It’s estimated that a television audience of more than a billion people watched India play Pakistan in the semi-final of the world cup of cricket. To put that in perspective, around 0.7 billion people tuned in for the final of the last football world cup in South Africa.
At stake, in sporting terms, was the chance to contest the world cup final against regional neighbours Sri Lanka. India won as it happens, by 29 runs for those who understand cricket. But even for those who don’t have the slightest idea what the sport is, the match is still of great significance.
This is the first time either country has hosted the other in a cricket match since the Mumbai attacks perpetrated by Pakistani-based militants. Relations between India and Pakistan, tense at the best of times, have been at a new low ever since.
Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh invited his Pakistani counterpart Yousuf Raza Gilani to the match in the Indian town of Mohali. They shook hands with the players and each other before sitting down to watch the most eagerly anticipated game of cricket in the region for decades. They are calling it “cricket diplomacy”.
Yesterday officials from both nuclear-armed countries agreed to mutual visits to investigate the attack in Mumbai which left 174 people dead. Last month they decided to resume peace talks.
Pakistan’s government declared a half day holiday to allow its cricket-mad population to enjoy the game while in India, many people left work early to gather around giant screens. The rivalry between mainly Hindu India and predominantly Muslim Pakistan runs deep in political and cultural terms. It is most evident however in cricket, which is almost a religion in itself on the sub-continent.
Indian cricket fans, and there are hundreds of millions of them, are celebrating their team’s success while the Pakistan players bow out of the tournament with their heads held high.
The long term winner may be Indian and Pakistani relations.