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India and Pakistan face off in rare clash at Cricket World Cup

India will host Pakistan at the Cricket World Cup on Saturday, a historic bout between the bitter rivals that has sparked frenzied anticipation ahead of elections in both countries next year.

It is the first time Pakistan’s team has travelled to India since 2016, marking a rare moment of bilateral engagement. An eruption of cross-border violence in 2019 led the nuclear-armed neighbours to largely cut off political and economic ties.

The contest has already fuelled a febrile political atmosphere, with figures on both sides exchanging inflammatory rhetoric in the build-up to the match, which has taken on heightened political significance against the backdrop of the looming polls.

Indian authorities have ramped up preparations for the match, the most anticipated of the tournament, which started last week. It will be played in Ahmedabad, Narendra Modi’s political heartland, where a crowd of more than 100,000 spectators will fill the world’s largest cricket ground, which was named for the Indian prime minister.

In response to soaring bookings of tickets, flight and hotels, officials announced special train services to carry more fans to the venue and celebrity entertainment before the match. Thousands of security personnel will be deployed.

“India vs Pakistan is the biggest blockbuster in the game,” said Ayaz Memon, a cricket commentator in Mumbai.

India’s captain Rohit Sharma plays a shot during an ICC Cricket World Cup match in Chennai on Sunday
India, under their captain Rohit Sharma, are favourites to win the World Cup © Rafiq Maqbool/AP

Pakistan’s cricket board this week expressed “serious concerns and alarm” after its players, journalists and fans faced repeated delays securing Indian visas, with the team only receiving clearance 36 hours before travelling last month.

Uddhav Thackeray, a rightwing Indian opposition politician, recently attacked Modi for hosting a country “that supports terrorism”, while a top Pakistani cricket official labelled India the “enemy country”. 

Some have criticised what they say are explicit efforts by Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata party, which controls the Board of Control for Cricket in India, the sport’s governing body in the country, to reap political gains out of the World Cup. All the most important matches, including the final next month, will be played at the Narendra Modi stadium, which was rechristened for the prime minister in 2021 after a renovation.

“The BCCI is a willing and deferential tool of the BJP at the beginning of a long march towards next year’s election, so everything is calculated to show Modi to best advantage,” said Gideon Haigh, a cricket writer based in Melbourne. “The cricket is barely even secondary, almost an afterthought.”

DD Pandey, a fan who attended a match between India and Afghanistan in Delhi this week, said Modi would get a boost if India — the tournament favourites — prevailed. The India team is “helped by Modi’s encouragement”, he said. “India is a growing economy and the World Cup helps raise our profile.”

Matches between India and Pakistan have become rarer as relations between the two countries, which have fought multiple wars since their violent partition in 1947, deteriorated.

While the sides continue to meet in international tournaments, such as the World Cup, India has during the past decade refused to play one-on-one series over what it says is Pakistan’s support for militant groups in the disputed territory of Kashmir. India also refused to travel to Pakistan for the Asia Cup this year, forcing matches to be moved to Sri Lanka.

A fan holds a poster displaying pictures of Pakistan’s captain Babar Azam in Hyderabad
A fan holds a poster celebrating Pakistan’s captain Babar Azam ahead of the country’s World Cup match against the Netherlands © Noah Seelam/AFP/Getty Images

The estrangement has coincided with a drastic divergence in the neighbours’ economic fortunes. India, now the world’s largest country by population with 1.4bn people, has a fast-growing economy, and its Indian Premier League, a 15-year-old domestic cricket tournament, is the most lucrative in the sport.

Pakistan, by contrast, has contended with one political and economic crisis after another. Major teams including England and Australia shunned the country for more than a decade over security concerns, and Pakistani players have been in effect blacklisted from the IPL.

“India is way ahead in every aspect,” said SM Hussain, a cricket writer based in Karachi. “There’s no consistency in Pakistani cricket. But they have a good team, and they’re surviving and competing on their talent.”

Indian fans have graciously welcomed the Pakistani team, which is ranked second globally in the sport’s one-day match format, to the tournament, enthusiastically applauding their victory against Sri Lanka on Tuesday.

But analysts said there was little chance of the historic visit translating into a detente ahead of the countries’ respective polls, when nationalist invective can serve as a useful campaign tool.

“India and Pakistan cricket games were often an icebreaker, but relations would never improve,” said Ronojoy Sen, a political scientist at the National University of Singapore who has written about sports.

Rohit Agarwal, a fan from Gwalior, in India’s Madhya Pradesh state, said that against the charged political backdrop, the atmosphere in the stadium would be “electrifying”.

“The Pakistani cricket team is formidable,” he said, adding: “When it comes to Pakistan, our geopolitical tension always has a bearing on my mind.

“An India-Pakistan match is much more than cricket.”

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