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Indian, Pakistani cricket fans desert jobs, skip studies

Police guarded mosques and Hindu temples, border troops listened for gunfire while staring at TV screens, and much of India and Pakistan shut down on Saturday as the South Asian rivals played their first cricket match in nearly three years.

india Updated: Mar 02, 2003 01:34 IST

Police guarded mosques and Hindu temples, border troops listened for gunfire while staring at TV screens, and much of India and Pakistan shut down on Saturday as the South Asian rivals played their first cricket match in nearly three years.

"It's not just a game, it's war," declared a banner strung up across a busy Bombay traffic intersection as the two teams began their World Cup match in South Africa.

India and Pakistan have fought three wars, tested nuclear weapons, expelled each other's diplomats, cut off train and plane routes, and routinely fired guns across their border since they became divided at independence from Britain in 1947.

But they share a passion for cricket that explodes in jubilation, and sometimes gunfire, when their national teams play. A Pakistan loss in Saturday's match knocks it out of World Cup contention, while India's chances to enter the semifinal Super Six could be harmed if it fails to beat its South Asian rival.

Bombay police _ concerned that Hindus and Muslims might fight if India lost the game _ increased patrols in Muslim neighborhoods and guarded religious buildings.

"It's just a precaution, we don't expect any trouble," said Bombay's police chief, Ranjit Sharma.

Many Hindus believe that India's 130 million Muslims support Muslim-majority Pakistan, and attacks have occurred in the past after cricket matches.

In the Muslim majority state of Kashmir, focus of two India-Pakistan wars, most Indian Kashmiris do root for Pakistan. But in other parts of India, that is not the case. Two Muslims are on the Indian team.

"It is sad that whenever there is a match between India and Pakistan, we are targeted as if we are non-Indians," said Tanvir Jafri, whose father, a Muslim member of India's Parliament, was killed outside his home during religious riots in the western state of Gujarat last year. "We may be Muslims, but we are supporters of India, always."

From rickshaw drivers to computer engineers, Indians and Pakistanis declared Saturday a holiday so they could watch or listen to the first cricket match their teams have played since June 2000.

On a deserted road in the New Delhi suburb of Noida, children from a nearby slum used bricks as wickets and a wooden clothes-washing paddle as a makeshift bat.

"Today there are no cars on the roads. We can play all we want," said Suresh, the young, bare-chested batsman. Taxi drivers, fruit sellers and police officers clutched radios for the latest cricket commentary.

Pedestrians crowded into appliance stores, or any shop with a TV on.

Giant TV screens in the Calcutta subway stations, outside cinema halls in New Delhi and on hotel lawns gathered cheering crowds. In the southern Pakistani city of Karachi, rocked by violence during the week, fans stayed home or gathered around TV screens in hotels.

Hamid Khan, a Karachi taxi driver, stood outside a market waiting for passengers.

"I know people will hardly come out of their houses and I will earn less today, but still I want Pakistan's win," Khan said. Then he resorted to the military language Indians and Pakistanis often use when discussing each other.

"Our players should fight to win like soldiers," Khan said. Ghulam Hussein, who let people jam into his small Karachi cafe to watch TV for free, said, "The match against India is a matter of do or die for the players, and they know that Pakistan's honor is at stake."

"It is just like an undeclared curfew," Indian traffic constable Gyan Chand Gupta said of the empty roads in Jammu, summer capital of India's state of Jammu-Kashmir. Islamic rebels have fought there for 13 years, seeking independence or merger with Pakistan in an insurgency that has cost 61,000 lives.

Women in border villages did all their cooking the night before, and gathered fodder for the cows so they would be free to watch the game on shared televisions, powered by generators, in case of power failure.

In Bombay, a bride lured her guests to attend her wedding by providing televisions to watch.

"My friend knew none of us would stay for long. We were planning to wish her (good luck) and run back home to see the match," said Meenakshi Dave, at a Bombay beauty salon. "But we heard they would be putting up television screens at the marriage hall, so I guess now we can watch the match at the wedding."

India Today magazine, hosting a conclave that includes foreign heads of government, promised guests they could watch the final innings in another room, during a live satellite speech by former U.S. President Bill Clinton.

Pakistani and Indian soldiers _ guarding the disputed Kashmir border _ have marked the falls of wickets and hitting of boundaries with gunfire during past encounters between the teams. "We have a color TV at our post but we have to be on extra guard, too. Pakistan might try to play some mischief," said Sarabjeet Singh, an Indian paramilitary soldier in Suchetgarh on the border.

First Published: Mar 01, 2003 19:36 IST