Field it like Flintoff: India and Pakistan's women take guard

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The Independent Online

The first women's cricket series between India and Pakistan begins today in the Pakistani city of Lahore - but unaccompanied male spectators are banned from the stadium for fear they may offend the women's modesty.

There is a long tradition of women's international matches elsewhere in the cricketing world and men's international cricket matches between India and Pakistan are among the most passionately followed sporting events in the world.

But women's spectator sport is a relatively new phenomenon in conservative Islamic Pakistan. Last week, the first women's national football championship opened in Islamabad, but the women had to play in long baggy trousers and loose shirts, and men were only allowed inside the stadium if accompanied by their families.

Mixed-sex street races in Lahore proved more controversial over the summer, when women runners were attacked by Islamic activists. The authorities then banned the races, after coming under pressure from conservatives but organisers held further races in defiance of the ban.

The organisers of the women's cricket series are keen to avoid giving Islamic conservatives any excuse to attack the cricket matches, and say that they will strictly enforce a ban on unaccompanied male spectators.

"We have to keep in mind our cultural values and give no reason for anyone to discourage women's cricket," said Shamsha Hashmi, the secretary of the Pakistani Women's Cricket Association (PWCA). "We see cricket as a channel for women's empowerment and development in Pakistan. Those playing the game now are becoming aware of their basic rights."

The long rivalry between India and Pakistan and the immense popularity of cricket in South Asia has made men's international matches extremely popular. For many years, while political relations were bad - India and Pakistan were close to nuclear war over Kashmir three years ago - the two countries' cricket teams only met on neutral soil.

But that changed last year with the hugely hyped "Friendship Series" tour of Pakistan by the Indian side.

So successful was the tour, with large numbers of cricket fans crossing the border to watch matches, that it was seen as a major step in improving relations and, earlier this year, when the Pakistan team made a return visit to India, Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf and the Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh indulged in a little "cricket diplomacy", holding a summit on the sidelines of the Delhi match.

The tours have also proved very lucrative, with cricket authorities hastily scheduling future tours as annual events. Women's cricket has a long way to go if it is ever to come close to the immense draw of the men's game in South Asia. But organisers are hoping it will capture the public's imagination.