The virtue of ‘cricket diplomacy’

The recent clash between India and Pakistan at the T20 World Cup, a match which Pakistan handily won, provoking shock and commendations at their performance from the international sporting world considering they were the underdogs has been well documented. Since then, Pakistan have also gone on to beat New Zealand, proving that there is something special coming from them this tournament.

However, this optimism for the state of the sport has not been received as well in India, where immediately after the India-Pakistan match, one could read news about Muslim students being beaten up, harassed, or abused for no reason, bowler Mohammed Shami being abused simply for being a Muslim and having allegations of bribery and match fixing thrown at him, among many other incidents. This has shocked the sporting world, as something of this magnitude was considered unthinkable even a decade ago.

There was also a notable silence from other members of the Indian cricket team, which would not be noteworthy if not for the fact that they have been taking a knee against worldwide racism and for the Black Lives Matter movement before every match in the tournament. All this essentially points to a new field of discourse in the Indian media, sports and other fields which has been distorted by unmitigated jingoism, religious fanaticism and ultra-nationalism.

Cricket diplomacy as a viable tool for dialogue between India and Pakistan has worked since the early 70s and has indeed led to the cooling of tensions in times of conflict. Who can forget the arrival of Pakistani Prime Minister Gilani for the Semi Final match at the 2011 World Cup at Mohali, which, coming just some years after the 2008 Mumbai Terror Attacks was a sign of improving relations between the two countries, and especially, for the perceptions of their citizens.

Indeed, cricket diplomacy has been less about actual diplomacy or high-level talks and more about the people of the two countries getting together to enjoy a sport that both value high above anything else. It is the hopes and aspirations of almost 2 billion people being played out on the field, and historically atleast, it has been one filled with amicability and respect.

However, something has changed in the last ten years. Where earlier we used to see Pakistani cricket players as just as worthy representatives of their country as ours, we saw them more in terms of their sporting abilities, which is why names like Shahid Afridi (boom-boom Afridi), Shoaib Akhtar (the Rawalpindi Express), Waseem Akram and Imran Khan had become household names in India, and for a generation one could surely not find a single person in the country who did not wish that we had some of their fast bowler.

Today however, they are seen not as sportsmen, but representatives of their country, culture, and religion, and in those areas, they are mocked relentlessly, often maliciously, in order to gain sympathy for the nationalistic and jingoistic narrative of sport that has dominated us. There is no one starting point for this discourse. Perhaps it when India stopped allowing Pakistani players in the IPL, perhaps it is due to the attacks on foreign players in Pakistan. But it would also not be remiss to remember that attacks have also taken place in recent years in Mumbai and London, during games.

It is evident from history that cricket diplomacy has worked previously, and the reluctance to allow the spread of a constant cultural zeitgeist like cricket in the subcontinent is evident of an unwillingness to restore relations between two of the most fearsome competitors of the sport in its history. Even keeping aside the geo-political significance of it, a whole generation of cricketing fans is missing the excitement that a bilateral series between India and Pakistan provides for two nations, and that is the biggest tragedy of all.

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