Indo-Pak Rapprochement via World Cup Cricket?

Michael Roberts, Courtesy of HIMAL, April issue, article drafted on 12 March and now posted on

The leaders of India & Pakistan honour their national anthems — Pic by AFP

 The present World Cup scenario can be contrasted with that in 1987, when Pakistan, India and Sri Lanka sprang a surprising coup and snaffled the rights to hold the competition. Since then, India has risen to become a financial giant in the cricket world; therefore, the decision to hold the competition in this region was understandable.

This time around, due to security concerns Pakistan is no longer a part of the equation; Bangladesh now makes up the trio. Despite this and the loss of key players to the notorious spot-fixing betting scandal, the Pakistani squad displays significant talent. Their cricket so far has been as volatile as dangerous; their victory against Sri Lanka was highly accomplished, while their defeat against New Zealand was lamentable. They do have the advantage of playing all their first-round matches in Sri Lanka, and the grapevine indicates that they are pleased with these circumstances – presumably due to the considerable support from the substantial Muslim minority (eight percent of the population) in Lanka – even when pitted against the local team.

Politically, Pakistan and Lanka have a measured diplomatic relationship. On 3 March 2009, when the Sri Lankan cricketers were attacked in Lahore, Pakistan was not whipped up to the degree that the other cricketing nations would have been. President Mahinda Rajapaksa was quick to send a Sri Lanka Airlines plane to evacuate the cricketers from Lahore. It is therefore possible that these cricketers received guidance from the highest office in the land, because Pakistan has been a staunch ally and supplier of military hardware to Sri Lanka during the recent Eelam wars. 

Of course, India too has assisted Sri Lanka in specific ways on the military front. However, the question here is not about the trilateral relationship between India, Sri Lanka and Pakistan; but about whether cricket in general, and the World Cup in particular, can soften the long-standing Indo-Pakistani animosities and suspicions. The Pakistan tour by the Indian cricket team in March 2004 was a resounding success, both in the quality of cricket, the bonds forged and the political capital gained. Alas, the cricketing camaraderie has never been strong enough to circumvent the tensions associated with such knotty issues as Kashmir and the memories that sustain cancers of distrust among substantial and influential segments of both populations.

Whatever goodwill was generated by cricket in 2004 was destroyed in one swoop by the high-profile extremist attacks on targets in Mumbai in November 2008. In return, the Indian authorities went so far as to debar Pakistani cricketers from gaining any spots in the last IPL series. Cricket can be a handshake at one moment and a slap at another.

Sports nationalism, as we know, cuts both ways. It can generate excess from both players and fans. During the present series, we could conceivably see the eruption of an incident similar to the one between Symonds and Harbhajan at Sydney a few years back, when the latter referred to the former as a ‘monkey’. The ripples arising from this contretemps went across the Indian Ocean.

But we can still hope, can we not? Maybe the razzamatazz of the World Cup will soften Indo-Pakistani relations, just as it might forge a variety of bonds among the cricketing fraternity. The thrill of regulated competition, the adrenaline of big hitting, the silkiness of elegant strokes, the gasps aroused by athletic fielding and the many thrills and spills on the field will produce joy. And joy is balm.

A series of nail-biting encounters during the first round in Group A has surely stirred fans all around the world. The England-India tie was enthralling, the Irish batting that stormed the walls of their old enemy quite fantastic, England’s success in defeating the Safs a tense affair, and the Bangladeshi victory over England as tense as it was marvellous. The high-scoring match on 14 March, which saw South Africa run down India’s solid total in the last over, was yet another mind-blowing affair. Who says 50-over ODI cricket is dead? This form of the game can serve up excitement.

On the back of such matches, then, the present World Cup can lessen the diverse prejudices about Southasia that continue to reside in the minds of the cricketers from the Caribbean and the West. The oversimplified perception this region as being mysterious, unpredictable, volatile and dangerous remains strong in Western societies. This World Cup could well encourage the dilution of such sentiments among both the cricketers and their keen cricket fans.

A handful of Bangladeshis, though, have not assisted the prospects on this front. After the Bangladesh team disappointed them with a humiliating batting collapse against the West Indies, the Bangladesh team fans stoned the players’ buses. Nonetheless, the wide geographical spread of matches will expose cricketers and media teams to a range of fantastic landscapes and personalities in the three host countries.

The franchise system of the IPL has already embedded friendships among players. As players from the West savour these lands, sexual liaisons will certainly be among the benefits they enjoy. A few strong ‘matches’ will emerge from cricket matches. Shaun Tait, that country lad from South Australia, now has a steady Indian girl friend, a model whose heart he secured during the IPL. The bonds are such that my effort to interview him has to wait till November, because cricket, mate and India will keep him away from our city of Adelaide. Ferocious to batsmen – ask Dilshan – he may be, but Tait is tall and handsome too. This friendship has all the makings of a handsome bond. So, this is as good a tale as one can get to place at the tail-end of a discursive spin on the Cricket World Cup, 2011.

Leave a comment

Filed under cultural transmission, historical interpretation, Indian Ocean politics, reconciliation, world events & processes

Leave a Reply