India-Pakistan excitement at fever pitch

Chaudhry Abdul Jalil (C), popularly known as 'Chacha Cricket', waves after crossing the India-Pakistan border in Wagah on the eve of the India-Pakistan Cricket World Cup semi-final match.

MOHALI: Cricket fever gripped India and Pakistan on Tuesday ahead of a World Cup showdown between historic foes whose on-field rivalry is one of the world’s great sporting contests.

The South Asian neighbours, with a shared history of brotherhood and bloodshed that adds spice to any encounter, will meet Wednesday in the World Cup semi-final in the competition’s biggest match yet by far.

Given the region’s history of militant attacks, police said they were “leaving nothing to chance” with a security blanket involving 2,000 police and paramilitary personnel around the venue in Mohali.

Speculation has reached a crescendo about the outcome of the epic clash and whether it will help relations between the nuclear-armed nations, which have fought three wars since independence in 1947.

India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has invited his Pakistani counterpart Yousaf Raza Gilani to watch the day-night game with him, which will be the first meeting between the leaders since April 2010 in Bhutan.

The “cricket diplomacy” comes at a time when the countries are tentatively getting their peace process back on track after it was derailed by the 2008 Mumbai attacks, which India blamed on Pakistani militants.

“This is a match that one gets to see once in a lifetime. The excitement is almost too much to bear,” Harkirat Pratap, a 33-year-old who runs a gymnasium in Mohali, told AFP.

“I have already told all our customers that the gym will be closed in the evening. I can’t imagine missing this one.”

All tickets for the 30,000-capacity stadium have been sold. A man trying to sell 200-rupee tickets for 30,000 rupees on auction website Ebay was arrested on Monday.

“If I don’t get a ticket I will protest outside the gates,” Bashir Khan, a desperate Pakistani who had travelled from Chicago, told AFP outside the stadium on Tuesday.

“I will clap every good catch and every good shot. I love both teams,” said the restaurant owner, whose long green coat was adorned with flags from both countries.

The Pakistan Cricket Board said it would throw open Lahore’s Gaddafi Stadium – named after the beleaguered Libyan leader – for fans to watch the match for free on giant screens.

In another reflection of the interest, a Facebook poll on “Who Will Win The Semifinal” has drawn 750,000 votes, with two-thirds opting for India — indicating the country’s role as favourites and its superior population.

Aside from the many police on duty, the security deployment will reportedly involve anti-aircraft guns and missiles.

“We are leaving nothing to chance. The security will be multi-layered,” local police chief G.P.S. Bhullar told reporters.

As part of security checks, late-night raids were conducted at various hotels around the venue in Mohali and nearby Chandigarh on Monday night to weed out suspicious visitors.

Guests were asked to open their doors at midnight to allow security personnel to scan their luggage.

In the hotel where the players are staying, two policemen working as official food tasters have been eating three lavish meals a day to check for poisoning or other hygiene problems.

The match will be a contest between Pakistan’s well-balanced bowling attack and India’s star-studded batsmen, including opener Sachin Tendulkar who needs just one more century for 100 international hundreds.