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India start landmark cricket tour

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For Pakistanis and Indians alike, cricket is like a religion.
Will India's cricket tour of Pakistan improve relations between both countries?

NEW DELHI, India -- India's cricket team have arrived in Pakistan for their first full tour in over 14 years.

The tour -- which begins with a one-day match in Karachi on Saturday -- comes amid a thawing of animosity between the once bitter nuclear neighbors.

The series has whipped up a frenzy of excitement between the two nations, who are keen to see the latest battle in one of the sport's great rivalries.

Cricket is the number one sporting passion on the subcontinent.

But the tour -- five one-day games and a three test match series -- is also being viewed by many as testament to the warming of relations between the former foes.

"Cricket will obviously create a better atmosphere between the countries," said Ratnakar Shetty, India's team manager, in Lahore.

"The series is happening because the governments of both countries wanted it."

Indian captain Saurav Ganguly sought to play down the political implications of the tour.

"I'm sure it is equally important for both teams to win," he said.

"I don't agree with the goodwill issue. It's a cricket match and we are here to win."

Thousands of Indians have applied for special visas and bought tickets to attend matches -- many of them visiting Pakistan for the first time.

India last toured Pakistan for a test series in 1989 but made a short one-week visit in 1997 for three one-day international matches.

Massed forces

Pakistan toured India in 1999 before sporting ties were cut because of hostility between the two governments that almost ended in war in 2002 when both sides massed their armed forces along their shared border.

But in recent months, India and Pakistan have moved to restore sporting ties as well as transport and diplomatic links.

Last month, both countries began their first peace talks in almost three years.

New Delhi and Islamabad are due to hold talks later this year on the long- running dispute over Kashmir -- an issue that has been at the core of the animosity between both sides since independence in 1947.

Security has been stepped up for the matches. Thousands of uniformed and plainclothed security personnel were deployed to Lahore airport for the Indian team's arrival.

Ramiz Raja, chief executive of the Pakistan Cricket Board, has predicted a warm welcome for the 15-strong Indian squad led by captain Sourav Ganguly.

Gracious hosts

"We are absolutely delighted they are coming," Raja told The Associated Press. "We will be gracious hosts."

Pakistan has not seen many touring teams in the past two years due to fears of attacks by Islamic militants.

The Indian tour was almost called off due to security concerns but went ahead at the insistence of Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and following a personal guarantee of the Indian squad's safety from Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf.

Yet despite Musharraf's assurance and the security buildup, India's players were still apprehensive.

"Our concerns will always be there, for all the 40 days (of the tour)," Ganguly told reporters before departing for Pakistan.

"We trust what has been told to us."

New Zealand cut short a cricket tour in May 2002 after a bomb blast by suspected Islamic militants struck outside their Karachi hotel on the morning of a test match.

Eleven French engineers died in the blast, but the Kiwi players were uninjured.

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