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International relations

India and Pakistan to clash in cricket as Kashmir feud lingers

More than a billion people are expected to watch Sunday's World Cup match

Pakistan's Hasan Ali celebrates taking the wicket of India's Ravichandran Ashwin in the ICC Champions Trophy Final in London in June 2017. The two countries have not played a bilateral series since the deadly bombings in Mumbai in 2008, and now only play at international tournaments.   © Reuters

NEW DELHI -- Life in India and Pakistan will come to virtual standstill on Sunday -- not over Kashmir tensions, but over a huge game of cricket between the nuclear-armed neighbors.

More than a billion television viewers are expected to watch the World Cup group game between the bitter rivals in Manchester, England. Emotions among fans are expected to run even higher than normal, as the match follows the suicide bombing in the Indian-controlled part of the disputed Kashmir territory that killed 40 paramilitary police personnel in February.

India responded to the attack by sending warplanes to target militant bases inside Pakistan, which in turn responded with airstrikes. The friction led to calls in India for a boycott of the game, but the sold-out match is now going ahead as scheduled.

India has not played a bilateral series with Pakistan since the deadly bombings in Mumbai in 2008, and the two sides now only play at international tournaments such as the World Cup.

S. Dasgupta, a New Delhi-based government employee, said an India-Pakistan match is "always viewed like a war" on the field.

"As long as the political tensions prevail, the situation will remain the same," said Dasgupta, who is happy the match is being played on a Sunday so there is no need to skip work to watch.

The captains of the two teams played down the political tensions surrounding the match at a news conference last month.

"India-Pakistan is always a very, very anticipated match but... if you ask the players it's very different from how the fans look at the game [as] compared to how the players play it," said Indian skipper Virat Kohli. "For us, it's just another game that you need to win as a team. Yes, it brings pressure because the atmosphere in the stadium is very different [but] as soon as you get into [playing], at the end of the day it's the game of cricket for all of us."

Pakistan captain Sarfaraz Ahmed said he shared Kohli's view of the game.

Indian star Mahendra Singh Dhoni sparked controversy when he wore gloves with the dagger insignia of India's special forces in a match against South Africa on June 5. AFP/ Jiji

But a fresh row erupted during first match against South Africa on June 5, when star wicket keeper-batsman Mahendra Singh Dhoni wore gloves with the dagger insignia of India's special forces.

The International Cricket Council asked him not use gloves with mark, and it created a media storm in both India and Pakistan. Fawad Chaudhry, a Pakistani minister, said Dhoni was in England to play cricket, not for any battle.

Slamming calls in India for Dhoni to keep the gloves, Chaudhry tweeted: "a section of Indian media is so obsessed with War they should be sent to Syria, Afghanistan or Rawanda as mercenaries."

Dhoni, an honorary lieutenant colonel in the Territorial Army, and other team members earlier wore army camouflage caps during a match in March against Australia to pay homage to the victims of the Kashmir attack. They donated their match fees to the soldiers.

The two countries have had a bitter relationship since Hindu-majority India and Muslim-majority Pakistan were created after British rule ended in 1947. The partitioning process was bloody, and the two countries have since fought three major wars, including two over Kashmir which remains the core flash point in bilateral ties.

The draw of the game on subcontinent has drawn in businesses looking to capitalize on the cricketing event that offers them an avenue to reach out to hundreds of millions of customers across the world.

Among the major commercial partners of the ICC are Japanese automobile manufacturer Nissan Motor, Chinese electronics maker Oppo, Indian tire maker MRF Tyres, U.S.-based money transfer company MoneyGram, the UAE's Emirates airline, Swiss luxury watchmaker Hublot, and Australian winemaker Wolf Blass.

Indian captain Virat Kohli and Pakistani skipper Sarfaraz Ahmed speak at a news conference in London on May 23.   © Reuters

An ad war too has ensued between India and Pakistan just days ahead of the match.

A Pakistani channel posted an advertisement that appears to mock an Indian fighter pilot captured and then released by Pakistan during the February airstrikes. The clip shows a man imitating the pilot, who when asked about India's strategy for the game, he sips tea and responds: "I'm sorry, I'm not supposed to tell you that."

In India, Star Sports, the official broadcaster of the World Cup, also released an ad showing two characters as Pakistani and Bangladeshi fans who are discussing Pakistan's chances in the game that takes place on Father's Day. A man playing an Indian supporter appears and describes himself as Pakistan's "abbu" or father.

"Cringeworthy ads on both sides of the border," tweeted Indian tennis star Sania Mirza, who is married to Pakistani cricketer Shoaib Malik. "Seriously guys, you don't need to 'hype up' or market the match anymore specially with rubbish! it has ENOUGH attention already!"

At the height of the tensions in February, Steve Elworthy, the World Cup tournament director, said the India-Pakistan game had had over 400,000 applications for tickets in the 25,000-capicity ground.

"To put that [number] in perspective, England v Australia was around 230,000-240,000. And the final was around about 260,000-270,000 applications for tickets. So that gives you a bit of perspective for the demand for this match," he was quoted as saying by ESPN Cricinfo.

Geetanjali Dutta, an India-born mother of two based in London, complained to the Nikkei Asian Review that tickets for the match were hard to get hold of.

"Nothing is available," she said. "But various Indian restaurants, pubs and lounges here are going to [show] this match on big screens, so our family, along with a group of friends, is going to settle for one of these venues"

India has made an unbeaten start to the tournament, with British bookmakers making them second-favorites behind hosts England. It is perhaps more of a must-win game for Pakistan, as it has only won one of its four matches played so far.

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