It is the most in-demand game of cricket ever played in England. Over half a million people have applied for tickets. In the last match between the two in a world event, 400 million watched. India-Pakistan is not merely the biggest fixture in cricket; it has a fair claim to being the biggest in all of sport.

Unlike the El Salvador and Honduras football teams, 50 years ago, an India-Pakistan cricket match has never been blamed for causing a war. But, from a 17-year hiatus between 1961 and 1978, a period marked by two wars, to the rapprochement in the early 2000s - the two countries played 31 games from 2004-2006 - and the current paucity of matches, the fixture has doubled as a window into the political relations between India and Pakistan.

These have seldom been worse than today. "Cricket and terrorism can't go hand in hand," said Vijay Goel, a government minister who was formerly India's sports minister, explaining why the Indian government have not sanctioned bilateral matches against Pakistan since 2013. Pakistani players have also been barred from the IPL.

In an age when the notion of politics and sport operating in completely distinct spheres has come to look absurd, the fixture's political dimension has been further ratcheted up this year. Forty Indian police were killed by a suicide attack in Pulwama in February, which was then followed by retaliatory Indian air strikes. There were widespread calls for India to boycott playing Pakistan in the World Cup, while the Pakistan Cricket Board complained to the International Cricket Council when India wore army-style caps in a match against Australia in March. Pakistan figured centrally in India president Narendra Modi's successful re-election last month.

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"Since so much of Modi's recent election campaign was about Pakistan and national security, he can't afford to be seen as being soft on that country for a while," says Faisal Devji, a professor of Indian history at the University of Oxford. Despite Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan's wish to meet Modi, "campaigns against Pakistani actors, singers and the like in India have been increasing, so the cricket ban may well be here to stay."

India captain Virat Kohli and Pakistan captain Sarfraz Ahmed. Photo / Getty
India captain Virat Kohli and Pakistan captain Sarfraz Ahmed. Photo / Getty

Cricketers eschew the cliches about it being just another game. "As a player you always want to perform well against Pakistan - so there is more pressure, always," says Harbhajan Singh, the former India off-spinner.

The stakes are magnified further in the World Cup. Before the semi-final between the two in 2011 in Mohali, "I couldn't sleep," Harbhajan recalls. "I was just worried about what would happen if we lose the game - a lot of thoughts came into my mind."

Harbhajan's observation that when India lose to Pakistan, "people get angry, they can do anything", is borne out by history. Sixty thousand fans were evicted from Kolkata in 1999 after hurling stones and plastic bottles onto the ground in protest at an umpiring decision.

The game has historically been particularly tense for Muslims living in India. In Indian-controlled Kashmir, which remains at the centre of India-Pakistani tensions, most Muslims are believed to support Pakistan in the game. The Indian far-right figure Bal Thackeray once said he wanted to see Indian Muslims, "with tears in their eyes every time India loses to Pakistan", to prove their loyalty to India. A Muslim fan was killed in Ahmedabad after rioting linked to the World Cup game in 2003.

Yet while such horrific incidents show the fixture's capacity to inflame tensions, it has often cooled them. General Mohammed Zia ul-Haq, the former president of Pakistan, called matches "cricket diplomacy". In 2004, Dina Wadia, the only child of Muhammad Ali vJinnah, Pakistan's founder, attended a game in Pakistan, her first visit to the country since her father died in 1948.

An Indian fan at the Cricket World Cup 2019. Photo / Getty
An Indian fan at the Cricket World Cup 2019. Photo / Getty

Mostly, relations between different supporters at the ground are excellent, with Indian and Pakistani fans intermingling happily. They even did so in the 1999 World Cup in England, when the game coincided with the nations being at war. That game - also at Old Trafford - "is an example of how cricket should be the means of peace," says Imran Asghar, the head of the Pakistani supporters' group the Stani Army. The sight of the 'superfans' in their team finery, of both countries enjoying the game side-by-side, is common.

