India's tour of Pakistan, their first full one in 14 years, was extraordinary even before a ball was bowled. Two years earlier the two countries had appeared on the brink of nuclear war, but the tour gained impetus from what was popularly described as the "wind of brotherhood" blowing at long last between the nations, and also became an agent of change in itself. Sport, far from being an agent of division, turned out to be the centrepiece for something resembling a peace march. For India, there was another dimension. Their rising cricket team shone as never before in Pakistan, winning the Tests 2-1 and the one-day series 3-2. They had never won even a single Test there in 20 previous attempts.
Few tours had seen such flip-flopping beforehand. In January, news broke that the players had written to the Indian board to express their unease at travelling to Pakistan. They were not alone in their worries. The only team to have completed a full tour since the terrorist attacks of September 2001 was Bangladesh. West Indies and Australia played on neutral territory, and a visit by New Zealand was cut short by a bomb outside the team hotel inKarachi. As recently as September 2003, South Africa had contemplated cancelling after another bomb in Karachi, but ultimately played a curtailed series at handpicked venues.
For India, the issues went far wider than just the players' safety. Cricket had long been hostage to the political climate between India and Pakistan. This time, the climate was right - but the Indian government harboured absurd theories about possible defeat affecting their chances in the general elections due to begin in April. Mixed signals were leaked to gauge the public mood, and eventually the will-they-won't-they-when-will-they speculation reached the point of silliness, until the Indian prime minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee, decided the plunge ought to be taken. The itinerary was finalised less than three weeks before the start. Karachi, with its record of terrorism, and Peshawar, by the Afghan border, were not granted Tests, but they did stage one-day games. Given that South Africa had boycotted both cities, this was a minor victory for the Pakistanis. The second compromise hurt the Pakistan Cricket Board, and the tour, considerably more. The Tests were put off until after the one-day games, once again because of the Indian government's election paranoia: they feared losing the one-day series could be more dangerous than losing the Tests. As it was, India won both - and the government was still toppled.
The scheduling meant that the notoriously low Test attendances in Pakistan remained poor even for this historic series, the public having sated themselves on one-day razzmatazz. Not only that, but the tight itinerary, designed to include the minimum number of days off and to finish before the elections, meant cricket took place on two of a possible six Sundays, the only full weekly holiday in Pakistan. Even slashed prices could not entice the public, and rows and rows of empty seats made a sad backdrop. Yet, given all the constraints and pressures, the PCB did a commendable job. They were rewarded with a profit ($21m from TV rights and $1.25m from ticket sales) unparalleled in their history - and badly needed after the spate of cancelled or relocated matches. There was also the intangible gain of having demonstrated to the international cricket community that the most demanding series of all could be staged without a hitch.
The tour could not have had a more nail-biting, or heart-warming, beginning than it did at Karachi's National Stadium. Never had more runs been scored in a one-day international than the 693 made here, and all results were possible at the last ball, when Moin Khan failed to deposit a full toss for six. The tension was not restricted to the cricket. The big question was how the crowds at Karachi would respond; indeed, how the peoples of India and Pakistan would respond. Nearly everybody (though the Times of India printed the irresponsibly vulgar headline "Karachi Captured") came through shining. Hardened ex-players were amazed and moved to see the national flags flying together through the match. After an initial shocked silence, theIndians left the pitch to a standing ovation. Quietly, the crowds filed out, obeying instructions to avert the type of riots that had occurred at ticket booths five days before.
Thus was the tone set at Karachi: it never let up. The scent of something like love wafted out of the stands. The people-to-people contact was not phenomenal in terms of numbers, but it was in experience. In total, about 11,000 cricket visas were issued, of which almost half were for the two Lahore one-dayers. Pakistani officials believed this to be the heaviest crossborder traffic since the mass migration brought about by Partition in 1947. For many years, obtaining visas for personal visits had been virtually impossible.
Lahore has a specially poignant position in the subcontinent: it was once the capital of the prosperous northern state of Punjab which was divided by Partition, and stands about 45 minutes from the Indian border. Every effort was made to get Indian spectators there. Airlines, bus companies and railways all put on extra services, and about a thousand people crossed the border on foot. People hunted down old homes, friends, even family; for those who had none, just the hospitality and ancient grandeur of Lahore were overwhelming.
The one-day cricket was splendid, among the best there has been in a bilateral series. Pakistan came from behind to take the lead 2-1, before India did the same to claim the series 3-2. Though batsmen dominated too much for some - the average score was 296 - the game was always afoot, except for the deciding match; even then, Pakistan managed a belated fight. On that night, V. V. S. Laxman made a sublime hundred; later, the 19-year-old left-armer, Irfan Pathan, swung out Pakistan's top order. Laxman had struggled in earlier games, and Pathan was not even picked for the first two. It summed up India's tour: when it came to the crunch, there was always somebody for the job.
Pakistan's captain, Inzamam-ul-Haq, also stood out, but as batsman rather than leader. He stroked two fabulous one-day centuries, both in defeat, and carried this form into the First Test at Multan where he made a seemingly impregnable 77 before being sawn off by a poor decision, and then to Lahore, where he constructed a grinding century, his 19th in Tests, and 14th in a winning cause. In the deciding Test at Rawalpindi, he failed twice, and so did the Pakistan batting around him.
