India-Pakistan cricket match: Billion eyes on fierce rivalry | ET REALITY

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It’s one of the fiercest rivalries in sports, with hundreds of millions of people tuning in every time the two teams play, a viewership that dwarfs that of the Super Bowl. But when India and Pakistan meet on the cricket field, the game is often overshadowed by the frosty relations between the two neighbors, who have fought several wars against each other over the past 75 years.

On Saturday, both teams faced off in the men’s cricket World Cup in India. The match, at the Narendra Modi stadium, with a capacity of 132,000, was sold out. Hotel prices in Ahmedabad, the site of the stadium, named after India’s vigorously nationalist prime minister, were five to ten times higher than usual.

“It’s the most hyped game in the history of cricket,” said Sheharyar Jaffri, a 30-year-old journalist and cricket enthusiast in the Pakistani port city of Karachi. “We live every ball, every run and every moment.”

But there were few Pakistani fans like Jaffri among the large crowd, even though the stadium is closer to Karachi than New Delhi. It is difficult for Pakistanis to obtain permission to visit India, and Pakistani fans were not issued visas for the World Cup. Only a few Pakistani journalists were given travel permission, which did not arrive until the eve of the match, leaving them struggling to reach Ahmedabad on time.

In the months leading up to the tournament, it was not even clear whether the Pakistan team would attend.

India had refused to travel to Pakistan for another tournament later this summer, using its enormous influence in cricket’s international governing body (India is the biggest economic force in the sport) to move matches to neutral venues in Sri Lanka. Pakistan, in return, warned that it could withdraw from the World Cup in India, a threat it ultimately abandoned.

India-Pakistan cricket ties have fluctuated along with relations between the two countries since Pakistan was separated from India in the bloody British partition of 1947. Occasionally, India-Pakistan games, which spark equal passion on both sides of the border, they have been used to break the ice when tensions have become particularly high, providing an important space for exchange.

When the two nations first met on a cricket field in the early 1950s, the division was clear in the composition of the teams: the Pakistan team included players who just a few years earlier had played for India.

For many years, relations improved so much between the wars that India and Pakistan even co-hosted the World Cup in 1987 and 1996.

The latest tensions largely date back to 2008, when Pakistani militants crossed into India on fishing boats and launched a gruesome terrorist attack in Mumbai, killing more than 160 people.

Bilateral cricket ties have remained suspended since then, and Pakistani players have been excluded from the lucrative Indian Premier League, which features the world’s best players. In the 15 years since the attack, national teams have faced each other only as part of larger world events. Saturday’s match will be Pakistan’s first in India in seven years.

India’s sports minister Anurag Thakur recently reiterated that despite Pakistan’s participation in this World Cup, New Delhi’s stance on resuming ties with cricket will not change “until they stop terrorism.”

However, in recent years India’s security calculations have changed significantly. Pakistan, lost in its own political dysfunction and economic crisis, is seen as posing little significant threat. New Delhi now views China as its predominant border concern, with the two countries’ armies locked in a standoff high in the Himalayas for the past three years.

Kashmir, the troubled region disputed between India and Pakistan, still erupts sporadically in violence. Despite an Indian government crackdown that has suspended democracy there for four years and added to an already heavy military presence, militants who find support and training in Pakistan continue to launch occasional ambushes.

The growing political polarization on both sides of the border has not helped relations between the countries either.

For Modi’s Hindu nationalist base, Pakistan remains an easy populist rallying cry, even if China now represents the biggest threat. Dozens of people in India have ended up in prison for expressing their support for the Pakistani team. After four Indian soldiers were killed in an attack in Kashmir last month, many in Modi’s right-wing support base called for a boycott of the Pakistani team.

The reaction intensified and attracted some opposition politicians after the Pakistani team received a welcome similar to that received by other teams, with a traditional dance and other festivities at their Ahmedabad hotel.

In Pakistan, which is under the control of an Islamist militancy, expressions of support for the other side have also led to prosecutions and imprisonment.

Shahid Afridi, a former Pakistani star, faced a case of betrayal after telling an Indian audience during a tour that he had “not received that much love even from Pakistan.” A Pakistani tailor in the state of Punjab ended up in jail for hoisting an Indian flag, which he said he had done because he was an avid fan of Indian cricket star Virat Kohli.

However, relations between players have often been warm. Players from previous generations often spoke of deep bonds of friendship, sharing fond memories of hospitality and late-night banter in hotel rooms at times when they could travel to each other’s countries more frequently.

The same thing happens when the women’s teams of the two countries face each other. A selfie taken by Indian captain Harmanpreet Kaur of her players posing with Pakistani captain Bismah Maroof and Ms Maroof’s young daughter after a match last year. went viral.

Indian authorities were deploying 11,000 police officers and guards around the Ahmedabad stadium as a security measure, even as fans of only one of the two heated rivals filled the stadium.

Among them were three generations of the Sadasivan family, who took an early morning flight from New Delhi on Saturday.

Gaurav, 7, was wearing the blue jersey of the Indian team, tucked into his white cricket pants that showed the marks of dirt from practice. While the family was waiting to board his flight, Gaurav was busy making shadows with the rolled up poster that he was going to finish painting on the flight.

“BE FRIENDS,” said their sign, which also had the flags of India and Pakistan drawn on it.

Aasif Syed, one of only two Pakistani fans wearing a green jersey in what was otherwise a sea of ​​blue in one section of the stands, had flown from Houston, Texas, on a U.S. passport.

This was his first time in India, so his Indian friends who hosted him in New Delhi had organized a rare opportunity for him: visiting relatives (his grandmother’s cousins) whom he had never met before.

Syed said his grandparents lived on the outskirts of Delhi before partition and had been forced to move to what became Pakistan.

“I walked the streets,” he said. “I traced my roots and found the house they lived in.”

Pakistani fans who had bought advance tickets but couldn’t get visas were trying to move on from disappointment to planning screenings at home.

Muhammad Subhanullah, a 36-year-old software engineer from Islamabad, said he had spent $36 on tickets.

“Many people had advised me not to buy tickets for matches because India rarely grants visas to Pakistanis. But we were hopeful,” she said. “Our money and efforts invested in buying tickets have been wasted.”

He said he was considering watching Saturday’s match, in which Pakistan is the clear underdog, at a screening in his neighborhood.

“It’s always fun to see it with a crowd,” he said.

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