As the Pakistan cricket team stepped into the stadium this week in the northwestern Indian city of Mohali to begin a series of matches against the Indian team, the players knew they were entering more than just a sporting arena.
To millions of people across this subcontinent, they were on the frontlines of the push for peaceful reconciliation between the two nuclear-armed neighbors.
Between any two other countries, the beginning of a series of cricket games would, at most, give rise to speculation by fans and commentators regarding possible sporting outcomes.
But between traditional rivals Pakistan and India, who have fought three wars since 1947 and came to the brink of nuclear conflict in 1999 and 2002, cricket takes on a completely different dimension altogether.
In fact, the notion of “cricket diplomacy,” resulting from the countries’ match-ups was proven true once again on Wednesday when a spokesman for Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh announced that India would welcome a visit by Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf to attend one of the games.
If a visit by the Pakistani leader comes to fruition, it would be his first visit to India since a failed summit between the nuclear-armed rivals in the northern town of Agra in 2001. Analysts said the new burst of “cricket diplomacy” between the neighbors could push forward the year-old peace process.
The series of matches between the two nations is scheduled to include three Tests, which are played over five days, and six one-day internationals.
While cricket has never gained traction in the United States -- few know the difference between a googly and a yorker! -- these nations are almost fanatical about the sport, introduced to the Indian subcontinent by the British colonialists in the 19th century.
It is by far the most popular game — millions follow it, sometimes with alarming passion — and the combined revenues from ticket sales, advertising, and television rights which run into billions of dollars, are the highest in the cricket-playing world.
Games between India and Pakistan, two of the world’s top teams, are traditionally some of the most keenly contested, with both sides playing for national pride. An Australian commentator once likened the encounters to war by other means.
In fact, scoring a win over the other is often a higher priority among fans than winning world championships. “I would say a Pakistan and India match is the greatest rivalry in cricket history,” the Indian team captain Saurav Ganguly said to reporters on Monday.
Yet, despite the enthusiasm on both sides of the border for bilateral contests, match-ups between the sub continental neighbors have often suffered at the hands of politics.
This will be the Pakistan cricket team’s first visit to India since 1999 and the organization of the tour has had its fair share of hiccups, including threats from Hindu hard-liners opposed to Pakistan.
Cricketing ties had been broken off by the Indian government in June 1999 when the Indian army suffered heavy casualties combating Pakistan-backed fighters who had taken over strategic peaks in the high mountains of the disputed region of Kashmir.
As relations plummeted further in the wake of a tense armed face-off along the border in 2002, cricket matches between India and Pakistan dried up almost completely, even on neutral ground.
Only last year were bilateral matches resumed, after a push towards peace initiated by the leaders of both countries. The Indian team finally visited Pakistan last year in March, its first visit for almost a decade.
The irony is that, whereas cricket has often been condemned for fuelling jingoistic passion between India and Pakistan, it has also played the role of political savior between the two countries.
The Indian team was received with much fanfare in Pakistan last year, and the tour gave rise to numerous stories in the Indian media about the hospitality shown in Pakistan to visiting Indian fans.
The political fallout of that successful trip led to a considerable softening of anti-Pakistan rhetoric in India and similar moves in Pakistan and cleared the air for progress on negotiations on a number of thorny issues.
With bilateral relations once again at a critical stage — difficult issues such as Kashmir and water rights are soon to come up for negotiations — both the Pakistan and Indian governments are hoping that the momentum from a friendly sporting exchange will carry them through the maze of distrust that inevitably accompanies any India-Pakistan talks.
“Cricket definitely can help to improve and make the atmosphere better for the peace process,” points out Aziz Ahmed Khan, Pakistan’s High Commissioner in New Delhi.
“The problem is that people on both sides of the border know so little about each other, which leads to a sort of curtain of misunderstanding if you will," said political analyst Ghazi Salahuddin. "Sporting and cultural exchanges of this sort also lead to people-to-people interaction, which is good in the long-term for the political scene as well. In fact, it is this people-to-people interaction that has moved the political process forward.”
Cricket diplomacy, has a long history of reducing tensions between Pakistan and India. In 1987, at the height of military tensions on the Indo-Pak border, then Pakistan president General Ziaul Haq flew into the Indian city of Jaipur on a surprise visit to watch a cricket match. His presence in India helped lower the political temperature. By the time he had returned to Islamabad, the threat of war had eased.
Warm welcome breaks down barriers
From the looks of it, the Indian public is intent on repaying the hospitality shown last year by Pakistanis to visiting Indians.
Thousands of Pakistanis are expected to take advantage of the easing of visa procedures by the Indian government for cricket fans. According to media reports, visitors to Mohali have been greeted with garlands by groups of Mohali residents.
Some hostels and families have thrown open their doors to the visitors, offering free boarding and lodging to them during the cricket match.
One Indian fan in the city of Baroda, Manish Ajwani, circulated a message via email offering to host up to four Pakistanis at a time at his home.
“We all have witnessed the warm welcome given to Indians when they were touring Pakistan,” he wrote, “and now I wish to reciprocate the same warmth. This is an open invitation to all the Pakistani people who are touring India during the test and one day series.”