Tension hovers over India v Pakistan semi-final
Wednesday 30 March 2011
The tension was too much even for the prime ministers of Pakistan and India. Midway through today's blockbuster World Cup semifinal, the premiers slipped away for a rest.
The break was actually pre-planned, but it must have been welcome as Pakistan's bowlers restricted India to a competitive but reachable 260 for nine.
Indian premier Manmohan Singh and Pakistan counterpart Yousuf Gilani returned as planned at 7pm local time to witness Pakistan's chase at a ground packed to its 28,000 capacity almost exclusively with anxious India fans.
The carnival atmosphere which had greeted Sachin Tendulkar and Virender Sehwag as they strode out to open the batting for India had long since given way to an air of edginess.
Tendulkar, seeking his 100th international century, and Sehwag were greeted by a tumultuous roar as they walked out at the Punjab Cricket Association Stadium.
Watching them was a host of Bollywood superstars, dignitaries and high-ranking politicians — including the Prime Ministers of both countries in what is being seen as a possible first step toward improved diplomatic relations between India and Pakistan.
Singh and Gilani were warmly cheered by the crowd as they arrived on the pitch following the national anthems. Singh shook hands with the Pakistan players before Gilani, while the roles were reversed as the pair met the India team.
A group of fans held up a banner featuring both the Indian and Pakistan flags on either side of the printed words "Friends Forever."
With the two premiers in attendance, security was inevitably tighter than at any other match. Roads around the fortified stadium were closed, and anyone entering the ground had to negotiate several checks, with bags being meticulously searched for any dangerous or suspicious objects.
Police and soldiers on foot, on horse back and armored vehicles patrolled outside the stadium, where a crush of fans had gathered.
The match had been sold out for more than a week but that didn't stop people queuing at the ticket office in the days leading up to the game, hoping that more seats might be released. On the black market, tickets reportedly fetched up to 100 times their face value.
Those who weren't fortunate enough to get their hands on a ticket watched on big screens set up around nearby Chandigarh, which came to a standstill for the game.
Police also relaxed a ruling banning people living near the ground from climbing on their roofs to get a birds-eye view.
Businesses across the country shut down for the afternoon — in the knowledge that productivity would undoubtedly drop to zero anyway.
The government decreed a half day in Pakistan, meaning work stopped at noon so that people could watch the match.
The sporting rivalry between the nations is as intense as any, but the match took on an added political significance when Gilani accepted Singh's invitation to watch with him.
"I am going there to show solidarity with our team, with their team and to promote cricket," Gilani said.
While the premiers headed to their VIP box, the sellout crowd had their eyes trained on the pitch, most of those eagerly hoping national sporting icon Tendulkar could score a century. There were small pockets of Pakistan fans waving the green and white flag, but they were almost invisible in a sea of Indian supporters.
Tendulkar, whose face adorns posters across the city, was dismissed for 85 after surviving a series of close calls, including four dropped catches.
The crowd fell silent before cheering the world's greatest batsmen from the pitch, but Indian wickets kept falling to leave Pakistan within reach of an upset over its fiercest rival.
The innings break — a chance for the fans to catch their breath — was welcomed not just in the stadium. At Chandigarh, streets that had been quiet during the Indian innings were suddenly teaming with people and bustling with activity at the break between innings.
As the Pakistan reply started, the streets emptied again as people headed back indoors to watch the match.
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