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Cricket: Pakistan to meet India amid political unrest

شعار Al Jazeera Al Jazeera 03/06/2017
With a stronger team, India is tipped to edge out Pakistan on the cricket field [Reuters] © Provided by Al Jazeera With a stronger team, India is tipped to edge out Pakistan on the cricket field [Reuters]

Pakistan and India are set to face off in the eagerly awaited cricket match againt a backdrop of nearly 14 months of political hostility and frosty government relations.

Pakistan and India have fought three wars since gaining independence from British rule in 1947. Two of those have been over Kashmir, a region both sides claim in its entirety.

Sunday's One-Day International (ODI) in England, part of the 2017 Champions Trophy tournament, will come a day after clashes along the Line of Control (LoC), the de factor border in the Kashmir valley that separates Pakistani and Indian troops, claimed the lives of five Indian soldiers.

On the cricket field, the two sides have played a total of 194 matches. But matches hit a steep decline following the 2008 Mumbai attack, which India says was orchestrated from inside Pakistan.

Pakistan and India last met on a cricket pitch in March 2016. But the Pakistani team has not toured India for a bilateral series since January 2013 and has not hosted the Indian team for a series since 2006.

Relations at the government level are dented, as the nations remain divided by history. Records and memories are created each time the teams meet on a cricket field. They add yet another chapter to the nations' shared history, one that is scripted by a white ball.

There are frequent exchanges of fire across the LoC. India accuses Pakistan of backing separatist fighters in the Himalayan region, a charge Pakistan denies

Pakistani flags are often witnessed on the streets of Kashmir, mostly as taunting tool against Indian soldiers.

But during a Pakistan-India cricket match, the majority of Kashmiris root for Pakistan, mostly to taunt India, said 25-year-old Srinagar resident Rehana Butt.

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"I will definitely be supporting Pakistan. I'm not a huge cricket fan but my whole family supports Pakistan in a cricket match and that's how I've been brought up," Butt told Al Jazeera.

"It's mostly to taunt India. Back in the day, the streets used to be deserted when India would take on Pakistan. It used to be a curfew-like situation. That's toned down a bit now. But we still see shopkeepers bring out big TVs for passers-by to watch them game."

Celebrations by the security forces are often witnessed in the event of an Indian win, Butt added.

Sunday's ODI renews the on-field rivalry between two of the great cricket nations, but a former Pakistan captain told Al Jazeera that the fixture has lost its charm and intensity.

"There's been a slight dip, definitely. The intensity of the fixture is no longer there, and the teams are not evenly matched either," former Pakistan captain Aamir Sohail, who was part of the 1992 World Cup winning side, said.

"It's a worrying sign. People are losing interest. If a fixture as big as Pakistan-India is losing its charm, the authorities need to look into this.

"Performance in a Pakistan-India game used to be a benchmark for greatness. It's a pressured situation. A true performer waits for these occasions and performs. That's what these matches were about."

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For the fans of the cricket-mad neighbouring countries, the result is a matter of national pride as well as boasting rights.

"Don't win the Champions Trophy, but just beat Pakistan and we will give you a grand welcome back home," Indian fan Aman Sood told AFP news agency.

Indian captain Virat Kohli called it "just another game", but former India opener Chetan Chauhan said that was just to avoid putting pressure on his players.

"It's the rivalry between the two countries that gets people excited. It is a highly charged match."

"It's the rivalry between the two countries that gets people excited. It is a highly charged match."

One Indian fan, Bahjat Nomani, said "it's not cricket, it's war", summing up the high-stakes contest.

The appeal of a Pakistan-India match is so large that the International Cricket Council has admitted to habitually fixing draws of major tournaments in order to get both sides in the same group to attend.

This is the fifth tournament in a row where India and Pakistan will meet in the group stage. The commercial revenue and TV audience of up to a billion were too difficult for the governing body to overlook.

But despite the political tangling, an India-Pakistan clash on the pitch delivers, without fail, excitement, anticipation and plenty of nerves, even before the flip of the coin.

"It's a game of nerves without a doubt, you can't even sleep for several nights before an India-Pakistan game," Pakistan fast-bowler Wahab Riaz had told Al Jazeera prior to a 2014 clash.

"The pressure is immense, more than a normal game. You want to do well in every match you play but against India, you strive extra hard to achieve all that," he said, hoping those meetings on the cricket field are replicated by politicians.

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