What happened at the match?

IT was an adolescent thing to do — to ply her or him with roundabout and garbled excuses to meet somewhere, preferably away from the neighbourhood, in a way that parents couldn’t find out and neighbours wouldn’t gossip.

Often enough, in their convoluted mind-games, young hearts didn’t want their object of attention to know even the fact that the snug seating arrangement in a movie hall was plotted by one of them, and not quite the accident it appeared to be.

Prime Minister Singh’s invitation to Prime Minister Gilani to meet at the Mohali cricket stadium was adolescent. I am not aware of the leaders of any two mutually hostile nuclear weapons states, who spend an untenable fortune on their military budgets to be hair-trigger ready to inflict Armageddon at a moment’s notice, looking for coy ways to meet and talk.

Indian and Pakistani leaders would rather have ‘chance’ meetings at international gatherings in, say, Havana or Sharm El Sheikh or even Thimphu than visit bilaterally in each other’s capital. Though they have held important talks in Islamabad and New Delhi the leaders have needed a fig leaf — a cricket match or an international conference — to justify a handshake.

Sometimes they would not even have that handshake.

After a farcically funny Kathmandu Saarc summit in 2000, when they met, though they didn’t want to, as overt nuclear upstarts there was a cartoon advising Vajpayee to run for cover because Musharraf was heading to shake hands with him. And yet, since Nehru’s days the only bilateral visits I can remember, which didn’t have an overtly coy ruse, was Vajpayee’s bus-ride to Lahore and Musharraf’s rendezvous with him in Agra.

The most worrying thing in Dr Singh’s so-called diplomatic initiative in Mohali is that there really would have been no such meeting had the Indian and Pakistani cricketers not made it to the semifinals of the World Cup.

The obvious question to ask is: if they had something so serious to discuss — and there never is a dearth of urgent issues to be resolved between the two — why did the Indian prime minister not take a plane to Islamabad or invite his counterpart to New Delhi? Why did he have to turn the Mohali cricket grounds into a military fortress to hold a summit bang in the middle of an exciting cricket match?

If there was something that needed a prime ministerial intervention, then why was the tardier alternative preferred in the other bilateral talks? The foreign ministers were to have met in July (which they still would hopefully) to pave the way, if they thought it prudent, for a summit, if at all one was on the cards.

It is a seriously worrying thought — so what if the leaders manage to substantially defuse the ever-present clouds of hostility and mistrust — that common Indians and Pakistanis and the rest of the worried world should remain beholden to the admirable sporting skills of Indian and Pakistani cricket teams for their salvation. There is a lot of hype about what cricket can and does do for peace and prosperity of India and Pakistan — familiar shibboleths. I completely disagree with that view. I love the crowds in Chennai who have the spontaneous grace to cheer a Pakistani Test squad that beat India and I have all the time for the Lahore crowd that stood up and cheered an Indian win in 2004. (What will they do with the name of Gaddafi Stadium though?)

For all my interest in cricket, my knowledge of the sport is rusty, perhaps deliberately so. It mystifies me. And I can’t tell the difference between a bowling and a batting power play. I miss the gentlemen’s game it once was, bereft of the claptrap of commercial vulgarity now flaunted in its name.

I know for a fact that some of the sponsors displayed on the sleeves of the players ought to be subjected to income tax raids with the prospects of a very high yield. I miss the running commentaries on the radio, as commentaries were known then, of Alec Bedser, Melville DeMello, Omar Kureshi, Pearson Surita among a bevy of greats. And I particularly relish the hair-raising romance of cricket devoid of the jingoism that messes up the game today. Bal Thackeray, please don’t read.

There were these two matches, which are etched in my memory as India-Pakistan classics. First, the 1960 India-Pakistan match in Kanpur that was drawn and which I saw as a boy. And I remember the famous Lucknow Test match of 1952, which I have only heard of from my elders or read about. I am told someone hit the ball into the Gomti river.

The names Hanif Mohammed and Polly Umrigar still give me funky spots. Fazal Mahmood, Nasim ul Ghani, Javed Burki, Subhash Gupte, Ramakant Desai, Bapu Nadkarni, what legends they were. It was around the same time that M.J.K. Smith arrived with his MCC team and Richie Benaud led magnificent Norman O’Neil and Neil Harvey at the Green Park stadium in Kanpur.

It was at the Kanpur stadium that a most memorable and in my view a beautiful incident occurred, one which can only occur in India. Fazal was bowling one of his destructive leg-cutters to Umrigar and there was an appeal for caught behind. The umpire negatived — that was the word then — the loud appeal. Now in those days there was no nationalist bar in India, on which cricket team you supported. An elderly sherwani-clad Muslim gentleman who had driven all the way from Lucknow to support Pakistan was following the proceedings on his binoculars. “Click to hua tha,” he exclaimed, implicitly accusing the umpire of dishonesty.

A rough English translation would be that he heard a noise that sounded like a snick. Another bearded gentleman who overheard the comment looked mock-suspiciously at his neighbour. “Maulana, you could hear that sound on your binoculars?”

Now, just imagine in the middle of all this hair-raising excitement and witty repartees Jawaharlal Nehru trooping in with Ayub Khan at the governor’s pavilion at the stadium — to discuss ways to resolve the Kashmir dispute! Mercifully, neither Nehru nor Ayub ever felt the need to disturb a good game of cricket. Were they wrong?

The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.