New Delhi: India is expected to shudder to a halt on Saturday when Saurav Ganguly's team takes on arch-rival Pakistan in the World Cup, the rare cricketing clash for many fans taking on the proportions of a bitter battlefield encounter. Buoyed by India's 82-run win over former colonial rulers England Wednesday, fans are warning of a cricketing "cardiac arrest", with the country brought to a standstill during the game at Centurion, and police reading history books of sectarian clashes, which have occurred during such matches in the past. "We will turn a blind eye to street celebrations if India wins against Pakistan but a defeat would not be allowed to be translated into rowdy behaviour against a particular community," a senior police official said in New Delhi.
The Indian media on Thursday reported a rush to reach South Africa for Saturday's match by parliamentarians, businesspeople and executives. Even the tie Wednesday with England managed to disrupt normal activities, although it took place after working hours in India. Celebrations erupted in clubs and hotels in India and firecrackers in the national capital woke up people at the end of the game in Durban that finished at 2:00 am local time on Thursday. The nuclear-armed South Asian rivals have not met on cricket fields since June 2000, when India put an embargo on bilateral cricket ties in protest at Pakistan's alleged support to Islamic militancy in disputed Kashmir.
They have fought two of their three wars over Kashmir, and were on the brink of another during last year's military standoff at the borders sparked by an attack on the Indian parliament which New Delhi blamed on Islamabad. Former Prime Minister Inder Kumar Gujral, an ardent cricket fan and a moderate among India's hawkish political establishment, hailed the upcoming clash between Ganguly's men in blue and Pakistan's Waqar Younis squad. "I am very much in favour of people-to-people relations and sport is a major item of that because I feel that whatever are the differences at the political level, travel, sports and communication should not be affected," Gujral said.
"Contacts which were being built up between the two civil societies through interactions must continue," he said. Former Indian ambassador to Pakistan S.K. Singh, however, was dismissive of Saturday's clash. "We have come to the conclusion that after the attack on parliament the least amount of contact with Pakistan would be the best indication of our attitude to the whole thing. "This match is unavoidable because of the circumstances of the World Cup but I tell Pakistan 'please leave Kashmir out of it'," the Indian diplomat said.
In Kashmir, which is uneasily divided between the hostile neighbours and claimed in its entirety by both, matches between Pakistan and India are marked by bouts of shelling of each other's positions by the rival armies. According to locals, if either side is unhappy about an umpiring decision, or a wicket falls, the shelling intensifies. Whichever side wins, they add, celebrates victory with a fresh barrage of shelling. In Kolkata, where cricket fans usually become frenzied during India's matches, Wednesday's win against England restored the team to its former glory - its humiliating early loss to Australia had blackened the team in the fans' eyes, with walls around the city being painted with scathing graffiti. However, fans were on Thursday seen painting over the graffiti and continuing celebrations which had begun during the night.
"The celebrations will continue until India's match against Pakistan," said Nandan Sen, a university graduate, painting his face with colours of Indian flag. One cricket fan in New Delhi, quoted in the media Thursday, sums up, perhaps, the national mood going into Saturday's clash: "Losing a cricket match against Pakistan will be like losing a war, a complete loss of face."