New Delhi/ Islamabad: An intense love of cricket is shared by these nuclear-armed neighbours, as profoundly as their deep and mutual mistrust.
The players from India and Pakistan will be cordial before and after the Champions Trophy final in London on Sunday — for that is customary in cricket’s conventions — but there’ll be tension for hundreds of millions of people tuning in across South Asia, where this rivalry transcends sport.
Cricket, bequeathed to India and Pakistan by their British colonial rulers, is usually one of the few things the countries can agree upon. Matches have previously been opportunities for diplomacy and to defuse tensions with rare high-level meetings or to swap friendly remarks.
That appears unlikely this weekend, amid escalating tensions as India accuses Pakistan of supporting terrorism and backing separatist rebels in the disputed region of Kashmir — charges Pakistan denies. The countries have fought two of their three wars over rival claims to Kashmir, and regularly exchange fire over a de facto border that divides the territory between them.
There has been no official dialogue between the countries since Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power in India three years ago.
The scene is set. Broadcasters in both countries are tipping television audience records — more than 300 million across both countries — and social media is buzzing with jingoistic banter.
Syed Talat Hussain, political analyst at Pakistan’s Geo Television, told The Associated Press that the Pakistan-India final is a “is a softer version of a war."
“Going purely by the commentary on social media, this is going to be brutal," Hussain said, adding that while the winner could triumphantly hold the trophy aloft “the runner-up will take the defeat as an everlasting wound in the heart. This won’t promote peace."
The intense rivalry has been lopsided recently, though. India has won all of their meetings in global tournaments for the last five years, including a 124-run thrashing in the tournament opener two weeks ago that had critics writing off Pakistan’s prospects for success.
The final is defending champion India’s fourth in the last eight global tournaments. Pakistan, meanwhile, has not hosted a major international match — barring a short limited-overs series against Zimbabwe — at home since a terrorist attack on Sri Lanka’s team bus at Lahore in 2009.
That has eroded the strength of the national past-time, with a generation of fans unable to see their stars playing on grounds in Karachi, Lahore or Rawalpindi.
But many analysts believe if Pakistan can upset India, it will spark a renewal.
“Cricket’s culture in Pakistan is dying since the new generation hasn’t seen international cricket being played in Pakistan," Dr. Nauman Niaz, direct of sports and syndication at Pakistan Television Corp., told the AP. Not only would a win for Pakistan generate more interest at home, Niaz said, it could have another significant spinoff.
“It could bring them to a position of strength and pressurize the International Cricket Council (ICC) to bring back international cricket to Pakistan," he said.
Despite its poor recent record against India, the people of Pakistan have high hopes for their unpredictable team.
“We know India is a better team on paper than us, but our heart is not willing to accept that," said Mohammad Shabbir, a 16-year-old student. “We want to see Sarfraz lift the trophy on Sunday."
Television and TEN Sports said an estimated 50 million people in Pakistan tuned for the match against India on June 4.
“We expect the viewership will be easily doubled on Sunday," Niaz said. That’s more than half the Pakistan population watching a game.
There’ll be more people watching in India, although a lower proportion of the population.
Star India said the 4 June match drew a record 201 million viewers, a mark likely to be eclipsed for the final.
“Cricket ... is like a national way to pass time," said Priya Gupta, a 17-year-old student in New Delhi, “and it is the best watched when our boys are playing against Pakistan."
Delhi Police are planning to be on alert following the match for revelry or violence. Bars across the capital are planning special happy hours and public screenings, and small stores and kiosks will set up televisions for crowds to gather around on the streets.
On Thursday night in central New Delhi, a group of 10 huddled around Vijay Kumar’s open-air tea stall to watch the semi final between India and Bangladesh on a small TV set up on the counter next to stacks of plastic candy jars.
He’s expecting more customers on Sunday, because of the rivalry.
“It doesn’t mean an increase in sales, necessarily, but those are the matches which are the most fun to watch," Kumar said. He’s hoping for a nail-biter, too, because “the last match was too easy. We have to defeat them but they shouldn’t make it easy for us."
Former Pakistan captain Ramiz Raja said Pakistan’s comeback after the early loss boded well for the underdogs.
“It’s a fantastic turnaround after the Indian loss and hammers the point that nothing is impossible," he said. “Such a feat will encourage youth to take to the game and this feel good factor that cricket is able to create will have a positive impact on the psyche of the society.
“It will also act as a wake-up call for the entire cricket fraternity that Pakistan cannot be side stepped as a cricket force and cries to relaunch international cricket in Pakistan may grow stronger after this performance."