RE (AFP) - As Pakistan loosens up hamstrung trading links with arch-rival India, sporting ties between the traditional foes have burst back onto the agenda, reviving hopes for a broader rapprochement.
Traditional hostilities between the neighbouring nations have long been played out in cricket, hockey and wrestling -- the three most popular sports of the Asian subcontinent. But fearful of the constant threat posed by Taliban and Al-Qaeda-linked militants in Pakistan, Indian teams have stayed away since 166 people were killed in Mumbai in 2008, carnage widely blamed on Pakistani militants.
A gun attack on the visiting Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore just over three months later sounded the death knell for mainstream international sport in Pakistan. But the arrival of two Indian sporting teams to the eastern city in the past week -- for a bout of traditional wrestling and a blind cricket series -- are the first concrete signs of sporting ties being revived.
And organisers of cricket and hockey -- watched with fanatical enthusiasm in both countries -- say talks are under way to bring mainstream Indian teams back within months. Pakistan's new cricket chief Zaka Ashraf said he has "high hopes" for future matches following initial talks in Dubai last week, and that he will visit India in the next few weeks to further efforts to cement a deal.
Hockey once topped cricket as the big sporting draw, with India and Pakistan teams dominating the Olympic finals throughout the fifties and sixties. India's team have not visited Pakistan since 2006, but Pakistan organisers said they have proposed a four-match tournament to be played as early as January or February 2012 when both teams have a gap in training schedules.
"They're looking into it. I haven't received a final response from them," said Pakistan Hockey Federation chief Asif Bajwa. The warming relations follow Islamabad's decision earlier this month to work towards a normalisation of commercial trading ties with its arch-foe, heralding a spirit of bilateral optimism not seen for years.
India and Pakistan have also revived a peace process this year, although dialogue has struggled to gain any real traction since its formal resumption in an atmosphere of mutual recrimination and mistrust. "It's political, these cricket and hockey ties, with both governments. Now with bilateral relations with India we are opening up a lot of trade, so diplomacy is on the right track," added Bajwa.
There has been no major bomb blast since February in Pakistan's Punjab region that borders India and is home to most bilateral sporting events, and sports writer Ijaz Chaudhry said the relative calm had revived hopes. The last major attack in Pakistan was in a relatively remote northwestern district on September 15. Forty-six people were killed at a funeral.
"Things are improving... especially in Punjab. But especially after the Sri Lankan cricket team incident people are apprehensive," said Chaudhry. Military brinkmanship continues to loom large on both sides of the border over territorial disputes that have sparked three wars since independence from British rule in 1947, and regional ambitions in Afghanistan.
But last week, blind cricket players on their first visit to Pakistan in five years were undaunted. "This is a message for the mainstream team -- if we can come here without fear then they can also come to play cricket and make some peace," said India blind cricket player Manvindra Singh Patwal.
Manager of the Pakistani side, Abdul Razzaq, said the series was the "first drop of rain" after a three-year sporting drought. While Pakistan's cricket team continues to raise gate and sponsorship income when hosting international matches abroad, the country loses out on valuable side earners that come with the crowd of visitors who fly in for each event. Mud wrestlers clad in briefs tussled in the dirt in front of massive crowds in Gujranwala and Lahore held over the past few days, the first time Indian practitioners of the Punjabi sport were in Pakistan since 2008. But the visitors nearly did not make it after authorities denied them entry for three days, saying that they did not have the right kind of visas. "We told the Indian high commission that it was simply a local entertainment and they should encourage it," said organiser Khawar Shah. "They were kind enough and the matter was resolved."