Yet the relentless build-up to matches has shaped the character of the games. Often, fear of the consequences of defeat has enervated players. Remarkably, 64 per cent of India-Pakistan Test matches have been drawn - twice the overall rate in the format.

"In both countries, people don't want to lose. So that adds up to extra pressure for both of the teams," says Pakistan's Azhar Ali, who played four ODIs against India, including scoring 59 in the Champions Trophy final in 2017. "They create so much hype around it that everyone just wants it to end."

The scarcity of the game in recent years has made the game feel even more intense, explains Asghar. "The fixture has changed for the worst over the years. As someone who grew up in the early-to-late 80s, I witnessed this fixture on a regular basis. With it being more frequent, people were more tolerant. The social-media age and the lack of games between the two nations have brought the worst out of some fans." He laments how the game is used by both sides to score "political brownie points" - "A sporting rivalry should be treated as such, a sporting rivalry."

Kiran More, who played 21 games against Pakistan from 1987-1992, believes the hullabaloo surrounding the game is now more intense than ever. "The pressure was there that time as well. But the build-up - what you see now in the digital world - it is huge. What it is now, I think it is more."

Pakistan fans cheer and hold their national flag in the rain. Photo / Photosport
Pakistan fans cheer and hold their national flag in the rain. Photo / Photosport

With India refusing to play bilateral fixtures against Pakistan, the match is now restricted to tournaments. This is the sixth consecutive ICC event in which India have met Pakistan in the group stages, even though the previous five did not follow the 2019 World Cup's round-robin format. David Richardson, the outgoing ICC chief executive, has admitted to fixing the draw to ensure that India play Pakistan. Guaranteeing this fixture takes place has a sizeable impact on the value of the broadcasting rights that the ICC can generate.

The great curiosity is that while Pakistan have been the superior side for most of the 67 years of this fixture, this has been inverted in the World Cup. Pakistan have won 74 ODIs against India while losing 56, yet India have won all six in the World Cup to go with five victories out of five in the T20 World Cup.

India's World Cup history in the fixture empowers the players, says More, who played against Pakistan in the 1992 World Cup. "Mentally we are very strong. There is a psychological factor, we are always on top of them."

However, two years ago, on Sunday, June 16, Pakistan belied their lower ranking and the growing economic chasm between the two boards to eviscerate India in the Champions Trophy final.

It reinforced the sense that India against Pakistan is a match that operates in its own enclave, divorced from what governs cricket around it. The hope, which history suggests might not be not entirely fanciful, is that Sunday's game could make a small contribution to improving India-Pakistan relations.

"I wish that the cricket on Sunday has a positive impact on the outlook of India-Pakistan relations amongst leaders in both countries," says Asghar, who will be attending. "We will be doing our best to show solidarity with both set of fans."

India vs Pakistan: A history of conflict

1947 War.

1952 Pakistan play their inaugural Test against India, who supported their application for Test status.

1961-1978 No matches at all between India and Pakistan as relations worsen.

1965 War.

1971 War.

1982-1990 Five Test series in this time, described by General Mohammed Zia ul-Haq, the former president of Pakistan, as "cricket diplomacy".

1990-99 No Test series between the two nations - but they play each other regularly in ODIs, mostly overseas, in Canada or the UAE.

1999 War, during which India play Pakistan in the 1999 World Cup.

2004-06 Cricket relations resume, with India's 'goodwill tour' of Pakistan in 2004 marking the start of 31 matches in two years.

2008 Mumbai terror attacks; the attackers are tracked to Pakistan.

2008-19 Only one short series between the countries, a limited-overs series in 2012/13, with the Indian government barring India from playing Pakistan. The Pakistan Cricket Board, which had an agreement to host India in four series from 2015-23, loses a compensation claim.

2019 Forty Indian police are killed by a suicide attack in Pulwama in February, which is then followed by retaliatory Indian air strikes. Calls for India to boycott the World Cup match.