x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

India-Pakistan ties more than a cricket rivalry

No matter what the final tally when the last wicket falls, the most important prize from this latest round of 'cricket diplomacy' between India and Pakistan would be progress towards lasting peace.

Twenty-five acres of farmland will go to each cricketer who helps Pakistan vanquish India in today's World Cup semi-final. Fans in the Indian city of Ludhiana are promised free fruit cake should their side emerge victorious. Such is the frenzy of sport.

Yet no matter what the final tally when the last wicket falls, the most important prize would be progress towards peace from this latest round of "cricket diplomacy". The trick will be convincing people on both sides that bilateral relations are more important than getting to the next round of the World Cup.

This competition has roused heady emotions based only in part on love of the game. This match carries the weight of over 60 years of history on its back - fans on both sides have criticised any diplomatic overtures as the two country's prime ministers use the occasion to address more substantive issues. It will be up to these leaders to turn a source of potential friction into opportunity.

So far, neither has disappointed. After marathon talks on Monday, officials vowed to "fight terrorism in all its forms" and set up a hotline to coordinate efforts. Today, the prime ministers are slated to sit for a more candid exchange. But it will be a daunting task to translate kind words into action, and bring their recalcitrant constituents along for the ride.

Promises of cooperation are a far cry from the fear of a full-scale war that followed the deadly terrorist attack by Pakistani militants in Mumbai in 2008. Both sides eventually backed away from the brink. While a deficit of trust remains, there is at least a recognition that security is a shared problem. Future talks will discuss issues like trade and economic growth.

After six decades of conflict, the commitment to peace and cooperation is encouraging. Yet addressing more complicated and historic grievances, such as control over Kashmir, the allocation of natural resources and Afghan policies, will all prove more challenging.

Previous rounds of cricket diplomacy brought some success. Pakistan's former president Zia ul Haq's visit to India in 1987 helped ease border tensions for a time, while Pervez Musharraf's trip in 2005 brought reprieve in the dispute over Kashmir. But these issues have not gone away.

India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, and his Pakistani counterpart, Yusuf Raza Gilani, appear genuinely interested in forging a more lasting peace. Sadly, the same cannot be said for many of their citizens. Their ability to do so will depend on each nation's willingness to leave their grievances on the field once the cricket is over.