In an ideal world, sports should remain apolitical, a space where athletes can showcase their abilities and fans can revel in the thrill of competition. However, the real world frequently intrudes, and the connection between geopolitics and sports is undeniable, as evidenced by the enduring rivalry between India and Pakistan in cricket.
The history of cricket diplomacy between these two nations is marked by periods of hope and despair, but in recent years, the outlook has become increasingly bleak, leaving cricket fans on both sides yearning for a revival. Since their independence, India and Pakistan’s cricketing relations have been marked by numerous ups and downs. During times of heightened tensions, these cricketing titans have avoided clashing on the field for extended periods.
However, cricket has also been used as a diplomatic instrument by leaders on both parties in an effort to improve relations through the game. The regimes of General Zia-ul-Haq and General Pervez Musharraf, in particular, utilized cricket diplomacy to strengthen ties with India.
Unfortunately, extremism in India has cast a pall over the game’s spirit. In 1999, members of the Shiv Sena vandalized Delhi’s Ferozeshah Kotla ground to prevent Pakistan from playing, demonstrating how extremists can use the beautiful game for their own purposes. Such occurrences have impeded the resumption of full-fledged sporting ties between the two countries.
Cricket diplomacy has the potential to serve as a conduit between India and Pakistan, fostering goodwill and alleviating tensions. The sight of cricket’s greatest players displaying their talents has the power to unite millions and rekindle the spirit of camaraderie. However, in order for this to occur, it is essential that Pakistani athletes competing in India be provided with foolproof protection.
The recent decision to permit the Pakistan cricket team to compete in the ODI World Cup in India in October is a welcome development. The Foreign Office has expressed “deep concerns” to the International Cricket Council (ICC) and Indian authorities regarding the security of the Pakistani team. This circumspect approach reflects the prevalent apprehensions surrounding the resumption of cricketing relations between the two nations.
Moreover, the absence of a bilateral series between Pakistan and India for over a decade serves as a stark reminder of their deteriorating relations. In preparation for this year’s Asia Cup, India decided against playing matches in Pakistan and instead chose neutral venues in Sri Lanka. These actions only widen the existing schism.
Recent comments by Jay Shah, president of the Asian Cricket Council and secretary of the Board of Cricket Control in India (BCCI), highlight the politicization of cricket in India-Pakistan relations even further. Shah’s refusal of the Pakistan Cricket Board’s proposal to move Super Four stage matches from rain-prone Colombo to Lahore was unwarranted. His claim that teams were hesitant to play the entire tournament in Pakistan due to economic and security concerns appears to be exaggerated.
Pakistan effectively hosted games for all participating teams, excluding India, and BCCI officials even traveled to Pakistan for the matches, signaling a significant step toward mending cricketing relations. Shah’s dual positions in the ACC and the BCCI have sparked concerns of a conflict of interest. His decision-making effectively transferred the hosting rights of the Asia Cup from Pakistan to Sri Lanka, rendering cricket yet another instrument in the larger diplomatic game.
Recent events surrounding the Asia Cup and the cautious approach to the ODI World Cup in India highlight the need for genuine efforts to revive cricketing ties between the two countries. Cricket has the potential to cure fractures and promote benevolence, but for this to occur, it must be freed from the shackles of politics and undue influence. Only then can it regain its status as a symbol of unity and a testament to the shared love of the game on both sides of the border.