The biggest political lesson from cricket for both India and Pakistan is to meet more often with or without specific goals and agenda. It lowers intensity, temperature and expectations.
The reason why the prime ministers of India and Pakistan don't watch hockey for that elusive breakthrough moment in their turbulent relationship is because hockey is just a fading nostalgic memory while cricket is the dominant impulse of people pulverised by its passionate undercurrents.
We produce colorful characters, raw natural talent that has seen them become world champions. Also, we have the common denominator of match-fixing. Despite the tragic bloodshed during those tumultuous days of 1947, paradoxically enough, India and Pakistan are today bound by a common religion - cricket.
Thus is the emotional bond associated with that quaint British legacy that an American once described as "baseball on valium".
Amongst the many intriguing elements of Indo-Pakistan cricket is that one gentleman, Hafeez Kardar, played for both India and Pakistan, pre and post-Partition.
On his way to Ajmer Sharif, Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari suggested to India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh that India must send its cricket team to Pakistan. The tactical pressure for cricket's diplomatic leverage is understandable. But can it work in splendid isolation??
The gruesome 26/11 attacks in 2008 in Mumbai by trained terrorists has become a defining moment. While 70 per cent of India's young population would know of the carnage that took place during Partition from history books, the Mumbai attacks will remain lodged in their susceptible minds.
26/11 incontrovertibly has become another Kashmir; it needs resolution, comeuppance. Amid these the circumstances, to expect professional cricketers to exercise equanimity and play diplomatic ambassadors in a fervently-watched sporting contest (treated as a proxy war by the fundamentalists) is a huge ask; it is grossly unfair.
Full credit to the two teams for exercising such remarkable restraint not normally associated when playing other less-intense adversaries. Sure, sports can be unifying but it is a lame exercise if applied in an ad-hoc manner.
I was fortunate to experience an unprecedented experiment when India and Pakistan played together in the same team (incidentally, just a year after Kargil intrusions) during the first Asia XI versus Rest of World XI CricketNext.Com match in April 2000.
Sachin Tendulkar, Sourav Ganguly, Ajay Jadeja and Anil Kumble played alongside Moin Khan, Abdul Razaaq and Saqlain Mushtaq. Wasim Akram captained. Its humongous success led to a repeat match in London a few months later. They had seemingly good personal chemistry and perceptible camaraderie and even looked like inhabitants from a similar geography.
In London, the combined Asian crowd overwhelmed the locals, it was like an undivided India in commanding unison expressing itself. Yet, cricket can, at best, serve as a soothing palliative; it is not the prescribed cure. That lies with Islamabad and New Delhi.
Cricket can surely serve as a temporary buffer, a bulwark against escalating tensions or maintaining status quo , but as the IPL Pak players auction fiasco manifested, if handled with either casualness or callousness, instead of cementing ties, it can be an embarrassing boomerang. The Lalit Modi engineered IPL auction almost led to a diplomatic crisis thanks to the surreptitious arrangement with the franchise owners where no one fathoms anything beyond dollar signs.
Shahid Afridi's comment about getting a raw deal from the Indian media after the World-Cup semifinal in Mohali led to a national outrage, once again leading to a vitriolic counterattack. Truth is that thanks to terrorist attacks, Kashmir and rising Hindu fundamentalism, our relationship nestles on a precipitous edge perched on a fragile foundation.
Like the banning of Bollywood film Agent Vinod because of the Pakistani conspirators in the film, the fall can be incalculably damaging reminiscent of the famous Bodyline series that almost caused serious collateral damage politically. Bottomline, sports can bond, but also break.
In his autobiography "Controversially Yours," Shoaib Akhtar talks of that incredible feeling playing for KKR when the Rawalpindi Express ran in to bowl to Virender Sehwag at the Eden Gardens, with the entire stadium of 100,000 people egging him on. For me, a die-hard critic of the shameless money-machine that IPL is, that could be its singular moment of real triumph. But sadly, even that was impertinently terminated.
The fact is that political problems need political solutions; Kashmir has remained a thorny subject, oppressively overshadowing intermittent goodwill gestures, trading relationship and cultural exchanges, even leading to four military exchanges. Our Men in Blue versus their Men in Green on a 22-yard pitch creating cross-border bonding is our romantic illusion but like Blue Valentine, the irrefutable reality is that it will remain at best an eight-hour solidarity extravaganza interspersed with some sweat and sixes. The boundary of cricket will be overwhelmed by the boundary of LOC.
