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India, Pakistan resume epic rivalry

March 13, 2004 12:02 IST

Pakistan and India went to battle on the cricket pitch on Saturday, begining a historic series that both countries hope will give new momentum to a fledgling peace process between the nuclear rivals.

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To a deafening roar from a jubilant crowd, Pakistani pace bowler Shoiab Akhtar launched a fierce delivery at Indian opener Virender Sehwag. The opening salvo, renewing one of the great rivalries in international sport, was a disappointing wide.

The players have sought to limit matters to the pitch, but the six-week tour goes far beyond the boundary rope as the

South Asian neighbours seek to tackle a range of disputes, including Kashmir, which is at the heart of decades of animosity and war.

"Love knows no borders," read one banner inside the packed 33,000-seat venue.

Security in this volatile port city of 14 million people was tight, with paramilitary Rangers and police out in force on the approach to the stadium. Roads were blocked for miles around.

More than 5,000 police have been called in to secure the stadium, a sign of the ongoing risks posed in Pakistan by militant Islamic groups keen to undermine President Pervez Musharraf and the peace process he has helped to initiate.

New Delhi blames Islamabad for fomenting a Muslim uprising in the Indian-held part of divided Kashmir that has claimed tens of thousands of lives since 1989. Pakistan calls the rebellion a "legitimate freedom struggle", but denies aiding the rebels.

The countries have fought two of their three wars over Muslim-majority Kashmir and came to the brink of a fourth in 2002.

Since then, confidence building measures including reopening air, rail and road links have helped to restore stability, and the Indian tour of Pakistan -- the first for more than 14 years -- is the latest sign of thawing ties.

HUNDREDS OF MILLIONS

Hundreds of millions of people are expected to watch the series on television and tickets for the opening one-day encounter in Karachi sold out within hours.

Thousands of Indian fans are expected to visit Pakistan, although the largest contingent will probably be in the eastern city of Lahore, close to the Indian border.

Sheepat Lodsa, a diehard fan from India who flew into Karachi on Friday, said he wanted to be part of history.

"I wanted to be a witness of this historic event, which will help bolster the piece initiative in this region," he said. "I am very happy to be here," said the 24-year-old IT executive, adding that it is his first visit to Pakistan.

On Friday in sports-mad Kolkata, India captain Sourav Ganguly's hometown, people gathered in front of a pyre and offered prayers to Kali, the Hindu goddess of power, for an Indian victory.

"India will win" shouted some while others held up posters of Ganguly and placards reading "Good Luck, India" as well as the Indian saffron, white and green flag.

In Karachi, ticket touts have been doing a roaring trade and underworld bookies expect billions of rupees to be gambled on the first game alone.

On the pitch, the series has been billed as a duel between Indian master batsman Sachin Tendulkar and the flamboyant Akhtar. But the man nicknamed the "Rawalpindi Express" played down the hype.

"I don't care who comes up in front of me," Shoiab told Reuters late on Friday. "I'll bowl the same way to all of them. The Indian batting is strong but not impregnable."

Mike Collett-White