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A continent awaits game that's more than cricket

Tensions build ahead of India v Pakistan tie that has already had a dramatic diplomatic effect

All roads lead to Mohali. The trouble is that on arrival, there is nowhere to stay and no ticket for the match. It is fair to say, at last, that World Cup fever is sweeping the sub-continent.

"What about the game, what a big game, it's a really big one, everybody wants to be there," said Prasad, the commissionaire at the hotel, excitedly in the small hours of yesterday. This was the hotel in Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka, 1,700 miles from the scene of the action in north-west India. Sri Lanka have their own World Cup semi-final against New Zealand today but that, as Prasad eloquently demonstrated, is not the match on everyone's lips.

India are playing Pakistan tomorrow in the other semi-final tie and there will be no bigger match in this tournament. There may be no bigger sporting contest anywhere this year. For those watching and maybe for those playing, the final itself will not begin to compare in terms of emotion or intensity.

Chandigarh, the custom-built, new-world-style city, of which Mohali is a satellite, is desperately trying to prepare for the encounter. It has known for years that it would be the scene of a World Cup semi-final but nobody seems to have told them that this match-up was a possibility.

Transport links were already stretched to breaking point, accommodation was in short supply and as soon as it became clear who was actually playing, potential paying customers for both multiplied. The stadium is tiny. India is a nation of 1.2bn people, at least half of whom would give their eye teeth to be at the game, and the Mohali stadium holds 34,000, with anything from an eighth to a half of the tickets, and probably a half, going to sponsors, officials and cronies.

Two of the more gilded spectators – and there will be plenty – will be Manmohan Singh, the Prime Minister of India, and his Pakistan counterpart, Yousuf Raza Gilani.

They will hold formal talks about the parlous state of the relations between the two countries after the match. Nothing may come of them, but the fact that Gilani accepted the invitation is a start.

The tie has already had a dramatic diplomatic effect. It has been announced that Gopal Dass has been released from a Pakistan prison after 27 years. Gopal had gone from his small village in the Punjab to visit his uncle near Kashmir in March, 1984 and inadvertently wandered on to the Pakistan side of the border.

He was arrested, imprisoned and three years later charged with spying. His family did not hear from him for a decade. The headline in the Hindustan Times yesterday said: "Gopal's Innings Cut Short," which may be pushing it a bit considering the length of his penal servitude but shows the power of a simple cricket match.

Security around the 10th World Cup has invariably been diligent but it has now entered a new phase. It is perfectly natural for games involving these two teams to have some edge, but this time it's different.

Relations between the neighbours remain at an all-time low, which is saying something considering that in the best part of 64 years they have never tilted towards the high scale. Between 1961 and 1978 they did not meet on the cricket field at all. Now, the political frisson and the proximity of Chandigarh to the Pakistan border, 150 miles away, has provoked rampant speculation about an influx of away fans, all desperately seeking last-minute visas and determined to reach Mohali at all costs.

There is an understandable fear that the match will be the target for terrorists. Nobody has made any specific threat, there has not been the slightest inkling of political trouble throughout the tournament. Mob violence generally, which never disappears entirely in India, appears to have taken a holiday during the World Cup, except for the occasional lathi charge by police on unsuspecting fans wanting tickets for various matches involving the home side.

There was an outbreak of lawlessness yesterday outside the Mohali ground when it was difficult to be sure of the guilty party. A crowd of 1,000 was charged by baton-wielding police on horseback. Seven people were arrested, though the grievance was apparently not about the provision of tickets for the game but of government jobs in Punjab.

But resting easy is hardly an option since the separate, yet related, horrific incidents of two years ago, and yesterday you could smell the security as much as feel it. In November 2008, Pakistani terrorists launched attacks on several places in Mumbai, including two hotels and the main railway station, killing 164 people. It forced the temporary abandonment of England's cricket tour of the country.

Four months later, the Sri Lankan team bus was attacked by gunmen as it was taking the players to the third day of a Test match in Lahore. Seven policemen were killed, four cricketers were injured, no international cricket has been played in Pakistan since and the World Cup matches that they were supposed to be hosting were removed. Cricket was suddenly under the eye of the madmen. The nervousness surrounding the match tomorrow is perhaps natural: what could be a more obvious target for extremists?

It has given rise to gallows humour. A former England captain, who is staying in Colombo for the decidedly lower-key semi-final between Sri Lanka and New Zealand, said the other night: "Yeah, what if they decide it's too tough to get into Mohali and we're walking quietly into the Premadasa here and a sniper opens up." All contingencies will have to be covered. In Chandigarh, they are simply trying to cope and hope.

The players themselves are deeply aware of the significance of the occasion, not least because the political frisson had made encounters rare once more. There have been only two in the past 17 months, both on neutral territory in multi-team tournaments, whereas there had been 31 one-day matches between them from 2004 to 2008. They were becoming two-a-penny affairs, which at least had the by-product of dissipating passions.

Everywhere you go in India there are images of cricketers, most often Sachin Tendulkar, the enduring icon, or Mahendra Singh Dhoni, the captain. Never have so many products been advertised by so few.

The chap next door on the short flight from Delhi to Chandigarh yesterday looked a like a bulkier version of Dhoni. Leaving the airport an Amazonian beauty flashed a smile in his direction, which seemed odd, a point proven a second later as she dashed past into the arms of a slender, taller version of MS behind. They're all MS now.

Not so with Pakistan, who are still being forced to deal with the usual issues. The country's interior minister, Rehman Malik, warned the team yesterday that they were being kept under close scrutiny before the semi-final because of last year's match rigging scandal in England, which has already cost the squad their two best bowlers, Mohammad Asif and Mohammad Amir, to five-year bans.

"We are taking no risks now and we are keeping a close watch on the team for the semi-final because we don't want any more spot-fixing scandals," said Malik. Perfect big-match preparation for the lads.

India are the favourites but the fact that they have won all four previous World Cup matches between them, including a quarter-final in Bangalore in 1996, means nothing. Pakistan, a motley travelling band who have spent two years crossing the cricket world in search of a game, are peaking at the right time. To say that they are not universally popular might be an understatement considering the nefarious activities in which they have too often been involved, but there remains something constantly alluring about them. All that anybody can ask now is for the cricket to be at the centre of the stage.