It was supposed to be the perfect love story: two sporting stars overcoming a bitter political divide and making a dream home for themselves in Dubai. But the engagement between Shoaib Malik, a former Pakistani cricket captain, and Sania Mirza, an Indian tennis star, has become fraught with controversy over allegations Malik married a different Indian woman over the phone eight years ago.
Malik, 28, arrived on Saturday in the Indian city of Hyderabad, and said he would marry the 23-year-old Mirza there on April 15. The two are looking for a luxury apartment in Dubai and are expected to move to Palm Jumeirah after their wedding. Along with the announcement of the date and venue, Malik attempted to calm the swells of speculation surrounding a claim by Ayesha Siddiqui, 29, that she has been married to the cricketer since June 3, 2002.
She alleges that their telephone and internet courtship culminated in a wedding ceremony conducted over the phone by an Islamic cleric - and she says she has the documents to prove it. Ms Siddiqui told Zee News Channel: "He can marry Sania Mirza no problem. But he should divorce me before that." Her family is taking legal action against the cricketer, who is serving a year-long ban for indiscipline.
Malik said he felt pressured into signing a marriage certificate known as a nikahnama with Ms Siddiqui but said the marriage was invalid because she was not the woman he had seen in the photos. "In Islam, a divorce can take place only if the nikah was valid," Malik told reporters outside Mirza's upmarket home yesterday. "Before the nikah [with Ayesha], I was provided wrong information about the bride, in a fraudulent manner. So, it was not a valid nikah at all and the nikahnama also stands invalid.
"I was wrongly made to believe that the pictures Ayesha had sent me were of the girl I was marrying. I feel terrible about the mess created by a family that has caused a great grief to my own people and the family of my bride-to-be." Malik said he felt cheated after the fraudulent marriage and wondered whether he "could ever trust anybody again". The engagement between Malik and Mirza has caused a media frenzy in their home countries of India and Pakistan, where their romance stands in contrast to a history of political conflict.
"It's like an American gymnast marrying a Russian sports star during the Cold War," said MJ Akbar, the editor-in-chief of India's Sunday Guardian newspaper. In Dubai, their decision to make a home in the emirate has been welcomed. Farook Siddiqui, a Pakistani who is a player with the Dubai Cricket Council, described the courtship as a welcome sign for relations between India and Pakistan. "It brings us close. It make me very happy to hear this."
He added that he did not know how much truth there was in the claims of an existing marriage. "For the last two years, we have been hearing this. If she has proof, she should come out with it. Even with Imran Khan or any other great cricketers, they are always followed by scandals and controversy." Gopal Jasapara, who runs a website for cricket enthusiasts based in Dubai, knows Malik as a fellow cricketer.
"That is his personal life," he said about the rumours. "It is good that two people from different sports are getting married. Dubai has a lot of cricket happening here. It is access for everyone. It will allow them to fly out of here to play tournaments elsewhere easily. It is good news for all Indians and Pakistanis but mostly for all cricket lovers." * The National