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Last Updated: Tuesday, 23 March, 2004, 17:29 GMT
India shuts down ahead of crunch match
Nick Bryant
By Nick Bryant
BBC South Asia correspondent

India cricket fans
The series has stimulated closer ties between the two countries
Streets empty of rickshaws and offices bereft of staff.

Much of India is expected to grind to a halt on Wednesday, as the five-match series with Pakistan, gripping from its very first ball, reaches a climactic finale in Lahore.

Giant screens have been erected in many of the country's gleaming new shopping malls: mobile phone companies are providing up-to-the-second ball-by-ball coverage - both of which would have been unthinkable when India last toured Pakistan 14 years ago.

Cricket crazy nation

Unable to compete against four dramatic cliff-hangers, replete with extraordinary cameo performances by billboard stars like batsmen Rahul Dravid and Virender Sehwag, Bollywood executives have hoisted the white flag.

Normally, the Indian film industry releases at least two movies a week. Since the start of cricketing hostilities in Karachi 11 days ago, none has made it to the big screen.

Who wants to go to the movies, when action adventures of the 100-over variety provide such rich entertainment?

Indian flag
The national flag will be often seen on Wednesday

In this cricket-crazy nation, an Indian victory would help the country's Prime Minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee, win re-election in next month's parliamentary elections.

Partly for that reason, the prime minister played host to captain, Sourav Ganguly, and his men at his residence in Delhi on the very morning they set off for Pakistan, telling them to "win matches" and "win hearts".

He wanted India to shine through its cricket.

Goodwill games

Defeat, though, could take the sheen off India's much-vaunted 'feel good factor', and boost the chances of Sonia Gandhi's Congress Party.

Not to be outmanoeuvred by Prime Minister Vajpayee, Rahul and Priyanka Gandhi, the scions of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, made a highly-publicised trip to Pakistan for the first one-day international in Lahore.

Showing much the same flair for an intricately-choreographed photo-opportunity as Mr Vajpayee, Priyanka Gandhi took her seat amongst the fans, flamboyantly unfolding an Indian flag as she did so.

Indian cricket fan in Pakistan
Many Indian fans wish they could cheer on their team in Pakistan

What was perhaps most remarkable of all was the roar of approval from the crowd - Indian political royalty feted by a Pakistan crowd.

It was rather like a latter day Kennedy arriving at the Bay of Pigs to be greeted with a standing ovation from the sun-bathers on the Cuban sand.

So whatever its outcome, the long-awaited series does seem to have stimulated better ties between two countries which, only two years ago, came perilously close to full-scale war.

It therefore warrants the epithet: the goodwill games.





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