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Cricket: India, Pakistan Face Off in Key World Cup Match, Saturday - 2003-02-28

India and Pakistan face each other at the cricket World Cup in South Africa Saturday. The two neighboring nations have been rivals on the battlefield, as well as on the cricket pitch, and millions of passionate fans on the Subcontinent will be glued to their television sets when the two national teams meet for the first time in nearly three years.

It is being billed as the "mother of all matches" and "a tournament within a tournament." For fans across India and Pakistan, this is not simply another cricket match. It is not just another World Cup match. National honor is at stake.

Many countries of the former British Empire share a passion for cricket. But five decades of bitter animosity and a history of three wars has turned cricket encounters between Pakistan and India into virtual battles.

The two teams have not played each other since June 2000. The Indian government suspended one-on-one meetings between the two countries then, allowing the Indian team to meet Pakistan only at multi-team tournaments. Political hostility between the neighbors has intensified since that time, bringing the two nations close to war last year over terrorism and the disputed territory of Kashmir.

As a result, excitement surrounding Saturday's game has reached the fever point. In the homes, offices and markets of both countries, there is tension, fear and expectation.

For the one-billion-plus people of India, the match is inextricably woven with national pride. In a New Delhi market, everyone agrees - it's a do-or-die contest.

"I think India is going to win tomorrow. It's a matter of pride, patriotism," said one fan.

"We must win," insisted another. " Losing tomorrow will be a complete loss of face. "

The fervor in Pakistan is just as strong. Fans there say they are willing to forgive losses to other countries - as long as their team beats India.

Here in New Delhi, people say that even winning the World Cup is less important than victory in Saturday's match.

"If we win over Pakistan, it's our World Cup, that's it. It's World Cup for me basically," said a cricket fan.

During the regular season, the Indian team's following is notoriously fickle. A poor start in the tournament earlier this month prompted hundreds of fans to hold a mock funeral for the team's captain, and to burn effigies and posters of other players. A defeat by Pakistan would not be well received by the fans.

The cricket rivalry sometimes finds echoes as far away as the frontier. In the past, the two armies on the tense Kashmir border have fired weapons at each other to celebrate a victory, or express frustration over a loss.