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Fans fired for India-Pakistan grudge match

MS-DHONIISLAMABAD, February 14- Big screens are going up, TV sales are booming and even the Taliban are getting their transistor radios ready for the biggest grudge match in cricket: Pakistan against India.

From the beaches of Kerala to the snowy Himalayas, from the deserts of Baluchistan to the tea plantations of Assam, hundreds of millions of fans will be glued to the action as the two sides clash in the World Cup on Sunday.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi called his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif on Friday to wish his team luck in their opening match at the Adelaide Oval, while Sharif issued a statement bidding his side a success.

“The whole nation is praying for the success of the team and expects the boys to do their level best in this crucial fixture,” the statement said.

The time difference with Australia means the match will start around breakfast time in the subcontinent, but that is unlikely to deter legions of supporters for whom a win over the old enemy is almost as important as winning the tournament.

In the northwestern Pakistani city of Peshawar, big screen TVs are selling fast, with many restaurants installing the latest LED screens to lure in punters on Sunday.

Hundreds of thousands of people are living in temporary accommodation around northwest Pakistan after being forced to flee the restive tribal areas on the Afghan border by a major anti-Taliban military operation.

Many of the displaced are hoping their big-hitting hero Shahid Afridi, who hails from Khyber tribal district, will bring them some cheer on Sunday.

Ajab Khan, 60, was forced to abandon his his flatscreen TV when he fled North Waziristan, but said he had used government aid to get a replacement.

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“We saved from our relief package money and bought a 17 inch television for the World Cup,” Khan told AFP.

“We want Afridi to score sixes against India as it is most thrilling and entertaining part of any match.”

The ongoing military operation has also disrupted the Taliban’s plans to watch the match, but the militants said they would still try to tune in.

“In the past commanders used to watch the Pakistan-India match together and we used to slaughter sheep and socialise with each other, but now things are different and there will be no such meetings over cricket,” one commander told AFP.

“However, we will listen to commentary on radio.”

In Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city, big screens are going up in posh malls to keep shoppers up to date with the match.

 – Gambling crackdown –

Across the border in India, Mumbai police have launched a crackdown on illegal bookmakers who are set to take a windfall from thousands of gambling-mad punters.

Although gambling is mostly banned in India, betting on cricket matches thrives through networks of underground bookies.

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“Yes it is true that bookies have disappeared,” Mumbai police spokesperson, Deputy Commissioner of Police Dhananjay Kulkarni, told AFP.

“We are cracking down on illegal cricket betting in Mumbai before the World Cup begins this weekend.”

Restaurants are also gearing up for the event, hosting cricket-themed breakfasts and lunches.

At the Underdogs Sports Bar and Grill in Delhi, manager Digamber Singh said a whopping 24 televisions were going up to make sure diners did not miss a ball.

But fans in Indian-administered Kashmir, the disputed territory where many support Pakistan over India, will not be allowed to gather for public screenings, banned by police for fear of unrest in the volatile region.

– ‘This is like the final’ –

Prime Minister Modi may have offered sporting good wishes, but some of his countrymen have been less charitable.

The broadcaster Star Sports has been keen to remind Pakistanis of India’s World Cup dominance over them — India have beaten Pakistan in every one of their World Cup clashes since 1992, five in all.

A Star Sports advert for the match this week focused on a Pakistani fan settling down excitedly for each of the matches over the years, getting older with each one, only to be disappointed every time.

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Back in Karachi, 25-year-old software engineer Fahad Asghar summed up the mood of a subcontinent.

“The World Cup is definitely a big event,” he told AFP.

“But for us the match with India is like the final.”

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