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Friends despite tense rivalry

N.Ananthanarayanan | February 11, 2004 21:45 IST

India's teenage fast bowler Irfan Pathan had an unusual conversation with Wasim Akram at a post-match television interview in Australia last week.

The 19-year-old left-arm had just won his first man-of-the-match award, picking up four wickets against Zimbabwe on a lively Perth pitch in a one-day game.

Pathan began grinning from ear to ear the moment the former Pakistani paceman came on air.

"So, you realise the value of getting those little details right?" a smiling Wasim told, rather than asked, the rookie.

"Now you know how to delay releasing the ball when batsmen try to charge at you?" he said.

Pathan nodded like an obedient pupil, proud at having put into practice what one of the game's great left-armers had taught him just a few days ago.

Akram's gesture was the latest example of the bonding India and Pakistan cricketers enjoy despite the prolonged political animosity between the two neighbours.

As India prepare for their first Test tour across the border for 14 years in March, the build-up has been dominated by strong political undertones and security concerns.

The trip itself was cleared only after the Indian government revoked a three-year ban on bilateral games following a recent thaw in the political relations.

The players are always reduced to gladiators on the pitch by millions of hysterical fans, for whom meeting on the cricket field is like going to battle.

Cricket is the one sport where both can aspire to match the best. They are former World Cup champions and the psychological pressure brings out their best when they face each other.


But despite the tension, cricketers from both countries have still sought each other out with a common language further helping them come together.

In public eye, however, such instances still provoke outrage.

Akram's tips to Pathan were instantly slammed by Pakistan coach Javed Miandad, who was worried that the master of reverse swing was revealing too many secrets to the rival camp.

India off-spinner Harbhajan Singh was told how to bowl the "doosra" (off-spinners' googly) by his Pakistan counterpart Saqlain Mushtaq.

Former India captain Mohammad Azharuddin regained his batting form in 1989 after seeking out Pakistan's wristy Zaheer Abbas.

Ex-India left-arm spinner Bishan Singh Bedi, though, cannot understand what the fuss is all about.

"Ours is an international fraternity," says Bedi.

"Cricket is an art and you can't lock it up. We're like musicians. God has given us an art. Musicians who keep their art close to their chests are not popular within their fraternity. We were the same people before 1947."

Former captain Bedi caused an uproar in 1986 after Pakistan clinched a five-Test series in India 1-0 with a narrow victory in the final Test in Bangalore.

Left-arm spinner Iqbal Qasim, the architect of Pakistan's victory on an underprepared pitch, acknowledged that Bedi's tips had proved vital.

"On the third or fourth day, I had a chat with Qasim and (off-spinner) Tauseef Ahmed," recalls Bedi.

"In the eyes of the Indian public, I became a traitor."

At the World Cup in South Africa last year, both Pakistan captain Waqar Younis and India's Saurav Ganguly pleaded before their Super Six match that their fans rein in their emotions.

Still Pakistan players had to face the wrath of their fans after going on to lose the match.

With the stakes higher than ever, uneasy players from both sides will know there can be little room for friendship, at least on the field.

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