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India, Pakistan leaders pad up for cricket diplomacy

Sudipto Ganguly and Amlan Chakraborty of Reuters report from Mohali, India: The prime ministers of India and Pakistan meet on Wednesday during a World Cup cricket match between the rivals, hoping to use one of the world's biggest sporting contests to rebuild relations shattered by the Mumbai attacks.

Prakash Singh / AFP - Getty Images

Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, left, and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh walk back to the pavilion after meeting with cricketers before the start of the ICC cricket world cup semi-final match between India and Pakistan at the Punjab Cricket Association stadium in Mohali, India on March 30.

The two teams will meet in the northern Indian town of Mohali for a semi-final match. Scores of Pakistanis crossed one of the world's most militarised borders to travel to the stadium and millions of Indians have taken the day off work.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has invited his counterpart Yusuf Raza Gilani to watch the game and discuss reviving a peace process, although "cricket diplomacy" will offer more symbolic gestures than any breakthroughs in a conflict that has lasted for more than 60 years.

"Keeping in view the sentiments of people of both countries, I'm going there to express solidarity with our team as well as their (Indian) team and to promote cricket," Gilani told reporters before flying to India.

Gurinder Osan / AP

India supporters cheer before the start of the Cricket World Cup semi-final match between Pakistan and India in Mohali, India on March 30.

Attacks in Mumbai in 2008 heightened distrust and complicated Western efforts to stabilise Afghanistan, where the foes are engaged in a proxy war. New Delhi blames Pakistani militants in collusion with elements of the government, including Pakistan's spy agency for the Mumbai assault .

Concerned about his legacy, 78-year-old Singh has pushed reconciliation with Pakistan despite misgivings within his own government.

In a major confidence-building measure ahead of the match, Islamabad agreed on Tuesday to let Indian investigators travel to Pakistan to probe the Mumbai attacks after a meeting of the countries' respective home secretaries.

Rehan Khan / EPA

Members of Pakistan's Hindu minority pray for victory for their team Pakistan in the semi-finals of the Cricket World Cup during a collective prayer ceremony, in Karachi, Pakistan on March 29.

The two cricket-crazy South Asian nations have talked of little else for the past week in a buildup that has put the spotlight on, among other topics, players' preparedness, a row over match-fixing, and public prayers for victory.

Cricket is just one of the many cultural, religious and ethnic ties the two countries share dating back thousands of years. But the nuclear-armed rivals fought three wars and countless border skirmishes since their 1947 independence from Britain, feeding an obsessive mistrust.

Indian army helicopters and anti-aircraft guns have imposed a no-fly zone over the Mohali stadium, a few hours' drive east of the Pakistani border, to prevent an attack by militants.

Bikas Das / AP

An Indian cricket fan throws flames as others cheer during an event organized to wish the Indian cricket team good luck ahead of the ICC World Cup semi-final match between India and Pakistan, in Kolkata, India, on March 29. Ordinary life will stop for several hours in both countries Wednesday as hundreds of millions of fans tune in to follow the match.

Scores of Pakistani fans crossed the border post in India's northern Punjab state on Tuesday amid tight security.

"Obviously, love grows when two countries play together," said Syed Akbar Masood Nizami, a Pakistani cricket fan. "The people from both countries get together, sit together to cheer their teams and it helps develop feelings for each other."

Many companies in both countries have declared a half day on Wednesday. The Karachi stock exchange plans to put a big screen up for traders to watch. Lawmakers in the eastern Indian state of Bihar have petitioned their government to suspend legislative business during match time.

"This is a more important event than any other event for Pakistan this year," said Omar Ehtisham Anwar, a fund manager at Faysal Asset Management in Karachi who has taken the day off to watch the match.

"There is no way I would miss even a second of this match -- I will try to not even blink during the game."

The winner of what has been dubbed the "mother of all matches" will play Sri Lanka in the final in Mumbai on Saturday.