By a quirky symmetry, Rahul Dravid, whose two main one-day innings came in the same matches as Inzamam's, became his opposite number as captain for the first two Tests, after Sourav Ganguly suffered a back injury. Inzamam's second-innings run-out was a pivotal moment in the First Test; and it was a similar run-out of Dravid in the Second that marked India's point of no return. But Dravid trumped Inzamam at Rawalpindi, where he made a momentous 270, gritted out over 740 minutes, to clinch the game for India.
It was a strange Test series, and not as absorbing as it might have been. While results fluctuated wildly - India romping to innings victories in the first and third matches, and Pakistan winning the second by nine wickets - within the life of each Test there were few surprises. They started out on one road and never departed from it. The last two were mirrors of one another: the side batting first was seamed out on the opening day, before the opposition built a lead too heavy to counter. In the First Test, this form of bullying by runs happened in the very first innings. Virender Sehwag flogged 309 in only 375 balls, India's first triple-century in Tests, while Sachin Tendulkar controversially missed a double-hundred when Dravid declared.
The gap between the teams was not merely in batting, which was expected, but also in bowling and fielding. In Anil Kumble, India knew they held the advantage on spin - he was the leading wicket-taker, with 15 - but even their inexperienced seamers, Pathan and Lakshmipathy Balaji, bowled far more incisively than the speedy duo of Shoaib Akhtar and Mohammad Sami. Ganguly later suggested Pakistan had made a mistake by not preparing sparse outfields and dusty pitches to aid reverse swing.
Having seen the Indian seamers nip it about laterally during the onedayers, Pakistan's batsmen were wary of any green on the pitch. At Multan, Andy Atkinson, the English groundsman acting as consultant to the PCB, was instructed to shave off the grass. But the resounding loss that resulted prompted the PCB to ensure seaming pitches for the remaining Tests - seaming essentially on day one, before the moisture was sucked dry by the pitiless April sun.
It was not just swing and seam, however, that did the trick for Pathan and Balaji. Quite simply, they bowled in the right area. Young Umar Gul showed the way at Lahore - "the only time when there was some life in our bowling", according to Inzamam - but broke down before the last Test. His example went unheeded.
Shoaib, carrying the reputation of not just the fastest but the most destructive bowler in the world, was the major disappointment, averaging 42 for his seven Test wickets. It did not help that he and Inzamam could not see eye to eye. The discontent was manifest when Tauseef Razzaq, a doctorcum- trainer attached to the team and a close friend of Shoaib, walked out before the final Test, claiming he had been insulted by Inzamam in front of the players. It prompted the question: what was an international cricket team in 2004 doing with a pair of doctors but no specialist sports fitness trainer? A combination of all these factors - Shoaib, fitness and internal wrangling - was brought into focus when a medical commission inquired into five non-impact injuries suffered by Pakistan during the Tests, four of them to fast bowlers. The real spur, however, was Shoaib's refusal to bowl after falling in his delivery stride and injuring a thumb and a rib at Rawalpindi. That he batted, lustily, made the authorities wonder if he had faked or over-reacted to his injury. But the commission ascertained nothing and Imran Khan, the legendary ex-captain with plenty of experience of lawsuits, urged Shoaib to take legal action. Inzamam survived the defeats, unlike some losing captains in India-Pakistan series, but coach Javed Miandad had his contract terminated almost a year early. He was replaced by former South African coach Bob Woolmer, as the PCB sought to usher in an era of modernity.
The spirit of the series was largely pleasant, though there was plenty of needle. Ganguly took a swipe at Shoaib's bowling action and the ICC's regulations on slow over-rates; Moin and Parthiv Patel were both fined for dissent. But India's cricketers were affectionately received everywhere, with Balaji an unexpected hit because of his instant smile and joyful tail-end batting. Wherever possible, goodwill was extended. Inzamam presented T-shirts to the tourists at his home town of Multan. After winning there, the Indians spent time at the SOS Village, a nearby orphanage. At the request of Pakistan's Ministry of Health, Laxman and Tendulkar joined Inzamam and Shoaib in a TV campaign against polio. And the entire Indian team united in an appeal to hospitals back home to offer complicated treatment to a ten-year-old girl with facial cancer.
The warmth of the tour radiated beyond cricket. The governments decided to tone down the aggressive posturing at the daily closing-of-the-gates ceremony on the Wagah border. Bollywood film-makers suggested that Indian films should stop pushing anti-Pakistan propaganda. About 15 Pakistani musical bands crossed the border between January and May. And the business sector brimmed with optimism at the potential for trade. Of course, it would be presumptuous for cricket to take credit. What is irrefutable, however, is that the tour provided the highest possible profile for friendship, and the strongest metaphorical way of saying "peace over conflict". Personalities as diverse as the actor Peter O'Toole and the American secretary of state Colin Powell praised the series' message.
Perhaps the most wearisome aspect of the tour was the media coverage, disproportionate even by the standards of cricket in the subcontinent. Whereas Pakistani newspaper reporters were often unbearably aggressive at press conferences, asking unabashed if lost matches had been fixed, their editors at least kept cricket mainly on the sports pages. Going by the Indian press, you would have thought the world had stopped. About 500 media accreditations were issued by the PCB, more than a hundred for Indian journalists. But the American magazines Sports Illustrated and GQ were also represented, as was one Chinese news agency.
Match reports for
Tour Match: Pakistan A v Indians at Lahore, Mar 11, 2004