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A YEAR ago nobody had envisaged that the bilateral cricket relationship between Pakistan and India would resume in the near future. Following the Mumbai terror attacks in November 2008, it was always presumed that it would take years before such a reality would materialise, given the history of tense political relations between the two neighbouring countries.

The first signs of such a resumption — of bilateral cricket contacts — were seen when Asif Ali Zardari raised the matter with Dr Manmohan Singh over a lunch hosted by the Indian prime minister during the Pakistan president’s private visit to India last April. The Indian Premier gave such notion his seal of approval in July to pave way for both the South Asian nations to bilaterally meet again on cricket fields.

Since Pakistan’s last tour of India in November/December 2007, both countries have only played against each other in either the ICC competitions, such as the 50-over World Cup and the World Twenty20, or in the Asia Cup which is organised by the Asian Cricket Council.

The cricketing deadlock have deprived people in both the countries of watching the mega cricket stars confront each other on a regular basis which could quench the fans’ unending thirst for thrilling contests.

Who can ever forget the emotionally-charged atmosphere at Mohali when Dr Singh and the then Pakistan Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani sat next to each other among a host of dignitaries at the Punjab Cricket Association Stadium to see Shahid Afridi’s men take on Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s side in the 2011 World Cup semi-final which was arguably the match of cricket’s quadrennial showpiece event.

Cricket has yet again proved that it is a great tool of ensuring people-to-people contacts, and at the same time playing a measured role in enabling the political players to speed up the peace process which is key to stability and prosperity in the region.

There is nothing better than a cordial relationship on all fronts — from political to sporting ones. There is a huge sense of relief among the followers of cricket in this region to see the revival of the sport on bilateral terms once again after three yawning gaps in the past, when border and political hostilities led to an acrimonious environment. Some of the cricketing greats of both Pakistan and India sadly weren’t allowed to test their mettle against each other purely because of such unnatural conditions imposed on them.

Mercifully, for the umpteenth time, sanity has prevailed to allow a sporting occasion to offer some much-needed respite. Over the best part of the next two weeks, cricket would be the main topic of discussion, both here, in India and elsewhere too as the Pakistan cricketers leave today for Bangalore via New Delhi for the opening Twenty20 International of the two-match series before a second batch of players shortly join the squad for the three One-day Internationals.

The brief preparatory camp at the Gaddafi Stadium in Lahore went quite well, according to both Mohammad Hafeez, the Twenty20 skipper, and one-day captain Misbah-ul-Haq during their media conferences in the past few days.

Hafeez and Misbah, sensibly, are not taking anything for granted despite India’s humiliations in the recent Test series against England. Both men believe the forthcoming high-pressure fixtures would be exciting and none is willing to predict the outcome of the matches.

Although it is a short series with no room to fit in a Test or two because it is sandwiched between England’s split tour of India, the build up to the limited-over matches has generated a lot of attention and interest among neutral observers. According to reliable sources, some of the English cricket journalists currently covering their national team in India, have been asked to stay back to report on the games between the two traditional rivals.

It is still not certain whether reputed international news agencies — such as Thomson Reuters, Agence France-Presse (AFP) and Associated Press (AP) — who all boycotted the India-England Test series to protest against the restrictions imposed by the Indian cricket board on some of the photo agencies covering the tour — would be reporting on the coming series.

Zaka Ashraf, the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) chairman, has indeed been a key figure in the revival of Pakistan-India matches. His advice to the players on the eve of their departure was simple: “Give your best on the field but make sure you are the ambassadors of the country you are representing.”

This trip probably could have a significant bearing on the future of senior all-rounder Shahid Afridi, who when on song is arguably the most feared Pakistani cricketer by Indian players. The recent warm-up matches indicated that the flamboyant all-rounder has rediscovered his batting touch that had deserted him for the major part of this year. And if Afridi gets going, Pakistan will win more than half of the battle in India.

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