Thatscricket - ODI Series - India~~s tour of Pakistan- Indian cricket fans wait in long visa queue

Published: Monday, March 29, 2004, 23:53 [IST]
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New Delhi:With memories of the roar of a full stadium in Lahore refusing to fade, Amrit Lal stood for hours at Pakistan's embassy for another chance to watch Indian cricketers battle their Pakistani opponents.

"I saw a match in Lahore in 1978. Zaheer Abbas was their batting star while Bishen Singh Bedi was our master juggler with the ball. What an experience it was," said Lal, clutching his visa application forms to return to the eastern Pakistani city.

"The whole stadium was bursting with people. There were not many fans from India but still we screamed and shouted for our team."

With India's cricket team set next week to embark on their first full tour of Pakistan in 15 years, comprising five One-day Internationals -- two in Lahore -- and three Tests, diehard fans like Lal are determined not to miss out.

Hundreds besieged the Pakistani High Commission on Wednesday waiting for officials to begin issuing visas. Fewer returned on Thursday but this time the officials, who are gearing up to issue some 8,000 visas, were ready for them and began accepting their applications at a counter set up specially for fans.

Cricket matches between the two South Asian rivals are traditionally fierce encounters where national loyalties are on the line.

"It's a dream come true for me," said S J B Relan, a businessman who plans to travel to Lahore along with his two brothers.

"I am an avid cricket watcher and also play sometimes. An India-Pakistan match on Pakistani soil is the best thing that can happen to a cricket fan like me. I will carry my country's flag and my cricket team's T-shirt. We will be with our team at every step. We will win!"

Some of those queuing at the High Commission had travelled from neighbouring states. An elderly couple walked away disappointed when they were told they would first have to buy tickets before they could apply for a visa.

"I am very excited but the High Commission people are dampening my spirits," complained Mahesh Sharma, a fine arts teacher at New Delhi's Ramjas College. "So many formalities and so many conditions. Why can't they simply do it across the counter."

Very few things get done "across the counter" between India and Pakistan, especially not the issuing of visas, due to long-standing mutual distrust.

"They are saying that if I take the bus I will have to return by bus only," complained one visa aspirant. "But the buses don't run on all days and they are not issuing visas for more than three days at a time. I will be stranded in Lahore."

Most people said they were planning to take the bi-weekly Delhi-Lahore bus for the matches instead of the costlier option of flying.

High Commission staff said they were overwhelmed by the response, amid reports that even more than the expected 8,000 people had already bought online tickets for the various matches. "We are doing our best," said one official.

The tour was threatened with cancellation last month when the Indian Home Ministry reportedly expressed concern over the security of its players.

The Governments of both countries have now agreed that four Indian security liaison officers will accompany the team to oversee security arrangements. But for some fans, players' security remains a serious concern.

"I read in a magazine that there are tall buildings around the stadium in Lahore. What if a sniper shoots at Sachin (Tendulkar)?" said Sunil Manoharan, a TV producer waiting in the queue.

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