Veteran Pakistani diplomat and now team manager Shahryar Khan's success at forcing a thaw is truly impressive. Khan is equally at home in the environs of Delhi's Golf Club or at the Indo-Pak hockey test at Delhi's National Stadium or when he is mingling with the cricket cognoscenti. Add to it prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee's proposed bus ride to Lahore - with Nawaz Sharif willing to return the compliment - and the ensemble is complete.
On a tour which seemed pretty difficult to get off the ground in the face of a ludicrous Shiv Sena threat, the trip appears to have been transformed into a diplomatic triumph, to the extent that even Sharif expressed his desire to see the Delhi Test. Not unnaturally, a clutch of former Indian diplomats and experts hope this cricketing coup will lead to better relations. Says former foreign secretary S.K. Singh: 'It is a welcome step. For years the Pakistanis have stuck to the position that unless the 'core' issue (read Kashmir) is not solved, there is little scope to do anything else. There is a stalemate on other issues, so why not utilise issues that people agree upon, like cricket.'
'After all,' says Singh, 'Vajpayee offering to go to Pakistan and Sharif returning the offer is in itself a great achievement. Doesn't matter if it does not materialise. Some theatre is essential. At least we are moving and talking and that can be considered a big step forward.' Agrees another former foreign secretary J.N. Dixit: 'The game is popular in both the countries and it facilitates people-to-people contact.' According to him, cricketing diplomacy has opened up new channels of communication: 'It helps people in the power structure to meet their counterparts in less controversial circumstances, under relatively relaxed conditions. And if you take into count the fact that communication lines between the two countries has been a little taut, this surely is a breakthrough.'
Says K.C. Singh, ministry of external affairs spokesman: 'All this is part of confidence-building measures. Sporting ties help generate mutual confidence and people-to-people contact.'
This brand of diplomacy came into currency when then Pakistan president Zia-ul Haq landed in Jaipur for the 1986-87 Test series. Then hailed as a highly successful and publicised diplomatic manoeuvre, the current series has opened up fresh avenues again. And even if a lot of water has flown down the Jhelum, there is hope. Says former editor and academic B.G. Verghese: 'It is a very good development. In a way, India won the Chennai Test even if we lost the game. The sporting crowd there showed the Shiv Sena what it was worth. I would give full credit to Vajpayee in making the Pakistani trip such an unqualified success.'
Verghese feels that even if the earlier experiment at Jaipur did not live up to its initial promise, there's no harm in trying again. 'There could be problems that could come up even on this tour, but at least another good beginning has been made. The right atmosphere has been created.' Vajpayee's bus offer has also been received well in Pakistan. President M. Rafique Tarrar said it reflected Vajpayee's desire to resolve outstanding disputes between India and Pakistan. 'We welcome the Indian prime minister's desire and will receive him with respect,' said Sharif, adding, 'We will sit with him and have detailed talks.We will make full use of this opportunity to resolve.'
Much hope was raised last fortnight with Sharif telling reporters in Karachi that he would like to watch the Delhi Test. Even though foreign minister Sartaj Aziz said last Thursday that there was no possibility of Sharif visiting India to watch cricket, political observers in Pakistan say that there could still be chances of Sharif taking another initiative of going to India in what is being called Cricket Diplomacy - Mark II. 'Nawaz Sharif may go to India if Pakistan is winning the match. But the government cannot announce this on the eve of Kashmir Day (February 5) as it would become difficult for Sharif and others to make hard-hitting speeches against the Indian role in Kashmir,' says a political analyst.
Already former cricket captain Imran Khan has accused Sharif of making a secret deal with India over the 'vital Kashmir issue'. 'Rulers have put the country's security at stake by developing relations with India,' Imran said, but hastened to add, 'To have good relations with India is not a bad thing, but it should not be at the cost of freedom of Kashmiris.'
To be sure, scepticism remains. Foreign minister Aziz, for instance, has made it clear that the Indo-Pak bus service, plans to sell electricity to India and other measures could not be dubbed as a change in Pakistan's Kashmir policy. 'I want to make it clear that relations with India cannot be normalised till a solution is found on Kashmir, as these other things are just minor confidence-building measures.' Echoes former Indian foreign secretary A.P. Venkateshwaran: 'Is there any such thing as cricket diplomacy? It is just a false sense of security which adds to the problems. Can Pakistan seriously discuss anything but Kashmir?'
Ultimately it boils down to the people. Clearly, the sporting crowd at Chennai, which gave a standing ovation to Pakistan, should give the governments in the two countries much to think about. 'The applause for Shahid Afridi in the second innings as well as that for Pakistan's victory lap around the stadium put to shame the dirty game that the two countries were playing prior to the Test,' says a political observer in Pakistan. That jog around the stadium must be among the most enduring images of the game.