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The Rediff Special/Pritha Sarkar
Life in the cricketing cauldron
March 26, 2007
In the sub continent where the annual per capita income amounts to just $500, cricket offers one of the very few distractions from the daily grind of surviving on or below the breadline.
Introduced by the British as a "gentlemen's game", it is a passion which unites more than one billion people -- rich and poor, educated and illiterate, adults and children.
When India or Pakistan are in action, daily lives are put on hold and people gravitate towards their television sets to follow every run, delivery, wicket with bated breath.
Roads normally crammed with millions of pedestrians and cars, hooting and fighting for every inch of space, are suddenly eerily deserted. There is no better time to go sight-seeing.
When things go right for their teams, cities around the sub-continent are lit up with impromptu firework displays as people stream out of their houses to rejoice on the streets but when things go wrong, a very different picture emerges.
While stoning players' houses and burning their effigies have almost become the norm over the past 20 years, for some even that is not enough to vent their frustrations.
In the 1996 World Cup, Pakistan cricket fans smashed television sets and one committed suicide amid national gloom over the country's defeat by arch-rivals India in the quarter-finals.
College student Jaffer Khan fired a burst of Kalashnikov bullets into his TV screen before turning the gun on himself in the town of Mardan in North West Frontier Province.
A front-page cartoon in the English-language Frontier Post showed a row of freshly dug graves with a sign reading "a plot for each player" -- a reference to incentives of land and cash offered to Pakistani cricketers if they had retained the Cup.
Worse was to follow when spectators started rioting at Kolkata's Eden Gardens just days later once it became apparent that India were heading for defeat in the semi-finals against eventual champions Sri Lanka.
Plastic bottles, fruit and stones were thrown on to the field, forcing the Sri Lankans to huddle in the middle of the pitch for safety, while fires were started in the stands.
Three years later a neutral observer would have been surprised to see India and Pakistan complete a test match in front of empty stands at the same 100,000 capacity stadium.
But the players had no choice after angry spectators interrupted play by throwing oranges and water bottles at Pakistan fielders for the second successive day.
Police first asked spectators to vacate the front rows of the galleries but the crowd again hurled bottles on to the ground and prevented play from resuming as India faced defeat.
Play could only be resumed after the police evicted the vast majority of the 90,000 strong crowd, allowing Pakistan to beat India by 46 runs with only a smattering of people present in the ground to witness the closing stages.
With the stakes so high at a World Cup, the Pakistan government has also been known to order official inquiries into defeats, especially by India.
Pakistan's Accountability Bureau's usual role is to investigate high-profile political cases like the corruption allegations against former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.
But it was also used for the very serious function of examining precisely why Pakistan exited from the showpiece tournament early in 1996 and 1999.
A cricket-crazy Indian summed up what the sport means in the country when he threatened to kill himself earlier this month if he were not allowed to sell a kidney to fund a trip to the Caribbean.
Tarun Sharma, 23, told Reuters he would set himself on fire if no one came forward to help him sell the organ.
"I will kill myself if I am denied a chance to watch the Indians play in the West Indies," Sharma said.
"Anybody can survive with one kidney but you will never get the opportunity to watch India win the Cup in the West Indies."
Tragically, another fan committed suicide last week in India after defeat to Sri Lanka all but sealed his country's exit from the tournament at the first-round stage. Bangladesh's win over Bermuda on Sunday completed India's misery.
(Additional reporting by Sanjay Rajan in Mumbai)
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