Vajpayee gives green signal to Indo-Pak tour

NEW DELHI: Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee Saturday brought cheer to both sides of the border as he gave the green signal for the first comprehensive tour of Pakistan by an Indian cricket team in nearly 15 years.

The Prime Minister's decision, announced after a meeting with senior ministers, also helped keep the nascent peace initiative with Pakistan on course as calling off the tour would have invariably put a question mark on New Delhi's sincerity about normalising ties with its western neighbour.

For many in the two cricket-crazy nations, the tour represented the litmus test to the success of the peace process, though their stiffly contested cricket matches raise high-pitched emotions.

The announcement that was greeted with acclaim in both countries came a day before an Indian delegation is to leave for Islamabad to resume a stalled official dialogue after a gap of six years, aimed at resolving Jammu and Kashmir and other bilateral issues.

It ended days of suspense about the fate of the cricket tour over security concerns of Indian players.

The decision was announced following a meeting Vajpayee had with deputy prime minister LK Advani, external affairs minister Yashwant Sinha, finance minister Jaswant Singh and national security advisor Brajesh Mishra.

"The dates will be decided by the two cricket boards," Sinha told reporters after the meeting.

Jagmohan Dalmiya, president of the Board of Control of Cricket in India (BCCI) said he was awaiting a formal communication from the government, approving the tour.

"I'm waiting to get it officially from the government," Dalmiya told reporters in Kolkata. "I'll react only after I receive the formal communication," he said.

Pakistan Cricket Board Chairman Shaharyar Khan hailed the Indian government's decision and described it as a "positive announcement".

"It is a positive announcement. We were never in doubt about India's tour," a beaming Khan said.

Prominent Pakistani journalist and Friday Times editor Najam Sethi, who is in the Indian capital to participate in the World Book Fair, described it as Vajpayee's "Valentine Day gift" for Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf.

"The Indian government's decision is a very, very positive step for peace and friendship between the two countries," he said and likened it to the spirit of love and friendship on Valentine's Day.

The tour by the Indian team was part of the series of confidence-building measures India had proposed since Vajpayee launched his peace initiative in April last year.

If the tour goes as planned, then the team will proceed in the first week of March, said Indian officials.

At the meeting, the prime minister and his cabinet colleagues mulled various questions raised about the tour in the wake of concerns for players' security besides the upcoming national elections.

What clinched the decision in favour of the much awaited tour were apparently positive inputs from a three-member team of officials from the home ministry and the Board of Control of Cricket in India (BCCI).

"The team found the security arrangements in Pakistan adequate for the safety of the players," said Minister of State for Home Swami Chinmayananda.

"Our concerns were mainly security, but after scrutinising the conditions there, our team was satisfied. It does not make sense to cancel such a game that is so important to our diplomatic ties," said the minister.

He added that after the government's go-ahead, the BCCI would take the final call.

Factors such as the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party's (BJP) fears of a "feel-bad" effect of an Indian defeat on the upcoming parliamentary poll were also named as possible deterrents to the tour.

But Chinmayananda ruled out any political angle, stating that the entire issue was examined purely from the standpoint of diplomacy and security.

Concerned over hints that the tour could be cancelled, Pakistan had Friday threatened to knock the doors of the International Cricket Council (ICC).

Islamabad had also struck down a proposal to hold the matches in a third country like Sri Lanka.

The BCCI and the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) will now decide the match schedule.

An India-Pakistan match is akin to a war for fans on both sides of the border, and the bitter rivalry played out on the borders has often spilled over to cricket stadiums in the past.

However, both countries were confident that the resumption of peace talks lent a good opportunity to restart bilateral cricket ties, that too with India's first Test tour of Pakistan in almost 15 years.

The entire rethink began after Indian players, including captain Sourav Ganguly and maestro Sachin Tendulkar, reportedly expressed concern about the team's safety in Pakistan.

Having just completed a 10-week tour of Australia, the players said they were willing to go to Pakistan provided adequate security was given to them.

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