Mar 30th 2011, 20:22 by A.R. | MOHALI
JUDGE the importance of the game by the cast of celebrities who attended it. When India played Pakistan in a highly-charged semi-final of the cricket world cup on March 30th, the roaring, seething, smiling crowd in Mohali included a number of stars. Sonia Gandhi, who heads the ruling Congress party in India, sat in the stands with her son, Rahul Gandhi, who is widely tipped to be India’s next prime minister. Elsewhere, the current prime minister, Manmohan Singh, sat with his counterpart, Yusuf Raza Gilani, from Pakistan, amid speculation that “cricket diplomacy” might ease longstanding tensions between the neighbours.
Messrs Singh and Gilani earned noisy cheers as they strolled together on the grass shortly before the first ball was bowled. A host of tycoons, Bollywood stars and other notables showed up too. Match tickets had traded on the street in Mohali at 20 times their face value, or more. The local airport was jam-packed with billionaires' private jets. Anti-aircraft missiles (among other security measures) were said to be deployed on the day, to deter any flying terrorists tempted by such a juicy target.
The day passed peacefully in the end—aside from the deafening roar of Bollywood songs and screaming cheers as wickets fell—and many of the tens of thousands of whooping fans dared to believe they were part of something bigger. But the match's significance depends mostly on any improved understanding between the two prime ministers. In the long run, a game of cricket alone is unlikely to profoundly alter the prospects of India and Pakistan getting past their decades of bloody difficulties and establishing friendly ties. Still, the generally good mood of the cricket fans is a firm reminder that more “people-to-people” contacts, which are woefully rare, would surely be helpful.
In one part of the stadium, two young Indian fans, howling in delight and bedecked in face-paint, held up a home-made placard declaring, “Our aim is to bring peace, so please co-operate”. Nearby another Indian fan swore that the better the ties off the field, the fiercer the conflict might be on the pitch. A few seats away, a family of nine Pakistani fans, a contingent from Karachi, gushed over the warm Indian welcome they had received since crossing the border. “Let us hope, this should be the start of something” enthused one, referring to expectations that international relations might now warm.
The cricket has been a success too. Both teams have shown sparkling form in the cup. The subcontinent is always bewitched by the game, but the rare prospect of the sides meeting on Indian soil near the climax of cricket's main tournament left millions frazzled with excitement. Much of India and Pakistan was enthralled; hundreds of millions of people had gathered around TV screens in homes, cafes, offices and bars to watch the semi-final, which will probably prove to be a bigger event than the final.
In the event, India dominated. Sachin Tendulkar, who is arguably the best batsman in history, opened for India. His strength, and good fortune, helped his side to post a score that Pakistan never looked close to reaching. But the Pakistani players go home proud of a decent achievement. After miserable years in which the team has played poorly and in which players were caught rigging matches, this performance is a big improvement. It may restore a measure of pride in a country badly battered by terrorism, natural calamities and political instability in recent years. For the victorious Indians, now facing a final against Sri Lanka on April 2nd, the sense of triumph is immense. The streets of Mohali were jammed for hours as locals celebrated.
The greater good fortune may be in the timing of this cordial encounter. In the same week the two countries' highest-ranking home-affairs officials agreed, at last, to a measure of co-operation in investigating the November 2008 Mumbai attacks, in which some 170 people were killed at the city's train station, cafes and Taj hotel. The attackers came from Pakistan, and may have had some help from Pakistani military intelligence. Ill-feeling naturally persisted in the years after the attacks—a diplomatic process known as "the composite dialogue" was scrapped. But the mood now seems to be improving sharply.
The foreign ministers of the two countries are due to meet within the next three months, amid broad efforts to improve ties. Mr Singh, who craves better relations with Pakistan (home to his own birthplace) would love to make progress before leaving office, probably in 2014. Substantial progress will take a great deal more work yet, and relies, among other things, on the willingness of Pakistan’s army to reach out for talks across the border—something which it has usually resisted in the past. But the game in Mohali at least gives a slim excuse to hope.
(Photo credit: AFP)
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