji and Zaheer were mauled (3 for 44 in his 10 overs), made sure Pakistan only got 329. India were always looking at a difficult task.

But Pakistan had not reckoned with a man called Tendulkar. This innings, as those in the past after he firmly established himself alone atop cricket's pantheon, was not the demolition attack that used to send the opposition into collective, hysterical depression.

It was a slow, careful start in which he restricted shots that have led him into trouble, interspersed with blazing boundaries that made those fielding remember who he was.

Hameed in a new frontier

In the next game at Peshawar, Yasir's hometown, he top scored again, leading Pakistan to another victory and getting them 2-1 ahead in this absorbing series.

It was quite an amazing performance from Yasir, who almost single-handedly led Pakistan to this win.

Yasir's knock was just completely impressive because of his relative inexperience (a year into International cricket) and the mature way in which he spaced it out. He didn't lose focus of the target, didn't go bang, bang after the bowlers or anything like that -- he just made sure he kept the scoreboard moving by rotating the strike and picked up the boundary with some lovely shots through the off-side every now and then.

This time around, I just had to write about the Dravid-Yasir incident, but I was careful not to mention the name of the Indian player involved, I thought it wouldn't be fair. But then, the next day, I found that a Pakistani English daily, The News, had carried a story on the whole incident, with the player's name. I later found out that Yasir himself had told the reporter in question about the incident, saying that it had inspired him to bat better against India in his hometown.

And his hometown was proud of him. Unlike Afridi, who was from Peshawar but had left to pursue his cricket in Karachi, Yasir had stayed on to play in this laidback capital of the Northwestern province. Incidentally, Peshawar was the only place in Pakistan that seemed foreign. The people looked different (the Pathans are huge handsome men), they spoke a different language (Pushtu not the Urdu or the Punjabi we heard almost uniformly elsewhere) and they spoke with a different, thicker accent. Even though the newspapers were full of the Pakistan-US operation to flush out militants and stories of how the tribal agencies (the tribal areas of the NWFP are divided into regions called agencies) were in a tumult, we really saw no evidence of any disturbance in Peshawar itself.

Everyone there was obsessed with the cricket match, yet given the tension over staging a match in Peshawar before this series began, there was none of the fanatical obsession with security we had witnessed in Karachi, or even Lahore and Pindi. Kids were roaming all over the vicinity of the Arbab Niaz stadium, the stands themselves were very close to the ground (players' expressions were visible) and it was all very peaceful.

Incidentally, on the flight back from Peshawar, I was sitting in the seat behind Yasir on the tiny Fokker-27 that was hopefully taking us to Lahore. As usual on this flight, as on the others through the tour, the captain announced that he was 'deeply honoured' to be transporting the Indian cricketers and then, after someone obviously reminded him, he added that he was happy to be ferrying the Pakistani cricketers too.

By that time, the Pakistani cricketers were obviously used to this kind of almost second-class treatment in their own country. And on that flight at least, they were much too happy to bother with being forgotten by their PIA captain despite winning that game with relative ease.

There was a marked difference between the demeanour of the Pakistani players and the Indian ones. The Pakistani players were joking around, chatting with everyone. The Indian players loosen up when they're alone or with people they know well and are generally very nice young men, but in public they're always (maybe they're taught to be) conscious of their being Indian cricketers. There's a stiffness to them or a complete disinterest in the surroundings or the people around them. There's obviously a line that no one is supposed to cross.

On that flight perhaps, the Indians were down because of the loss but even generally, the Pakistani players (like others across the world apart from India) are more happy-go-lucky and casual, like young men their age are wont to be.

I cannot recall an Indian player flirting with an air hostess the way Shoaib Malik did when he asked an admiring young air hostess how he was supposed to buckle the seat belt. He was laughing, the rest of the team was laughing. It was harmless fun and the air hostess took it in the spirit.

As I was saying hello to Yasir (who I had come to know fairly well by then after interviewing him a couple of times), he suddenly said, 'He won't forget me now, will he?' 'Who, Dravid?' I asked. 'Yes,' he laughed, looking completely mischievous. Interestingly, a week later here in Multan, the venue of the first Test, Dravid walked up to me at an Indian team interaction over dinner with the media. 'You told everyone about the lift incident, didn't you,' he asked laughing. 'No,' I protested. 'Yasir did himself, he told Pakistani journalists.' He laughed again and then added, 'I had barely seen him in Karachi….'. It was a rhetorical statement but it was clear that Dravid had obviously taken all the ribbing and the reports that followed the incident with great spirit. But then, he's one of a kind.

Courtesy Roli Books

This first part is an extract from the book India-Pakistan Cricketing Ties. The next part will look

at the Lahore one-dayers where India roared back to clinch the series and the three-Test series.

First Published: Jan 05, 2006 19:27 IST