Mohali: The sleepy town of Mohali turned into the centre of “cricket diplomacy” as fierce rivals India and Pakistan began their high-octane World Cup semi-final clash on Wednesday.
The 28,000-strong crowd erupted in joy when the Prime Ministers of both countries -- Manmohan Singh and Yusuf Raza Gilani -- walked out to shake hands with the cricketers after the national anthems had been played.
The contest between the neighbours, who have fought in three wars since their 1947 independence, also attracted a multitude of Indian business tycoons and Bollywood razzmatazz at the Punjab Cricket Association Stadium.
Liquor and aviation mogul Vijay Mallya, accompanied by his son, joined film actors to cheer on the co-hosts who, like Pakistan, are chasing their second World Cup title.
With such high-profile VIPs in attendance, the town in the northern Indian state of Punjab went into lockdown. But no one was complaining.
“I tell everybody ‘you should not fight at the border, rather the battles should be fought on the cricket grounds.´ That’s what people from both countries love to see,” Mohammad Bashir Khan, a Pakistani supporter from Chicago, told Reuters after flying into India for the showpiece event.
Khan was so desperate to watch the match first hand, he even defied his wife to be in Mohali.
“My wife told me that I will get beaten up and land up in trouble if I support Pakistan here in India. But I told her ‘you can’t stop me. Forget me for the next one month´,” said Khan, who has lived in the States for the last 35 years.
“Victory and defeat are part of the game. I am here to enjoy the atmosphere.”
Thousands of fans, many draped in the Indian tri-colour, lined up outside the stadium gates more than seven hours before the start, blowing mini vuvuzelas and whistles.
Some of them stopped to get the Indian flag painted on their cheeks and barely seemed to notice the dozens of police vans and beaconed vehicles patrolling the roads.
The paths leading up to the arena were still glistening from Tuesday night’s rain showers but nothing could dampen the spirits of those who had gathered in Mohali for what is being billed “as the mother of all World Cup clashes” by local media.
The roads which are usually jam packed with cars were virtually deserted barring the security vehicles which circulated the perimeters of the stadium.
“With so many detours (because of road closures), who would want to take out the car?” Amarjeet Singh, a cab driver, told Reuters.
“Besides, giant screens have been installed at sector 17, sector 35 and some other places. Either people will watch the match at home or throng those areas.”
An unprecedented security blanket has been thrown in and around the stadium with state and central security agencies joining hands to make sure the match, featuring two nuclear-armed neighbours suspicious of each other, passes without any untoward incident.
Rampant black-marketing has been reported and eight people have been arrested so far ahead of the match.
The huge influx of tourists have caught Chandigarh and Mohali by surprise and accommodating the fans has become a huge issue with the city authorities.
Hoteliers sniffed a perfect opportunity to do some brisk business and some have even tripled their tariffs after accepting bookings at lower rates.