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Tour puts Indo-Pak ties to test

N Ananthanarayanan | February 10, 2004 09:51 IST

Cricket will provide a major evaluation of relations between India and Pakistan next month when India's team cross the border for their first Test tour of Pakistan in 14 years.

With a billion fans in both cricket-mad countries eager for play to start, authorities realise a successful series will have repercussions far beyond the pitch.

Political animosity between the nuclear neighbours, who came close to war two years ago, has eased in recent months with the two governments agreeing to hold talks aimed at ending the decades-old dispute over Kashmir and other issues.

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Cricket has always been twinned with bilateral relations: the latest tour was announced only after India's decision in November to revoke a ban on bilateral games with Pakistan imposed in 2000 due to political tensions.

"It's a series every sports fan in both countries is eagerly looking forward to," said Indian cricket board treasurer Jyoti Bajpai. "Cricket will also be sailing smoothly in the direction the (peace) wind is blowing."

But emotions run high in the stands and the streets when the rivals clash on the field and the March-April tour is seen as a huge challenge for security and crowd control.

Indian media have reported players' concerns over their safety and the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) have sent three officials to review security this week.

Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) chairman Shaharyar Khan has promised that the tourists will be safe, but some unease remains.

The PCB wants India to play in Karachi and Peshawar, volatile venues touring sides prefer to skip due to security fears. But the BCCI has said the schedule can be finalised only after its team reports back.

NO GUARANTEES

Former India Test batsman Arun Lal feels security is still a worry.

"Security definitely must be a big issue playing in Pakistan," he said. "What else is an issue going there?"

"The whole world is concerned and players would definitely be worried," he said. "Ask any man on the street."

Lal, secretary of the Indian Cricket Players' Association (ICPA), said he was speaking purely as a former player.

"I am not involved in any of these issues and these may be sorted out, but nobody can give any guarantee against terrorism."

Teams have cancelled or curtailed tours to Pakistan because of safety fears since the September 11, 2001 attacks in the United States.

Australia and the West Indies refused to tour Pakistan in 2002, accepting only neutral venues such as Sri Lanka and Sharjah.

Last September, South Africa agreed to tour Pakistan only after the southern port city of Karachi and Peshawar, close to the border with Afghanistan, had been scratched as venues.

Karachi has been hit by several bomb attacks in recent years. In 2002, New Zealand abruptly ended their tour after a suicide bomber killed several people in front of the team hotel.

CROWD TROUBLE

Former India spinner Maninder Singh, who toured Pakistan three times in the 1980s, hopes the players will not be weighed down by safety concerns.

"I went there thrice and there was lot of unrest even then, but we didn't face many problems," he said. "I don't think anybody wants to create problems for the players."

"By and large, people in Pakistan do pass certain comments (against India), but that is part and parcel of the game."

Crowd trouble has also been a major issue in the past.

Pakistan beat India in an Asian Test championship match in Calcutta in 1999 before empty stands after rioting spectators were ejected.

A two-Test series which preceded that match was thrown into serious doubt after activists from the hardline Hindu Shiv Sena party dug up the pitch at New Delhi's Ferozeshah Kotla ground to protest against the tour.

A three-match, one-day series in Pakistan in 1997 was marred by spectators throwing stones in Karachi before India returned after the interruption to complete their win.

Captain Krishnamachari Srikkanth was attacked and his shirt torn by a spectator at the same National Stadium during India's last Pakistan Test tour in 1989-90.

But the cash-strapped Pakistan board desperately wants the India tour to go ahead smoothly.

The PCB expects to earn about $20 million from the tour. It is also trying to find lucrative Indian sponsors and has taken out advertisements in Indian newspapers.


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