Cricket: Pakistan's pursuit of India tour pays off

When Zaka Ashraf took over as Pakistan cricket chief in October last year his highest-priority tasks were to resume suspended home international matches and revive ties with arch-rivals India.

With security fears still running high, there is still no prospect of foreign teams touring Pakistan soon, but on Monday cricket fans rejoiced as India invited their neighbours for a limited overs tour in December-January.

The series, if approved by both governments, will end a five-year hiatus in series between two of the sport's greatest rivals and see the subcontinent come to a standstill for three one-dayers and two Twenty20 matches.

Terror attacks on India's commercial capital Mumbai in November 2008 brought cricket ties with Pakistan to a juddering halt, as New Delhi blamed militants from across the border for the three-day assault that left 166 dead.

Any resumption of cricket tours was seen as politically impossible in India until diplomatic relations improved and Pakistan showed willingness to tackle terror groups targeting the country.

But after more than two years without substantial progress, a thaw began during last year's World Cup, when India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh invited his Pakistani counterpart Yousuf Raza Gilani to watch their sides contest the semi-final in the Indian city of Mohali.

Another key step came in April, when Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari asked Singh to restore links during a meeting in the Indian capital.

While the politicians and civil servants have played a crucial role, there have been on-and-off contacts between the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) and the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) for more than nine months.

The two nuclear powers have gone to war with each other three times since their independence from Britain in 1947, and another conflict was narrowly averted in 1987 when Pakistan's then-military ruler General Zia-ul Haq visited India for a cricket series.

Ashraf has been dogged in his determination to see the rivalry played out on the pitch again.

"There is definitely a sense of achievement but the credit goes to President Asif Zardari for initiating the revival and to the millions of fans who want India and Pakistan to play each other," Ashraf told AFP.

Ashraf had some fence-mending to do with the BCCI after his controversial predecessor as PCB chairman, Ijaz Butt, soured talks on reviving matches by insisting on a 50-50 share of revenues.

BCCI president Narayanaswami Srinivasan initially snubbed the new PCB chief when Ashraf requested a meeting in December last year, but India relented after Zardari's trip in April.

"After President Zardari's visit there was an evident change," said Ashraf. "First I was invited to attend the Indian Premier League final in May and then our domestic team Sialkot Stallions was included in the Champions League."

The Champions League is a Twenty20 event owned by India, Australia and South Africa and involving teams from top cricketing nations.

Ashraf and his colleagues suffered another temporary setback at an ICC meeting in Malaysia last month when BCCI officials gave them the cold shoulder, but the PCB chairman said he never lost hope.

BCCI spokesman Rajiv Shukla told AFP he had no doubt the series would get government approval and go ahead.

"The Pakistan board has been insisting for a series for a long time," he said. "But we did not want to play it at a neutral venue."

With the India trip decided, Ashraf must now turn to his second task, reviving international matches in Pakistan which have been suspended since a terrorist attack on the Sri Lankan team in 2009.

"We have an understanding with Bangladesh and we are confident that they will tour us in the near future," said Ashraf.

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