Power games: Two nations in a spin over cricket

India and Pakistan compete today for the first time since the Mumbai terror attacks. Andrew Buncombe sees the political and cultural frenzy begin

At the closed ticket counter outside of Mohali's ochre-hued cricket stadium, stubbornness blended with the smell of stale sweat.

The lifeless counter had not been open for two days, said a group of frustrated fans, and yet still they hoped for a miracle. "We expect that it may open again later today. There is no sign up saying 'House Full', so we think there are more tickets," reasoned one of the group, Andaleep Singh, a student of mechanical engineering.

Perhaps. Such is the frenzy ahead of today's World Cup semi-final clash between India and Pakistan that there is not a hotel room available within a radius of 20 miles of the ground and the only tickets to be had are those offered by touts asking a minimum of 20 times the face value.

And if this sporting contest did not already carry sufficient expectation, in the days leading up to the match it has been suggested the game could even help mend relations between the two embittered rivals. Last week, when it emerged India were to meet Pakistan in the semi-finals, India's Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, decided he would attend the game and invited his Pakistani counter-part to join him. Two days later, Pakistan announced that Yousaf Raza Gilani would take up the invitation.

Since then, speculation has spread at a feverish pace about just what this so-called cricket diplomacy may or may not achieve. Given that this is the first time the teams have played each other in India since the Mumbai attacks of 2008, the expectation may not perhaps be reflected in reality.

The long history of antagonism between the two nuclear-armed neighbours, who have gone to war four times since Partition in 1947, has little need of further rehearsal. Neither does the dark pit into which the already fraught relationship fell after the 2008 attacks, carried out by Pakistani militants.

There are fewer places in the subcontinent where the painful dysfunction of the relationship is more clearly viewed than here. Though the Indian state of Punjab rubs up against the Pakistani province of Punjab, very few people have any contact with their neighbours on the other side, even though in many cases they speak the same language – Punjabi – and share similar customs. "As members of the public, we don't have any differences. We are the same. It's just the difference between politicians," suggested another fan, Vikash Bansal, who works in IT.

Such a view was shared by the small number of Pakistani fans who have managed to get hold of tickets. "It's good if the relationship between the two countries can thaw," said Raza Sanuallah, a young man from Lahore, the city which was to have hosted today's semi-final before Pakistan's role as a co-host of the tournament was rescinded following an attack on a visiting Sri Lankan cricket team in the spring of 2009.

Mr Singh and Mr Gilani have agreed to have dinner after today's match and officials say there will be discussion on various issues. But aides have been keen to play down any breakthrough on those hard issues still keeping the countries at loggerheads, namely India's demand that Pakistan do more to bring the perpetrators of the Mumbai attacks to justice and Pakistan's insistence that Kashmir is a "disputed" territory.

"The prime minister's visit to India will help restore composite dialogue," said Pakistan's information minister Firdous Ashiq Awan.

As it is, the meeting of Mr Gilani and Mr Singh has already received the boost of quiet diplomatic progress. The preparation for today's clash has coincided with talks between the home secretaries of the two countries on a range of issues.

Pakistan's interior secretary Qamar Zaman and his Indian counterpart GK Pillai have described their talks in Delhi as positive and yesterday they jointly announced Pakistan had agreed to host Indian investigators looking into the Mumbai attacks. While no details were immediately released on the level of access India would receive, given the stalemate on this issue that has lasted more than two years, it was seen as an important step and a starting point for the two prime ministers.

Cricket diplomacy has been attempted before between the two countries and with mixed results. In 1987, Pakistan's military ruler Gen Zia al-Haq attended a test match between India and Pakistan in Jaipur, describing it as part of his "cricket for peace initiative". It is claimed, however, that during the game the general leaned forward to his host, the late Rajiv Gandhi, and told him that Pakistan had acquired the nuclear bomb.

Cricket was more of a balm in 1999 when, for the first time in more than a decade, the two countries played each other less than six months after exploding their nuclear devices. Likewise in 2004 when India toured Pakistan, the then-military ruler General Pervez Musharraf used the opportunity to tell Indian prime minister Atal Vajpayee that Pakistan would no longer allow its territory to be used for terrorist purposes. The following year, Mr Musharraf was invited to a match in Delhi by Mr Vajpayee's successor, Manmohan Singh.

It is that example, perhaps, that those who place hope in the broader benefits of today's game seek to remember. "The importance of cricket diplomacy is in the curative effect it tends to have on people-to-people relationships even if it does nothing for government-to-government equations," said MK Akbar, a veteran commentator on India-Pakistan relations and author of a new study of India's neighbour, Tinderbox: The Past and Future of Pakistan. "And cricket has dried up. This match is an accident and all the more exciting for it. For a day at least cricket will drain some of the poison in a toxic environment."

When sport meets politics

The 'Football War'

In June 1969, immigration disputes between El Salvador and Honduras reached breaking point at the same time as both countries' national football teams faced each other in qualifying matches for the 1970 Fifa World Cup. Riots during the games escalated and eventually led to a 100-hour-long battle known as the 'Football War', resulting in thousands of casualties.

'Ping-pong diplomacy'

In April 1971, the American ping pong team received an unlikely invitation for an all-expenses-paid tour of Communist Chin, which prompted the coining of an equally unlikely term: 'ping-pong diplomacy'. The team and its entourage were the first group of US sports stars allowed to enter China since 1949, and the tour is thought to have paved the way for the thaw in US-China relations which saw President Richard Nixon make a historic state visit to China the following year.

Moscow 1980 Olympics

The British Olympics Association (BOA) sent athletes, including Seb Coe, to compete in the 1980 Moscow Olympics, despite the government's calls for a boycott over the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. The US stayed at home. Sir Denis Follows, then-chairman of the BOA, said "sport should be a bridge, and not a destroyer".

Enjoli Liston

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