India, Pakistan relish Cricket World Cup showdown

Fans across India and Pakistan crowded around TV sets at tea stalls and screens erected in markets and stadiums to watch the rival nations clash in a Cricket World Cup semifinal on Wednesday.

Indians and Pakistanis crowded around television sets at tea stalls and screens erected in markets and stadiums as the cricket-crazy, fiercely rival nations stopped work Wednesday to watch their teams vie for a place in the Cricket World Cup final.

Banks, offices and shops emptied out as the game, won by India by 29 runs, began in the north Indian town of Mohali.

The neighbouring countries have strong cultural, linguistic and ethnic ties, but also share a recent history of war, mistrust and enmity. That tension meant the matchup was about much more than just sport for many people watching.

"It is not just a match between the two teams, it is between the two nations," said Abbas Khan, a 55-year-old real estate dealer in the Pakistani city of Karachi, where the normally bustling streets were mostly deserted.

The build-up to the match in Mohali was intense with unrelenting media coverage and public prayers for the teams. Interest increased further over the weekend when Pakistan Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani accepted an invitation to attend, raising the prospect of progress in improving ties between the two nations.

India will face Sri Lanka in the final at Mumbai on Saturday, but few Pakistanis were thinking that far ahead. Love of cricket in Pakistan unites a country riven by class, religious and ethnic divides — as does a desire to beat India.

"We can tolerate defeat against Sri Lanka, but losing to India is unimaginable, unthinkable and unforgivable," said Imran Iqbal, a 23-year-old student in Lahore.

In India, where expectations run high of a first World Cup win since 1983, government employees streamed home early.

"Coming to the office today was a waste," said civil servant Sriram Murthy. "Many of my colleagues didn't turn up at all and everyone is so busy discussing what's going to happen at the game that hardly any work will get done."

Murthy said his family and those of his two brothers planned to get together for a late lunch.

"It will be noisy and the kids will run wild, but it should be fun, whichever way the match ends," said Murthy.

Excitement was also high in the Gulf city of Dubai, where many Indians and Pakistanis migrate to work. Fans, many dressed in Pakistani green and Indian blue and some with their faces painted with their home colours, filled the hotel bars and restaurants in Bur Dubai, which is home to the heart of the city's South Asian population.

The main dispute between Pakistan and India is over the Himalayan territory of Kashmir, which is shared but claimed in its entirety by both nations.

In Indian Kashmir, where many support the Pakistan team to the anger of authorities and insurgent violence is common, people were told to watch the match at home and heed a ban on public gatherings in major towns. Indian broadcasters crossed live to an army garrison, where off-duty soldiers were keeping a keen eye on the cricket.

Militant violence in Pakistan continued with 13 killed in a suicide bombing in the northwest close to the Afghan border. But even in that region, people were watching the match. In the North Waziristan town of Mir Ali, people installed satellite dishes at their homes and restaurants.

"For me, this is a battle against India," said 25-year-old Ahmad Nawaz.