Captain Shahid Afridi with all-rounder Abdul Razzaq pictured outside the Chandigarh airport after the Pakistan team arrived here on Friday for their semifinal against India to be played in Mohali on Wednesday. – PTI photo

ISLAMABAD: Pakistan welcomed on Friday Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s gesture of inviting his counterpart Yousuf Raza Gilani and President Asif Ali Zardari to watch the Cricket World Cup semi-final between the two countries in Mohali on March 30, but deferred a final decision on the invitation till Mr Gilani’s return from Uzbekistan.

If accepted, cricket diplomacy will provide fillip to real time diplomacy, where the two countries are set to resume their bilateral dialogue when the interior secretaries meet just two days before their World Cup clash.

“Invitations for President Asif Ali Zardari and Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani from the Indian Prime Minister His Excellency Dr Manmohan Singh to watch the World Cup semi-final to be held at Mohali on March 30 have been received this evening at the Foreign Office,” spokesperson Tehmina Janjua said.

Presidential spokesman Farhatullah Babar termed the invitation a welcome gesture.

“We welcome the invitation. The prime minister is out of the country and a decision will be taken when he returns from Tashkent,” Mr Babar told reporters.

Mr Gilani is due to return on Saturday. He was earlier expected to return on Friday, but his flight at the end of the two-day official visit was cancelled because of bad weather over the Himalayas.

A top aide of the prime minister who is with him in Tashkent denied a claim made by TV channels that the premier had accepted the invitation. Consultations were being held with the Foreign Office about a response to the invitation, he added.

“We have asked for details and serious consideration will be given to it once we return to Pakistan,” the official said over phone from Uzbekistan. Pakistan’s High Commissioner in India Shahid Malik appeared upbeat about the prospects of Mr Gilani’s visit to Mohali and termed the invitation a positive development.

In his identical letters to Mr Gilani and Mr Zardari, the Indian prime minister said: “It gives me great pleasure to invite you to visit Mohali and join me and the millions of fans from our two countries to watch the match.”

Mr Singh is highly respected in Pakistan for his personal contribution to resuming the peace process, which was suspended following the 2008 Mumbai attacks.

The two prime ministers successfully negotiated a peace document in Sharm El Sheikh in 2009, but their efforts had been scuttled because of strong opposition in India.

They made another breakthrough in Thimphu (Bhutan) last year, setting in motion concerted efforts for the revival of suspended talks even though it took both sides almost a year to agree on resumption of a full spectrum of dialogue starting on March 28 in Delhi.

Cricket is not new to diplomacy between the two countries. Former military rulers Gen Ziaul Haq and Gen Pervez Musharraf had used cricket matches to improve bilateral relations.

Gen Zia travelled to India in 1987 to witness an India-Pakistan Test match in Jaipur on his own initiative to defuse tensions at that time. In 2005, Gen Musharraf managed to get an invitation from the Indian leadership to watch a one-day match between the two teams in New Delhi.

This is probably the first time that the Indians have themselves invited Pakistani leaders to watch the match. Iftikhar A. Khan adds: Pakistan has urged India to tighten security for its players.

According to knowledgeable sources, a formal request has been made by the interior ministry after Interpol said on Thursday that it had arrested, with the help of Pakistan, a terrorist who was planning to carry out attacks during the World Cup. It also came against the backdrop of a threat from the Hindu Shiv Sena organisation that it would not allow the Pakistani team to play the final in Mumbai. Pakistan will be playing in India for the first time after the Mumbai attacks.

According to an official, India has assured Pakistan that it would take all possible steps to protect its players and make the event safe.

The sources said that India had agreed to grant another 5,000 visas to enable Pakistanis watch the semi-final and the final.