December 9, 2015

Will India play cricket, not politics?

They can be a transformative force in the sport, and honouring the commitment to play Pakistan will show they take that role seriously

Cricket needs to get the latest chapter in the rivalry going © AFP

India's foreign minister has landed in Pakistan. What might this mean for regional peace and prosperity? More pertinently, what might this mean for cricket? When Narendra Modi talked at Nawaz Sharif for a few seconds during the Paris climate conference, we all knew there was only time to discuss cricket and the Future Tours Programme.

Perhaps an icy bilateral relationship is thawing as global temperatures rise? The foreign minister arriving in Pakistan is less significant than India's cricket team arriving in Pakistan, but it is notable. An aroma of diplomacy fills the air. Let's not elevate it to the grandness of cricket diplomacy just yet, but in times of trouble it's good to talk.

It's also good to remember that cricket and politics are closely wedded, much more regular bedfellows than cricket and diplomacy. So, no sanctimony please, no unrealistic holiness on the separation of cricket and politics. Since the dawn of sentient man, the day of the first ever Test match between England and Australia, cricket is politics and politics is cricket.

Consider this. Why was cricket disseminated throughout the British Empire? What was its role in the sociopolitical struggles of the West Indies? How central was it to South Africa's sporting isolation and then the birth of the Rainbow Nation? When will it be allowed to help end the bickering between South Asians? Cricket is politics, for sure, and politics is cricket.

India's story in cricket is a politicised one. India has used cricket to punish its political enemies, chiefly Pakistan, and it still does today. Equally, India has befriended Pakistan at moments of South Asian unity and cross-border diplomacy. India was also prominent in welcoming a multicultural South Africa back to international sport.

Today India stands at the helm of cricket administration, presiding over England and Australia, where it can be a transformative force to create a vibrant, sustainable, and truly international sport. The impression that India gives, though, is of a country driven by profit and self-interest. India can be so much more. It needs to be so much more - and it can do this through cricket. Cricket is politics, we know, and politics is cricket.

A sense of injustice played a part in propelling India to the forefront of cricket politics. The cricket world and its politics were dominated by the old powers of England and Australia, but the rise of Asia in the 1980s created a cricketing and political argument for change in cricket's governance. Demographics and financial clout helped too, such that the case for equity became unavoidable.

At first India and Pakistan were united, guided by shrewd administrators who understood cricket and lived politics. They increased Asia's power base, a simple numbers game of welcoming Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. Zimbabwe too. Wooing Mandela's South Africa and the ever-politicised islands of the West Indies was low-hanging fruit. With these master strokes, the political game was won. Cricket is politics, proved the Asian administrators, and politics is cricket.

Now India has cast aside its former collaborators. Its power, underpinned by profit and demographics, allows shoddy treatment of its silly, bickering neighbours. It cares little about the institutionalised decline of West Indian cricket or the basket case that is Zimbabwe. These old friends of convenience don't matter in the modern world of cricket politics. England and Australia are the new friends of convenience, tempted to India's beguiling bosom.

Being a friend of convenience isn't a guarantee of respect or longevity. India only needs the other countries because it requires an opposition. You can't play a sport alone. You need the snorting, thrashing sportsmen of an opponent to create the required drama for television viewers. Cricket is politics and politics is cricket, but it's also made for television.

The world needs India, especially Indian leadership. And India knows that. But it doesn't seem to understand the difference between wise, inclusive leadership and ill-judged, self-serving leadership. A self-serving agenda feels good in the moment of strength, and a few moments that follow, but the end is never far off.

Take the example of the Imperial Cricket Conference, governed by the self-serving old powers of England and Australia. India isn't the first country to major in self-interest, nor will it be the last. But as the giants of the emerging world, like India, wake up to the reality of wielding power, of the boot being on the other foot, we might hope for some benevolence, some wisdom?

Let's use the politics of cricket to bring people together, to support a wider dialogue of peace and prosperity, to answer terrorists and extremists, xenophobes and supremacists, with a show of unity and mutual respect

Instead, India plays politics with the ICC. It plays politics with the Future Tours Programme, which was central to the new governance of world cricket. It plays politics with the agreement to play Pakistan on a regular basis, an agreement to honour, an opportunity to demonstrate that the governance of cricket is in good hands. Instead, India plays politics and it doesn't play cricket.

More the pity, for there is much that is joyous about Indian cricket. Three memorable world one-day titles, a spell at the top of the world Test rankings, made possible by batsmen of outrageous fluency and spin bowlers of deceptive wiles - some of the greatest players the world has seen, usually supported by merely good enough pace bowling.

Then the crowds, the passion of its people, who may worship their own heroes but can also love opponents, even Pakistani opponents. Wonderful crowds that make cricket an adrenaline rush, a life-defining experience. Those players and those fans deserve to be celebrated without the caveats of politics diminishing cricket.

Cricket is politics and politics is cricket. Let's not deny this reality. The two are inseparable. But let's use the politics of cricket to bring people together, to support a wider dialogue of peace and prosperity, to answer terrorists and extremists, xenophobes and supremacists, with a show of unity and mutual respect. Let's stop using cricket to keep people apart, to punish and to ferment hatred. Let's start seeing the value in talking, meeting, and competing.

With power comes responsibility, and India needs to shoulder its burden, become a worthy leader of international cricket and a suitable custodian of a great sport. Those responsibilities begin with India honouring their duty to tour Pakistan's home venue, to abide by the rules India itself created. Anything else is a grave insult to a world sport that India effectively governs, a middle finger raised to the game's integrity.

India gets away with it because the politics of cricket allow it to. That's why the focus is on India, why the complaint lands at its door, why the solution lies in its hands. Cricket is politics and politics is cricket. Playing Pakistan at cricket is a political statement and India needs to make it.

Kamran Abbasi is an editor, writer and broadcaster. @KamranAbbasi

Comments