Diplomacy reigns as India tops Pakistan

India erupted with joy Wednesday as its cricketers won a tense World Cup semifinal against Pakistan in a game seized on by leaders of both nations as a chance to improve cross-border ties.

Fireworks exploded in the night sky and cheering fans poured into the streets when India claimed the last wicket to secure victory and a place in the tournament final against Sri Lanka on Saturday.

The match, played under tight security in Mohali, northwest India, was followed avidly by supporters gripped by one of the world’s most intense sporting rivalries.

Action on the field was accompanied by a display of "cricket diplomacy" as Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his Pakistani counterpart Yousuf Raza Gilani watched together in the stands.

Disciplined bowling and a fortune-tinged 85 by Sachin Tendulkar propelled India to a 29-run win. Chasing India’s 260-9, Pakistan was bowled out for 231 with one ball remaining.

The two nuclear-armed nations have a bitter record of war and disagreement since British rule of the subcontinent ended in 1947, but a love of cricket has proved a strong bond over the years.

Before the game, Singh and Gilani stood side-by-side for the national anthems and walked on to the field to shake hands with the players.

It was the first time a Pakistani leader had visited India since 2001 when then-president Pervez Musharraf attended a summit that ended in acrimony.

Singh said at a dinner with Gilani during the game that the countries "need permanent reconciliation to live together in dignity and honor."

The neighboring nations came to a virtual halt during play, with more than a billion people, or a fifth of the world’s population, thought to have followed the encounter as many shared televisions and radios.

Pakistan declared a half-day holiday, and offices and shops across the region shut early. Share markets saw slow trading, and the normally chaotic roads were quiet.

Tens of thousands of Indians and a handful of Pakistanis lucky enough to secure tickets had filed through strict security checks into the 30,000-capacity stadium where wild cheers greeted India’s high-scoring start.

Some Pakistani flags were visible amid a sea of Indian support as crowds relished the much-hyped game in a friendly and enthusiastic atmosphere.

"It is one of those rare opportunities that we must utilize to make friends. If I come across anyone from Pakistan, I am going to invite them home for a cup of tea," Barkha Sen, a 40-year-old Indian businesswoman, told AFP at the stadium.

Ahead of the fixture, India’s Mail Today tabloid newspaper headlined its front page "Enjoy cricket it’s not war!", reminding readers that it was a game rather than another conflict.

India and Pakistan have fought three wars since 1947.

Blanket security involving 2,000 police and paramilitary personnel was imposed around the venue, with multiple checkpoints and barricades.

In the players’ hotel, two policemen working as official food tasters ate three meals a day to check for poisoning or hygiene problems.

In the Pakistani city of Lahore, which borders with India, 10,000 disappointed fans poured out of a stadium where the match had been shown for free on large screens.

Karachi residents were also down-hearted after many had watched the game on giant projector screens erected in the middle of streets.

Whenever an Indian wicket fell, people danced in jubilation and fired gunshots in the air. But spirits fell sharply when the Pakistan batsmen failed and defeat loomed.

Prime Minister Singh’s "cricket diplomacy" was an attempt to warm up relations at a time when the countries are tentatively getting their peace process back on track.

India broke off contact with Islamabad in 2008 after the Mumbai attacks, which India blamed on Pakistani militants who wrought carnage in the city over three days, killing 166 people.

Cricket has helped to dissipate tension between the countries in the past.

In 1987, then Pakistani president General Zia-ul-Haq traveled to India to watch a Test match between the two sides in Jaipur at a time when both countries were massing troops at the border.

In 2004, the Indian team went on a "peace tour" of Pakistan, their first trip to the country in 14 years. Pakistan last played in India in 2007.