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India-Pakistan World Cup semifinals match goes way beyond cricket

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Gurinder Osan/AP

(Read caption) Indian cricket players look on as Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, far right, and Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, second from right, greet them ahead of Wednesday's Cricket World Cup semifinal match between Pakistan and India.

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As Pakistan takes on neighboring India in the semi-finals of cricket’s World Cup today, much more is at stake than just bragging rights for the billion fans expected to tune in.

Pakistan’s cricketers have not played a match in India since the Mumbai attacks in 2008, which Pakistani officials have admitted were partly planned on their soil. Dialogue between the two nations resumed only last month, and the countries remain locked in a bitter dispute over the Himalayan territory of Kashmir, over which they have fought three wars.

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For something approaching a comparison, think: the United States vs. the Soviet Union in the 1980 Winter Olympics ice hockey match dubbed “Miracle on Ice.”

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Mass-prayer events have been held in both countries over the past few days, while Pakistan has declared a half-day holiday as fans whipped themselves into a nationalist frenzy.

“There is tremendous excitement, and there’s so much tension in the air you could slice it with a knife," says Khalid Bajwa, the CEO of a software house in Pakistan's second-largest city, Lahore. "I’m probably more tense than the players.”

Some hope that the sporting event, which India is tipped to win, can also help heal rifts.

Among those due to watch the match in Mohali, Punjab, are Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his Pakistani counterpart Yusuf Raza Gilani, in what is being referred to as an example of “cricket diplomacy.”

“It’s an important gesture by the Indian leadership. Our leadership holds [Singh] in very high esteem,” says Pakistan’s foreign secretary Salman Bashir, adding: “Such events can help change the atmosphere.”

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The foreign ministers of the two countries are to meet in July.

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