x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

India, Pakistan face off again on cricket ground

South Asia's bitter rivals are meeting again on the cricket ground, marking a gradual thaw in their decades-old rivalry.

BANGALORE // Four years after Pakistani gunmen laid siege to India's financial capital of Mumbai, South Asia's bitter rivals were meeting again on the cricket ground, marking a gradual thaw in their decades-old rivalry.

The first bilateral series between India and Pakistan since November 2007, comprising two Twenty20 matches and three one-day internationals, began on Tuesday.

Thousands of cricket fans began lining up outside Bangalore's massive Chinnaswamy Stadium nearly five hours before the match was to begin.

"This match is like no other. There's a special thrill to a match where India faces Pakistan," said Ravinder Singh, his loyalties evident from the Indian flag colours painted on his cheeks.

Security was tight with thousands of paramilitary soldiers and police outside the stadium. Police carried out body searches before allowing fans into the stadium after they had gone through metal detectors.

Analysts see the cricket series as a sign the two sides are ready to move past the bitterness that followed the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks, when 10 Pakistan-based gunmen killed 166 people in a three-day rampage across the city.

India blamed the Lashkar-e-Taiba militant group for the attacks and demanded that Islamabad crack down on terrorism.

Despite a long history of mutual distrust and animosity, the love of cricket is one of the few things the countries agree upon.

Relations have improved since the Mumbai attacks and diplomatic ties have been renewed, but New Delhi remains unsatisfied with the slow pace of Islamabad's efforts to bring the perpetrators of the attacks to justice.

New Delhi froze nearly all contact with Islamabad - including sporting ties - after the Mumbai attacks, a hiatus that has been bridged in recent years by India and Pakistan playing matches in third countries or in international meets such as the World Cup.

This month, India and Pakistan signed an agreement that makes it easier for business travellers to get visas. People aged over 65 also will be entitled to get visas on arrival. Members of families divided during Britain's partition of the subcontinent, along with tourists and religious pilgrims, are also supposed to get quick visas.

"When Indians enter Pakistan and when Pakistanis enter India, they should feel like they are coming home," Rehman Malik, Pakistan's interior minister, said in New Delhi two weeks ago when the visa agreement was signed. India has issued more than 3,000 visas to Pakistanis for the cricket matches.

But analysts caution that policymakers in India should not get carried away by the friendly neighbour rhetoric.

"All forms of people-to-people contact, including sports, are important and should be pursued, but never at the cost of our main focus, which is terrorism emanating from Pakistan," said Vivek Katju, a retired diplomat who has served in Pakistan and was India's ambassador in Afghanistan.