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India and Pakistan Meet in Historic Cricket Showdown Amid Search for Peace

Mar 29, 2011 – 4:27 PM
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Betwa Sharma

Betwa Sharma Contributor

The first semifinal cricket showdown in World Cup history between India and Pakistan has struck millions from both cricket-crazed countries like a bolt of electricity, sparking strong currents of rivalry and goodwill.

Wednesday's game, which will take place in the Indian city of Mohali near the border with Pakistan, coincides with the start of peace talks in New Delhi. In attendance will be Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani and his Indian counterpart, Manmohan Singh.

Chirayu Chandani, a 25-year-old corporate lawyer in Mumbai, will watch the games with 15 of his friends on a big screen at a club. "India has never lost to Pakistan in a World Cup match," he told AOL News. "I want to see if the legacy continues."

India's Virat Kohli bats at the nets during a practice session in Mohali, India, Monday, March 28, 2011.
Gurinder Osan, AP
India's Virat Kohli bats at the nets during a practice session in Mohali, India, on Monday. India will play Pakistan in a World Cup cricket semifinal in Mohali on Wednesday.
India and Pakistan have played each other four times since the World Cup cricket tournament began in 1975, but never have they faced each other so late in competition. The championship is played every four years, and each country has taken home the trophy once.

Kashif Rauf, a 28-year-old banker from Karachi currently working in Dubai, said the presence of so many Indians and Pakistanis has caused cricket hysteria in the United Arab Emirates.

"The rest realize how big this is. Shirts are being sold in the hundreds in the UAE," he said. "Offices are giving staff time off. ... The Brits are excited ... the Aussies, the Sri Lankans."

The timing of the game has also led to speculation about whether the current peace talks will benefit from a friendly spirit while the tournament unfolds.

Negotiations stalled after the 2008 Mumbai attacks, which killed 166 people, because New Delhi wanted Islamabad to prosecute the terrorists from Pakistan who were responsible before resuming dialogue.

Last month, however, India said that no situation is "static" and agreed to begin talks even though its demand hasn't been fully met.

Senior officials from both sides met Monday and today in India's capital to discuss several issues, including India's desire that the perpetrators of the Mumbai attack be brought to justice quickly.

The first round of talks was described as "positive," with both sides agreeing to set up a hotline between their capitals to share real-time information on terrorists.

Decades of negotiations between the two countries, which have fought three wars, have not resolved their contentious differences. Kashmir, a region India and Pakistan both have claimed for more than 60 years, is a particular point of dispute.

Distrust has also deepened in the past year as WikiLeaks documents and U.S. officials have led credence to suspicions that certain elements in Pakistan, like its intelligence agency, ISI, are supporting militants in Afghanistan to counteract India's power once the Americans leave.

Mark Sedwill, NATO's civilian envoy, observed that Pakistan has always seen both Afghanistan and its national security through the "prism of India." "Afghanistan is not the turf where regional rivalries can be played out," he told an audience Monday at the Asia Society in New York.

Afghanistan has been included in the long list of topics the two countries are setting out to discuss.

The match on Wednesday is the first time that Pakistan has played on Indian soil since the Mumbai attacks. Reflecting on whether this meant that India's wounds had healed a little, Chandani said: "The scars can't be removed unless Pakistanis really try and take some concrete steps against it."

This match isn't the first time that a sport has been seen as a window to peace between the two countries. The mood was similar when the Indo-Pak tennis duo of Rohan Bopanna and Aisam-Ul-Haq Qureshi won the semifinal of the men's doubles competition at the 2010 U.S. Open.

The top envoys for India and Pakistan in New York watched the matches together. While the pair lost the final to American brothers Bob and Mike Bryan, the duo sent out a message of "Stop War, Start Tennis."

While tennis is watched by only a handful of people in both countries, cricket is lived and breathed by millions. As fans pour into Mohali, the government has launched a massive security operation. The presence of the two prime ministers and other high-level politicians will add to the chaos as roads are blocked off and traffic diversions are put in place.

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A terror alert is already in place, and intelligence reports suggest that small groups within the country formed by terrorist outfits like Lakshar-e-Taiba, the prime suspect in the Mumbai attacks, are planning to launch an attack on the game. "Sports can start the peace, but I doubt the fanatics have the same ideas," Rauf said.

Mohsin Alam, 24, an Indian lawyer and avid cricket fan, also pointed out that the massive hype around occasional sports and cultural diversions detracts from serious public introspection. "I would really hope that instead of just playing together and singing together, they would solve the real political problem," he said.

Though the atmosphere in South Asia is stimulating right now, people at home will miss out on what so many Indians and Pakistanis plan to do all over the world: watch the game together.

"Many of us who will be in that room have never watched a game together," said Rohan Kaul, 27, a graduate student at Columbia University. "What separates us is also what unites us: our love for the only sport that the subcontinent has truly ever excelled at."
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