Cricket diplomacy: India and Pakistan start new innings

Cricket diplomacy

Cricket legend Kapil Dev remembers what it was like playing for his country against India's bitter rival, Pakistan, when he made his international debut in 1978: a bowler was expected to aim at the batsman's body.

"When I played my first series against Pakistan, it did look like a war," India's 1983 World Cup-winning captain said during a recent TV panel discussion. "In our time, we were expected more to harm the Pakistani players than win a match."

Fast-forward to 2012, and India and Pakistan are once again preparing to face off on the cricket field, playing their first series since 2008, when already brittle relations were shattered by the Mumbai attacks.

The fact that the matches are happening at all is widely seen as a sign of the warming atmospherics between the South Asian neighbours, which have fought three wars in their brief independent history and remain deeply mistrustful of each other.

Some 3,000 Pakistani cricket fans will travel to India, benefiting from a more relaxed visa regime that was agreed on earlier this month as part of a series of confidence-building measures. The teams will play five matches across different Indian cities, starting on December 25.

It is the latest round of what is known as "cricket diplomacy" - a tradition of using the subcontinent's favourite sport to mend relations that stretch back a quarter of a century and saw their respective prime ministers hold pitch-side talks last year.

"Politically, cricket has always been there to break the ice," said Aamer Naseer, a Pakistani TV sports show host.

CRICKET PSYCHOLOGY

Both India and Pakistan are crazy about cricket and emotions run high whenever the two sides meet, usually in stadiums packed to the rafters and resounding with jingoistic slogan-shouting.

"The atmosphere is unparalleled," Omer Ghaznavi, a sports analyst for City FM, a popular Pakistani radio station. "I haven't been to another sporting event where people are so charged up."

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