NEW DELHI — India and Pakistan will play a series of cricket matches later this year, marking the resumption of bilateral sporting ties after five years. Cricket matches between the South Asian rivals are not only one of the world’s most intense sporting rivalries - they are often intertwined with politics.
Like millions of people on the subcontinent, New Delhi resident Varun Mehta is crazy about cricket. He is jubilant that India and Pakistan are set to play three one-day matches starting December this year.
"Yes, there are high passions on both sides, and one gets very personally involved in these matches," he said.
Earlier this week, the Board of Cricket Control of India announced that the Pakistani cricket team will tour India, reviving bilateral sporting ties that India had put on hold in 2008 after blaming Pakistan-based militants for terror attacks in its financial hub Mumbai.
For years, cricket matches between the South Asian rivals have been high voltage encounters that attract more than 400 million television viewers - far higher than contests with other countries. That is largely because the game often acquires the overtones of their decades old political rivalry.
Rakesh Dhir, a 65-year-old avid cricket fan, admits that for him, a cricket match with India’s rival is not just a game - it is a heart-stopping contest.
"There is a great amount of emotion involved," said Dhir. "You really want India to win, which is not so against the others. When you lose to Pakistan, then there is a tremendous sense of loss."
The most charged encounter between the two countries took place in 2003 in South Africa, months after the two countries came close to war. The cricket pitch was widely described as a miniature battlefield.
Since then, relations have improved. Their disputed Kashmir border is quiet and more people travel from one country to the other as part of an effort to increase what diplomats call “people-to-people” contacts. And, although a peace process and bilateral sporting ties were disrupted by the Mumbai attacks, there is less animosity.
Sports columnist V. Sri Vatsa in New Delhi says recent cricket encounters at multi-team tournaments show that the two nations have come a long way.
"Now people have started looking at these contests as a sporting contest rather than a war between two countries, which is again a remarkable change in the attitude of the two people of the two countries," said Sri Vatsa.
He cites the example of a match played by the rivals last year in India as part of the World Cup series. High tension and fervor were part of the game - but the spirit of intense hostility had been replaced by more bonhomie.
Cricket also plays a crucial role in diplomacy, with top leaders from both countries sometimes joining the spectators. The prime ministers of the two countries attended last year’s match.
New Delhi’s decision to revive cricket ties with its neighbor has some detractors. Angered by what he calls a lack of co-operation from Pakistan in bringing the perpetrators of the Mumbai attacks to justice, former Indian cricket captain Sunil Gavaskar says he feels there is no urgency in resuming cricket ties. Others say, it is high time to separate politics from the sport.