Rashud's bold announcement has the desired effect. Instead of lynching him, the baying throng of Sri Lankan fans breaks into laughter. They unfurl a giant pink brassiere: on one cup, it bears the legend "Bust the Pakistanis"; on the other, there's a picture of a Pakistani missile with a red line through it. To the delight of the Sri Lankan supporters, even Pakistan's nuclear arsenal can't save Rashud's team from defeat on this steamy evening in Colombo.
Here in the R. Premadasa Stadium, in front of 25,000 people, Pakistan is being taught a lesson in how to play one-day cricket by the region's afterthought: Sri Lanka. Rashud, a 35-year-old from the Pakistani city of Peshawar, is unperturbed. Cricket, it seems, has a way of breaking down barriers and appealing to fans' more civilized instincts. "Winning or losing does not matter," he says. "Once cricket is in the blood, it's there for life and there is no way you can get it out of your system."
In a region divided by ethnic and religious hatreds, cricket has stood alone in its ability to unite people. For generations the game has acted as a meeting point for neighbors with little else to bring them together. "I would have trouble talking to an Indian about anything other than cricket," says Rashud. "If they mention partition the fists would soon start flying. But if they mention cricket we can talk for hours."
The politicians have tried to end the discussion. In 1999 the Indian government banned its team from playing Pakistan on home soil because of the dispute over Kashmir. But even Kashmir hasn't divided the players. While India and Pakistan were trading verbal missiles at the United Nations assembly in New York earlier this month, the two countries' most popular public figures—India's Sachin Tendulkar, arguably the world's greatest cricketer, and Pakistani captain Waqar Younis—were rekindling an old friendship in the lobby of the teams' hotel in Colombo. "They are the best of friends," says Indian team manager K.M. Ramprasad. "Cricket unites them. It makes them see each other as human beings."
Individual players have also helped heal long-standing rifts in Sri Lanka. In a land torn apart by two decades of ethnic-based conflict between the Sinhalese and Tamil populations, there is only one truly national hero: Muttiah Muralitharan. He is not a politician or a pop star. He is a southern-born Tamil, the son of a candy maker, blessed with the unlikely ability to spin a cricket ball like a top. In Tamil-controlled territory only the fearsome and reclusive Tamil Tiger rebel leader Velupillai Prabakharan matches his legend. In the bombed-out streets of Jaffna on the northern peninsula, Muralitharan's picture is pasted on bullet-pocked walls in ads hawking insurance.
On the field in Colombo the people's favorite wins applause every time he touches the ball. His every warm-up stretch is met with a collective intake of breath. In the 21st over of the match, Muralitharan finally prepares to bowl. Only in cricket could such a non-event spark a frenzy. "Murali is going to bowl. Murali is going to bowl," screams Nihal Samaranayake, a 46-year-old Sinhalese pharmaceutical executive, joining the rest of the stadium on his feet.
In the game's comprehensive vocabulary, Nihal is a "cricket tragic"—a man irredeemably obsessed. In the past 15 years he has missed more wedding anniversaries than he has international cricket matches played in Colombo. His life revolves around the game and its peculiar colonial customs. He never attends a match without a packed lunch of egg sandwiches, the crusts neatly sliced off by his wife. He happily shares the sandwiches with bemused business associates. "I often do business at the cricket," he says. "The Americans like to do business on a golf course. I like to do business while watching Murali rip the heart out of an opposing team, or while watching Jayasuriya score a century. It's inspiring. It's what keeps me together. It's what keeps all of us in this region together."
That, and their collective dislike for Australia, the world's No. 1 cricket team and the favorites to win this tournament. "Nothing, I mean nothing, gives me greater pleasure than to watch any South Asian team beat Australia," says Nihal. "But of course I prefer that South Asian team to be Sri Lanka."