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Indian Cricketers in Pakistan For First Tour in 14 Years - 2004-03-12

India cricketers are in Pakistan for their first tour of their rival neighbor in 14 years. The tournament is described as the latest chapter in the two country's efforts to improve bilateral relations.

Indian and Pakistani teams will open the tour on Saturday with a one-day match in Karachi. Tens of thousands of fans are expected to attend the match, while millions more on both sides of the border will watch on television.

Cricket is the most popular sport in the two South Asian nations, and the groundbreaking tour is seen as a major step in improving strained relations.

Imran Khan is the former captain of Pakistan's national team and is now a member of parliament.

"When the two countries are trying to become friendly, trying to ease tensions, then cricket plays a healing role. Cricket becomes cement in bonding the countries together," he said.

India and Pakistan have fought three major wars since independence from Britain in 1947. In 1989, relations suffered with a fresh insurgency in Kashmir, for which India blamed Pakistan. Since then, the Indian government has not allowed the team to travel to Pakistan, citing security reasons.

These hostilities have spilled over into the world of cricket. When the two teams have met in recent years, mostly in third nations, stone throwing and other violent incidents have sometimes disrupted matches.

But Mr. Khan says this time the atmosphere is friendlier because India and Pakistan have taken what he calls serious steps to improve bilateral relations.

"There will be a lot of rivalry and competitiveness on the cricket field," he said. "But there will be a mixing of the civil society. A lot of Indian people are going to come over - visitors are coming over and this will help ease the tension."

He says that whenever Pakistan and India face off on the cricket pitch, the matches attract the world's attention because of the political significance.

"When Pakistan and India play cricket, then it is not just the cricket fans that get interested… It transcends sport. It is much more than cricket," he said.

Mr. Khan notes that India's ruling party scheduled the most exciting one-day matches early, so they would not affect the political campaign for the upcoming Indian general elections.