India and Pakistan do not agree on much, and more than three times over the past 60 years have showed their mutual disdain through war. But on one thing both countries are in firm agreement. Cricket is the best sport in the world.
How they reached that conclusion will, of course, require some explanation. And during the next two weeks, as the Indian cricket team begins its first tour of Pakistan in 15 years, there will be many opportunities for these two countries to explain themselves on television, in roadside cafes, in living rooms, and even in the seminaries scattered across the Pakistani countryside.
It is not an exaggeration to say that the cricket series between India and Pakistan, scheduled to begin March 13 and running through March 24, will largely shut down both countries. Up to 10,000 Indians will receive visas to travel to the games. TV advertising rights alone should generate $21 million, and gambling syndicates in Delhi, Karachi, and Dubai will redistribute the incomes of countless Asians, rich and poor.
"This has become more than a game for Pakistan and India," says Pushpesh Pant, a professor of diplomacy at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. "It's a bit of religion, with the hero worship of the players. It's a bit of politics, with two great rival nations seeing who is the better. It's a bit of a lottery, so that with a little talent, even a poor street worker might be able to break away from poverty."
Like most of South Asia's main religions, cricket was introduced by a foreign conqueror - the British - and gradually was adopted by the local population as their own. But unlike Islam, Christianity, Judaism, and Zoroastrianism (which as a rule does not convert people), cricket has managed to reach over all ethnic, religious, and class boundaries. There are even cricket teams for the disabled. Last week, the Indian blind women's cricket team made a tour of Pakistan.
But cricket is also incredibly complicated, with a veritable Pentateuch of rules. Cricket fans speak an altogether different form of English, full of phrases like "chucking a wobbly." (Translation: throwing a wild pitch; can also mean throwing a temper tantrum, when applied to toddlers.)
A single test match can take up to five days, with breaks for tea and sandwiches. To help increase the mass appeal of cricket, a shorter form of the game was invented, in which both teams actually get to bat on the same day. But even one-day matches end up being about seven hours of standing and scratching.
"The shorter form of the game is easier to follow, so it became more popular," says Sharda Ugra, sports editor for India Today magazine. "Now even housewives or grandmothers will follow the game."
Alas, some fans can be too fanatical. When the Indian team lost to Australia in the early stages of this winter's World Cup, team captain Sourav Ganguly's house was stoned by a mob. The same thing happened to Pakistani team captain Wasim Akram a few years before.
Fortunately, Pakistan's main fanatics - a plethora of sectarian militias and Kashmiri jihad parties - recently announced that they would not attack the Indian cricket team. Even the jihadis like Lashkar-e Tayyaba, which killed a dozen people in the December 2001 attack on India's parliament, want to see a good cricket match.
In 2002, New Zealand's touring cricket team packed up and left Pakistan after a suicide bomb killed 11 French engineers in Karachi.
India has agreed to play matches in Karachi (March 13) and the volatile frontier town of Peshawar (March 19), as well as Rawalpindi (March 16) and Lahore (March 21 and 24).
In both countries, South Asia's "March Madness" will be the water cooler topic - among those who show up to work. During the last major series between India and Pakistan, at the World Cup in December, many private-sector and government offices simply shut down. Local wits called it the Australian Flu.
In a small private cricket field, in the preternaturally clean and leafy city of Islamabad, two professional teams are coming to the end of a long, friendly match.
Atif Ashraf, the team captain and best overall batsman, says that cricket may be the one thing that can bring India and Pakistan together. "Because of the sport, people from India will start coming to Pakistan, and if they see who we are, we're going to create more friendships. I don't understand why we let politics get in the way of sports. We should do this every two or three years."
Across town at the Jamiatul al-Faridia Madrassah, it's 4:30 p.m., and Badr Jamul is rushing down to the cricket ground for a quick game with his fellow seminary students. Mr. Jamul, a sturdy man with a lengthy beard and an uncanny knack for cracking the ball into the backyard gardens of neighbors across the street, says he plays cricket to sharpen the mind. After a good match, he can remember more verses of the Koran, and work later into the night.
But unlike most Pakistanis, Jamul will not be watching the big series on television. He says watching sports on TV - indeed any image of a living thing - is forbidden by the Koran. But that's not a big problem, because the same Koran tells him that Pakistan is going to win.
"We can't say for sure who's going to win until the game begins," says Jamul. "But in Islamic law, it says that God helps the Muslims, the people who live in accordance with His laws. So for this reason, I think Pakistan will win."
"Inshallah (God willing)," say his fellow players in unison, tugging Jamul back onto the playing field. Sunset will be in 20 minutes. It's time to play.