Lahore: As Pakistan loosens up hamstrung trading links with arch-rival India, sporting ties between the two are back on the agenda. Traditional hostilities between the neighbouring nations have long been played out in cricket, hockey and wrestling—three of the more popular sports in the Asian subcontinent.
But fearful of the constant threat posed by the Taliban and Al Qaeda-linked militants in Pakistan, Indian teams have stayed away from Pakistan since 166 people were killed in Mumbai in 2008, a carnage widely blamed on Pakistani militants.
Time to play? Most cricket teams have been reluctant to play in Pakistan. By Nikhil Monteiro/Reuters
A gun attack on the visiting Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore just over three months later sounded the death knell for mainstream international sport in Pakistan.
But the arrival of two Indian sporting teams to the eastern city in the past week—for a bout of traditional wrestling and a blind cricket series—is perhaps the first concrete sign of sporting ties being revived. Organizers of cricket and hockey—the former watched with fanatical enthusiasm in both countries—say talks are under way to bring mainstream Indian teams to Pakistan within months.
Pakistan’s new cricket chief Zaka Ashraf says he has “high hopes” for future matches following initial talks in Dubai last week, and will visit India in the next few weeks to further efforts to cement a deal.
Hockey once topped cricket as the big sporting draw, with India and Pakistan teams dominating the Olympic finals throughout the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s.
India’s team has not visited Pakistan since 2006, but Pakistan organizers say they have proposed a four-match tournament to be played as early as January or February, when both teams have a gap in training schedules.
“They’re looking into it. I haven’t received a final response from them,” says Pakistan Hockey Federation chief Asif Bajwa.
This comes on the heels of Islamabad’s decision earlier this month to work towards a normalization of commercial trading ties. India and Pakistan have also revived a peace process this year, although dialogue has struggled to gain any real traction since its formal resumption in an atmosphere of mutual recrimination and mistrust.
“It’s political, these cricket and hockey ties, with both governments. Now with bilateral relations with India we are opening up a lot of trade, so diplomacy is on the right track,” adds Bajwa.
There has been no major bomb blast since February in Pakistan’s Punjab region, which borders India and is home to most bilateral sporting events. Sports writer Ijaz Chaudhry says the relative calm has revived hopes.
The last major attack in Pakistan was in a relatively remote north-western district on 15 September. Forty-six people were killed at a funeral.
“Things are improving...especially in Punjab. But especially after the Sri Lankan cricket team incident people are apprehensive,” says Chaudhry.
Last week, Indian blind cricket players on their first visit to Pakistan in five years were undaunted.
“This is a message for the mainstream team—if we can come here without fear then they can also come to play cricket and make some peace,” says blind cricket player Manvendra Singh Patwal.
The manager of the Pakistani side, Abdul Razzaq, says the series is the “first drop of rain” after a three-year sporting drought.
Mud wrestlers clad in briefs tussled in the dirt in front of massive crowds in Gujranwala and Lahore over the past few days, the first time Indian practitioners of the sport have been in Pakistan since 2008.
The visitors nearly did not make it; the authorities denied them entry for three days, saying they did not have the right kind of visas.
“We told the Indian high commission that it was simply a local entertainment and they should encourage it,” says organizer Khawar Shah. “They were kind enough and the matter was resolved.”
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