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Thatscricket - ODI Series - India~~s tour of Pakistan- The long wait is over as India crosses border

Published: Monday, March 29, 2004, 18:30 [IST]
 
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Lahore:India's cricketers will arrive in the historic Lahore city for the first Test tour of arch-rival Pakistan in over 14 years, carrying with them the subcontinent's hopes for peace two years after it teetered on the brink of feared nuclear war.

The musk-walled buildings and streets of Lahore, an old Mughal-era city of 7.5 million people just 25 kilometers over the border from India, are bedecked with flowers and squadrons of armed police ahead of the team's arrival.

Sourav Ganguly's squad flew out aboard a special Indian Airlines flight from New Delhi at around 1:20 hours (IST) (0750 GMT) for the 39-day tour of five One-dayers and three Tests after meeting Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee.

It is their first full tour of Pakistan since late 1989, and the first home series between the rivals since their forces came to the edge of war in 2002.

For most of 2002 the two sides had a million troops deployed against each other along their shared frontiers, plunging the subcontinent into fears of a fourth war between the nuclear giants.

The Indian cricket tour marks one of the biggest milestones in a slow peace process that began almost one year ago when Vajpayee offered his "hand of friendship" to Pakistan.

Security officals are working overtime to ensure nothing is left to chance at the plush new Allama Iqbal airport and the deluxe Pearl Continental hotel.

Sniffer dogs were doing the rounds of each floor at the hotel where the team will stay for three days before departing for Karachi Friday for the first One-dayer the following day.

Some 200 policemen and armoured jeeps guarded the hotel's entrance while the roads in front were cleared of hawkers and taxis.

The Indian team will be whisked from the airport in a convoy of vehicles that media reports said will include a bullet-proof team bus.

Busy roads have been blocked off for the Indians' entourage.

Only photographers and television crews will be allowed to record the team's arrival at the airport. Captain Ganguly and coach John Wright will address a media conference at the hotel at 4:00 pm local time (1100 GMT).

Hotel official Imran Qadir said no visitors will be allowed on the fifth floor, exclusively reserved for the team.

"We have been instructed that the players will have meals in their rooms but they are free to use the other facilities at the hotel like the health club," Qadir said.

"Guests wanting to eat at the hotel will not be turned away unless stopped by security officials. It is an honour to host a high-profile team like India, but our business with other clients will not be affected."

The Indian team will be accompanied by three securitymen from New Delhi, while Lahore police official Sohail Khan will supervise the security of the players through the 40-day tour.

Around 3,000 policemen and elite police force commandos with "no fear" emblazoned on their black t-shirts have been deployed at the airport, hotel and Gaddafi stadium.

Khan, refusing to disclose how many commandos will travel in the Indian team's bus, played down the security hype.

"It's nothing unusual and Indians will come out of the main terminal and then will be given full security by police and commandos of elite force," he said.

Most hotels have tripled their rates and are sold out in anticipation of a horde of Indian fans expected to cross the border 25 kilometers (15.5 miles) away to cheer their team.

Pakistan is putting on two extra cross-border train services from India to bring an anticipated 8,000 cricket fans for the historic series.

Homeside cricket hero Imran Khan, now taking on Pakistan's politicians in his new incarnation as an MP, has tipped an Indian victory in the One-day round and a Pakistani victory in the Tests.

But victory was for both sides in terms of peace for South Asia.

"Cricket plays a healing role, cricket becomes a cement in bonding the countries together," Khan said.

"It transcends sports, it is much more than cricket, it is passion."

Tickets for Saturday's opening match in Karachi have already sold out.

"This will be a moment like no other," Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) chief executive Ramiz Raja said.

"The long wait is over."

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