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Helen Pidd in Delhi, Monday 16th July 2012 17:20
It was in 2005, after sitting side by side to watch their countries play cricket, that the Indian prime minister, Manmohan Singh, and the then Pakistani president, Pervez Musharraf, declared to the world that the peace process between their two nations was "irreversible".
Three years later Pakistani militants, apparently supported by the Pakistani secret service, unleashed a terror attack in Mumbai which left 166 dead – and that was the end not just of the south Asian entente cordiale but also of one-on-one cricket matches between the two nuclear nations.
But on Monday cricket diplomacy appeared to be back on the agenda when the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) announced it had invited Pakistan for a series of bilateral matches on 22 December, after the England team completes its Indian tour.
If all goes to plan, the Pakistani team will play three one-day internationals (ODIs) on Indian soil, as well as two Twenty20 matches. The decision prompted hopes that political relations between the two countries were finally warming up following almost four years of decidedly frosty dealings.
"The decision is great and we welcome it," said Zaka Ashraf, chairman of the Pakistan Cricket Board. "It seems that millions of cricket fans have their wishes fulfilled."
Pakistani test captain Misbah-ul Haq said it was "great news" for millions of fans in south Asia. "The competition in such a series is so high that it's important for the players. And players from both the sides miss such matches and they want to be part of it," he told journalists in Lahore.
Many Indians were also delighted by the news. "It's a great decision for cricket lovers and fans and a big step forward for the relations between the two countries," said Dileep Premachandran, editor-in-chief of Wisden India.
He said the ban had been very costly for Pakistan and for Pakistani players. "Not playing against India is a big blow to any country, including Pakistan, because India is the commercial hub of the game today," he said.
"Pakistan's players were also not allowed to play in the IPL [Indian Premier League] after the first season for several reasons. After the terror attacks, the team owners weren't sure if the players would get visas easily or how the crowd would react to them on the pitch. They viewed them as a risk. All this affected the game within Pakistan as well."
But in Mumbai, where the wounds from the attacks remain raw, the opposition and ruling parties of the Maharashtra state parliament reacted angrily to the news.
"We should consider allowing them to come to our country only after Pakistan clears its policy on international terrorism," said Ramdas Kadam, leader of the local Shiv Sena party.
Abu Azmi from the Samajwadi party in Maharashtra added: "Pakistan is a culprit [in the terror attacks] in Mumbai. How can we have sporting relations with them?"
Sunil Gavaskar, a former Indian international batsman, said: "Being a Mumbaikar I feel: what is the urgency when there is no co-operation from the other side?"
The visit was organised after heavy lobbying from Pakistan, said Rajeev Shukla, a senior official at the BCCI. "The PCB has been very persistent over the past few years on resuming cricketing ties with Pakistan and if you remember we have also played against Pakistan even after the 1971 war and after the 1999 Kargil war … we have played a series in Pakistan," he told reporters in Delhi.
Asked whether the Indian team would soon play in Pakistan, Shukla said: "Until the security situation in that country is conducive, there is absolutely no question of India travelling to Pakistan."
India cancelled a tour of Pakistan in 2009 and ever since, the two arch-rivals have only faced each other in multi-team events such as the World Cup.
The neighbours last played in a bilateral series in November 2007, in which India beat Pakistan 3-2.
Winning means a lot to both sides, said Pradeep Magazine, a cricket writer on the Hindustan Times. "Whenever India plays Pakistan, the streets are deserted; everybody is inside watching the match. We want to win. People here are willing to forgive India a lot, but not a loss against Pakistan."
Additional reporting by Aparna Alluri