But even as cricket diplomacy is the usual talking point, there were two comparatively low-profile sportspeople who were scripting a fairy-tale adventure that defied the inimical relationship between their countries - tennis players Rohan Bopanna-Aisam Quereshi were nicknamed Indo-Pak express.
Until they parted recently, they were high on ATP rankings and were revered as global ambassadors of peace. Sadly, they went unnoticed by both India and Pakistan when they deserved salutations at the Wagah border, a fountainhead of togetherness and unity.
Going ahead there are really two simple solutions: liberalise the visa regime at least for specific events to encourage greater people movement from across the Wagah and increase trade and commerce which creates livelihood. Cultural events, literary festivals and sundry distractions like IPL will also help if handled carefully. I favour more cricket contests in neutral venues, particularly triangular or multi-team tournaments which are not direct bilateral series because that artificially escalates dormant grudges. The Asia Cup is preferable to the orchestrated gladiator conflicts staged in far-away Toronto.
The fact that Pakistan has grave internal security issues cannot be exaggerated; thus high-profile cricketers playing there is practically impossible and a preposterous expectation. The near-fatal attack on Sri Lankan players in Lahore 2009 exposed the dangerous exposure to pre-planned violent assaults. To a terrorist, a cricketer could just be the like the rich sacrificial lamb on a silver platter for a bounty-hunter. They would love the publicity.
And yet the ultimate paradox is that despite the bitter hostility, insecurity and suspicions at the political and government level and the incongruous rabidity on social networking sites by urban-fundamentalists from both sides, the Pakistani taxi-driver in Toronto and Manhattan does not charge me his displayed fare when he knows I am from India. Now how do you explain that magnanimity, the genuine warmth? Citizens are at peace even if our governments are at war. The ghazals of Ghulam Ali and Mehndi Hasan can bedazzle even an incorrigible insomniac into a deep slumber in the sweltering heat of Mumbai. And Shah Rukh Khan's films gross huge in Karachi.
In 2000, I was traveling with former Pakistan opening batsman Saeed Anwar in a team bus in London on the eve of the second CricketNext.com Cup. During the long drive, he talked frequently about his little daughter. He was like every doting father, obsessed about his little one. We hardly talked cricket. A little over a year later, I heard his daughter had died on account of an incurable illness. Anwar was never the same again despite playing in the World Cup 2003. I did not know him personally or his family or his child.
But I sensed his loss, that emotional interminable vacuum. Like we all did for those 100 soldiers who died in the Siachen avalanche recently. Suffering and loss can sometimes change relationships, as at a human level, aren't we all the same?
General Parvez Kayani's statement on demilitarisation of troops, peaceful co-existence and to work towards a negotiated settlement between India and Pakistan provides more than a sliver of optimism, a sentiment conspicuous by its absence since November 26, 2008. Hafiz Saeed, 26/11, Sir Creek and Siachen, none are insurmountable or intractable obstacles but will require a pragmatic, mature approach from both sides. A lesson from the men in white flannels may help here.
Actually our cricketing relationship offers the best elusive out-of-the-box strategy that we have been looking for; just meet each other more often. Some elaboration will help. Once the rare cricket confrontations between India-Pakistan used to create breathless anticipation, raise passions, escalate nationalistic sentiments, and I dare say, inner hostility.
But when we started playing each other more often, the animosity dissipated, the anger subsided, the contest became what it was always meant to be - cricket and not a cantankerous pugilistic attle. As President Asif Ali Zardari's fleeting visit showed, we can huddle up impromptu, hastily squeezed between watching cricket, sightseeing and offering prayers. It can be frequent even for official reasons, without any fixed goal or "material tangible progress" to satiate diplomatic hawks, political constituencies or media analysts. We need to get rid of the classic "cold-war mindset" of psychological oneupmanship and ego tussles.
A thaw is more likely to occur on account of basic routine fixtures as opposed to much-hyped summits (remember the failed Camp David meet). Perhaps that's the biggest take-away of cricket diplomacy. Just meet more often. Maybe that is the out-of-the-box solution, reduce the hiatus, the stressful pre-agendas, the chaotic buzz and simply meet and make them commonplace.
Let the peoples of both countries get accustomed to each other through greater proximity at all levels. Sometimes it helps to lower expectations, the maddening frenzy that naturally accompanies, courtesy our troubled past. Also the quantity of time spent may be as important as the quality. And the flight between Islamabad and New Delhi takes only 46 minutes.