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India-Pakistan Cricket Match: A Billion Eyes on a Fiery Rivalry

WorldIndia-Pakistan Cricket Match: A Billion Eyes on a Fiery Rivalry

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

On Saturday, the two sides faced off in the men’s cricket World Cup in India. The match, at Narendra Modi Stadium — capacity 132,000 people — was sold out. Hotel prices in Ahmedabad, the site of the stadium, named for the vigorously nationalist Indian prime minister, were between five and ten times higher than usual.

“It is the most hyped-up game in cricket history,” 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 Mr. Jaffri among the large crowd, even though the stadium is closer to Karachi than it is to New Delhi. It is hard for Pakistanis to get permission to visit India, and Pakistani fans were not issued visas for the World Cup. Only a few Pakistani journalists received travel permission, which did not come until the eve of the match, leaving them scrambling to make it to Ahmedabad in time.

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

India had refused to travel to Pakistan for another tournament late this summer, using its outsize influence on cricket’s international governing body — India is the biggest economic force in the sport — to shift the matches to neutral venues in Sri Lanka. Pakistan, in return, warned that it might pull out of the World Cup in India, a threat it ultimately dropped.

Cricketing ties between India and Pakistan have fluctuated along with relations between the two countries since Pakistan was carved out of India in the bloody British partition of 1947. At times, India-Pakistan games, which draw equal passion on both sides of the border, have been used to break the ice when tensions have run particularly high, providing an important space for exchange.

When the two nations first met on a cricket field in the early 1950s, partition was clear in the teams’ makeup: Pakistan’s squad included players who just years earlier had played for India.

For many years, relations were patched up enough in between 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 cricketing ties have remained suspended since, with Pakistani players barred from the lucrative Indian Premier League, which features the world’s best players. In the 15 years after the attack, the national teams have played each other only as part of larger global events. The match on Saturday 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 cricketing ties will not change “until they stop terrorism.”

In recent years, however, 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 armies of the two countries locked in a standoff high in the Himalayas for the past three years.

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

Increased political polarization on both sides of the border has also not helped the countries’ relations.

For Mr. Modi’s Hindu nationalist base, Pakistan remains an easy populist rallying cry, even if China now poses the greater threat. Dozens of people in India have landed in prison over expressions of support for the Pakistani team. After four Indian soldiers were killed in an attack in Kashmir last month, many in Mr. Modi’s right-wing support base called for boycotting the Pakistani team.

The backlash intensified and drew in some opposition politicians after the Pakistani team was given a welcome similar to what other teams received, with a traditional dance and other festivities in their Ahmedabad hotel.

In Pakistan, which is in the grip of an Islamist militancy, expressions of support for the other side have also resulted in court cases and imprisonment.

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

Relations between players, however, have often been warm. Players from earlier generations often spoke of deep bonds of friendship, sharing fond memories of hospitality and late-night hotel room pranks during times when they could travel to each other’s countries more frequently.

The same is true when the two nations’ women’s teams have played each other. A selfie taken by the Indian captain, Harmanpreet Kaur, of her players posing with the Pakistani captain, Bismah Maroof, and Ms. Maroof’s baby daughter after a match last year went viral.

The Indian authorities were deploying 11,000 police officers and guards around the stadium in Ahmedabad as a security precaution, even with fans of only one of the two heated rivals filling the stadium.

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

Gaurav, 7, wore the Indian team’s blue jersey, tucked into his white cricket pants that showed the dirt marks of practice. As the family waited to board their flight, Gaurav was busy shadow-batting with the rolled-up sign that he was going to finish painting on the flight.

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

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

This was his first time in India, so his Indian friends hosting him in New Delhi had arranged a rare opportunity for him: to visit relatives — his grandmother’s cousins — whom he had never met before.

Mr. Syed said his grandparents lived just outside Delhi before the partition, and had been forced to shift to what became Pakistan.

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

Pakistani fans who had bought advance tickets but could not obtain visas were trying to move from disappointment to planning home screenings.

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

“Many people had advised me against buying match tickets because India rarely grants visas to Pakistanis. But we were hopeful,” he said. “Our money and efforts spent on buying tickets have gone to waste.”

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 enjoyable to watch it with a crowd,” he said.


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