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Amid Troubled Relations, Cricket Diplomacy Offers Glimmer Of Hope For India, Pakistan

Pakistani Umar Akmal prepares to play a shot during a practice session before a match against New Zealand on March 7
Pakistani Umar Akmal prepares to play a shot during a practice session before a match against New Zealand on March 7
Pakistan's prime minister has announced he is accepting an invitation to watch a key cricket match in India this week.

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh invited his counterpart, Yusuf Gilani, and Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari to watch the semifinal of the cricket World Cup to be played in Mohali, India, on March 30.

For both the cricket-mad rivals, there is huge popular interest in the match. The winner will advance to play for the world title against the victor of either New Zealand or Sri Lanka.

With diplomatic relations between the two countries at a low after the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks that left 166 people dead, the invitation (and acceptance) is being seen as a rare glimmer of hope.

Zardari's spokesman Farhatullah Babar said on March 27 that "we welcomed the invitation of the Indian prime minister" and confirmed that Gilani would also be going to the match.

In the past, "cricket diplomacy" has brought leaders from the two nuclear neighbors together when attempts at holding more traditional bilateral meetings have been unsuccessful. Former Pakistani President Ziya Ul Haq attended a match in India in 1987 and former President Pervez Musharraf did the same in 2005.

India and Pakistan have long been divided over issues such as the disputed Kashmir region, but relations between the two countries deteriorated rapidly after the Mumbai attacks, which India claims were carried out by Pakistani militants.

When All Else Fails...

Pakistani Home Secretary Chaudhry Qamar Zaman, who was visiting India on March 27, told journalists that, "More than me, I think it is the entire country out there who have appreciated this gesture of the honorable prime minister of India."

Chaudhry also credited the potential role of cricket in bringing the two countries together.

"You know, cricket is vastly popular in both our countries and anything which [has] got a commonality and which is equally [respected] on both sides should definitely lead toward creating commonality and harmony," Chaudhry said.

Pakistani political analyst Sajjad Naseer told RFE/RL's Radio Mashaal that Singh's invitation and Gilani's acceptance shows again that cricket diplomacy succeeds when all else fails.

"Still there is stress in India-Pakistan relations, especially after the Mumbai blasts. To resume a comprehensive dialogue, this invitation from the Indian prime minister will help both countries to go forward in the coming bilateral dialogue process," Naseer said.

Former Pakistani cricket player Wajahat ullah Wasti told Radio Mashaal the pressure is on for both the players and the politicians.

Few among the 30,000 spectators expected at the cricket match are likely to be supporters of the Pakistani team. But concerns about the safety of both players and fans is paramount for law-enforcement officials in Mohali. Security is expected to be extremely tight on match day.

reported by Farkhanda Wazir of RFE/RL's Radio Mashaal; written by Bruce Pannier
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