NEW DELHI – The decades-old rivalry between India and Pakistan moves back onto the cricket pitch Wednesday in a match that brings the Pakistani prime minister to India on a rare visit that may even nudge the nuclear-armed neighbors a step closer to peace.
Amid a surge of good will ahead of a blockbuster World Cup semifinal, officials on both sides of the border have said the so-called "gentleman's game" could help renew diplomatic cooperation and revive peace efforts frozen after the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks that India blames on Pakistan-based Islamist militants.
Love of cricket — bequeathed to both countries by South Asia's British colonial rulers — is one of the few things that Pakistan and India can usually agree on, despite a long history of mutual animosity that has fueled three wars since the region's bloody partition of 1947.
Ordinary life will stop for several hours in both countries Wednesday as hundreds of millions of fans tune in to follow the India-Pakistan semifinal in the northern Indian city of Mohali.
Seizing the moment for a bit of sports diplomacy, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his Pakistan counterpart Yousuf Raza Gilani said they would watch the match together at Mohali, in Singh's home state of Punjab. They will then hold talks over dinner, officials said.
Few expect any breakthroughs beyond showing the world that the two leaders are willing to engage in dialogue.
"The entire attention of the people of the two countries will be on the match," said Pakistan's former foreign secretary, Shamsad Khan. "I don't expect anyone will have much interest in the meeting ... it's basically chit chat."
Still, Pakistan — delighted by the invitation — also said it would free an Indian man imprisoned 27 years for alleged espionage.
The warmer atmosphere marks a major change from years of gruff politics that kept the rivals in stalemate and worried governments abroad.
The U.S. has urged the countries to restore peace efforts in hopes that reducing tensions would free Pakistan to focus on its fight against Taliban militants — a key element of U.S. strategy in Afghanistan.
For Gilani — born after India and Pakistan were carved from the former British rulers in 1947 — it will be his first official visit to India as prime minister. It gives both men a chance to speak candidly without worrying too much about public expectations for the meeting.
It is not the first time India and Pakistan have looked to "cricket diplomacy" to ease relations.
In 2005, cricket played a central role as India and Pakistan tried to resolve their long-running dispute over the Kashmir region. Talks between Singh and Pakistan's president at the time, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, were squeezed around a Sunday cricket match in New Delhi between the two countries.
And in 1987, President Zia-ul Haq also went to India to watch a match in Jaipur at the invitation of late Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. The two met and held discussions after the match in Delhi.
Defense analyst C. Uday Bhaskar suggested the meeting, even if just an icebreaker, could help to "erode some of the mistrust that has built up" while also offering Gilani a boost. "India's engaging with Pakistan, with Gilani, gives the civilian government there the credibility it needs," Bhaskar said.
Still, there was some concern the match has the potential touch off new tensions.
"I can't think of a worse pretext for a diplomatic meeting," Delhi-based historian Mukul Kesavan said. "There's a kind of rage and passion and gloating and despair that will be taking hold in the subcontinent. One team would have to lose, so there will be a lot of people very upset. The idea that they are going to do diplomacy on the back of this is a bit paradoxical if not outright daft."
Some also noted Gilani received the invitation at a time when the Indian government was eager to deflect attention from corruption allegations.
India began ramping up security a week before the match, with thousands of extra police, paramilitary and troops detailed to securing the stadium and neighboring areas.
Tickets have been sold out for days, and some are being offered on the black market for 100 times face value. All hotels in Mohali and nearby Chandigarh are full, with the local government asking residents to open their homes as guesthouses for the flood of visitors heading to the area.
Pakistan's Information Minister Firdous Ashiq Awan said cricket diplomacy would allow the developing countries to discuss common problems. "The prime minister's visit to India will help restore composite dialogue," he said.
The two sides resumed low-level discussions only this year, more than two years after India froze them while blaming the 2008 Mumbai attacks on Pakistan-based militants. India says Pakistan sponsors — or does not crack down on — militants that stage attacks across the border. Pakistani denies this, but many Western governments say Pakistan has not fully severed its ties with the militant groups.
Officials from both governments held talks this week in New Delhi, having resumed discussions more than two years after India froze them while saying that Pakistan sponsors — or does not crack down on — militants that stage attacks across the border, which Pakistani denies.
The talks, still in fledgling stages, discussed easing visa restrictions.
The countries' home secretaries said they would set up a hot-line between their offices, and agreed to cooperate on the Mumbai attack investigation. India also handed over information about the deadly 2007 bombing of the so-called Friendship Train between Delhi and Lahore, which was blamed on Hindu nationalists.
The home secretaries stayed away from the major impasse over the divided Himalayan territory of Kashmir, where both sides maintain heavily armed deployments along a cease-fire line.
Associated Press writer Chris Brummitt contributed to this report from Islamabad.