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Anxious moments ahead of India's key sporting year

By Sanjoy Majumder
BBC News, Delhi

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Indian security officials are confident that safety will be guaranteed

On Sunday, the Indian and South African cricket teams concluded a heart-stopping one-day international match in the western city of Jaipur.

India won the close encounter, sparking off wild celebrations among supporters in the stands.

But the enduring image at the end of the game was of the two teams being escorted off the pitch by hundreds of heavily-armed policemen.

It is scenes like this that are causing anxious moments among international sports people due to visit the country in what's a packed sporting year.

Powerful presence

Now Australia's cricket stars have presented a list of security demands before agreeing to participate in the Indian Premier League (IPL), the lucrative 20-20 tournament that gets under way in April.

Scene of Pune blast
The Pune blast has not increased confidence ahead of the IPL

So why has safety become such a big issue in India?

The Australians have particular cause for concern.

Their participation had been politically opposed by the right-wing Hindu nationalist Shiv Sena party, in protest against a wave of attacks on Indian students in Australia over the past few months.

The Shiv Sena has a powerful presence in the financial capital, Mumbai (Bombay), and had threatened to disrupt games if they featured Australian players.

But after a closed-door meeting between the Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray and the president of the Indian cricket board, that threat was withdrawn.

The recent bombing of a popular cafe in the western city of Pune, however, ensured that concerns over safety continued to dominate.

The German Bakery, a city institution, was frequented by Westerners - many of whom were injured.

It was the first major attack of its kind since the Mumbai terror strike in November 2008, in which more than 170 people were killed after 10 armed gunmen attacked a number of high profile targets, including two luxury hotels.

Creating panic

And soon after the Pune bombing, a Hong Kong based news website said it had received a warning from a group allegedly based in Pakistan and with ties to al-Qaeda about attacks on sporting events including the IPL tournament.

Lalit Modi
IPL chief Lalit Modi has played down security concerns

Indian security officials say there is little to suggest that the threat is credible and that it was possibly aimed at creating panic, but the damage has been done.

Part of the problem is that the IPL is a privately-run tournament spread over a number of cities, unlike other sporting events such as the Olympics or the Commonwealth Games which are due to be held in Delhi in October and are more focused, with one host city.

And unlike when they represent their national teams, players participating in the IPL represent private clubs in an individual capacity - which makes it much harder to secure their safety.

Nevertheless, senior Indian security officials are confident that safety on the ground will be foolproof.

"We are used to handling large events so it's not something new," said Home Secretary GK Pillai.

"And while it's hard to prevent a random bombing in a market or public space, it's much easier to secure a hotel and a stadium."

The question is, will that be enough to convince the international players heading to India?



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