India-Pakistan cricket March 24, 2004

The humanising factor

Is it sport or is it war

The piece below first appeared in the March 2004 issue of Wisden Asia Cricket.

Sourav Ganguly and Waqar Younis at the 2003 World Cup. Shaking on an armistice, perhaps? © AFP

Is it sport or is it war? Whenever India and Pakistan play each other in cricket, the media talks of the game as a metaphor for war - and perversely, with a sense of glee and anticipation. (A random example: MJ Akbar, writing in Time magazine, described this India-Pakistan series as "a war guaranteed to drive millions of people delirious". War and delirious?) Leave aside the moralistic angle of how we trivialise something as serious as war by comparing it with a mere sport; the fact is, the feelings that India-Pakistan cricket inspires are extreme, and sentiments like pride and honour are affected by victory or defeat, much as they would be in a war.

Sport between these two countries has always been played with nationalistic fervour - and even fear. Many of the early Tests between India and Pakistan were drawn, with both teams showing an excess of caution, petrified of losing to their neighbour. A loss against any other team didn't matter - both teams were habitual losers until the seventies - but a defeat to their neighbour rankled deeply. Abbas Ali Baig's promising career is said to have been derailed because of an average run of scores against Pakistan, when a similar streak against any other side would not have mattered. Javed Miandad's last-ball six off Chetan Sharma still rankles in the Indian psyche as a low point for the nation. World Cup after World Cup, Indians treated their game against Pakistan with as much importance as the tournament itself, not caring if they lost the Cup, as long as they beat Pakistan. When Pakistan lost the 1996 World Cup match in Bangalore, the house of their great hero, Wasim Akram, was stoned.

Sport has always been described in terms of war. Games are often described as "battles", and teams are often said to have been "routed", "slaughtered", "demolished", in a vocabulary of alpha-male aggression. "Sport is an unfailing cause of ill-will," George Orwell once said. In an essay written in 1945, at the tail end of a real war, he elaborated:

I am always amazed when I hear people saying that sport creates goodwill between the nations, and that if only the common peoples of the world could meet one another at football or cricket, they would have no inclination to meet on the battlefield. Even if one didn't know from concrete examples (the 1936 Olympic Games, for instance) that international sporting contests lead to orgies of hatred, one could deduce it from general principles.

The point Orwell went on to make was that all sport was competitive, and involved winning or losing, and thus pride. A sport between nations, thus, took on bigger proportions, as it involved national pride - much as war would. He called it "mimic warfare". But having said that, while many other bi-national rivalries exist in sport - the Ashes in cricket, Brazil-Argentina in soccer et al - none are quite so fierce and filled with "ill-will" as that between India and Pakistan.

So should India play Pakistan in cricket as long as emotions in the countries run so high? Much of the recent impasses between the two countries have been due to political posturing. If we leave politics aside for a moment, and I accept that we can never entirely do that, there are still good reasons for and against India-Pakistan cricket. I am agnostic on that issue: I have an argument on each side of the subject, and I am undecided which has more merit. Let me lay them both out here.

An Indian fan on his way to watch a zero-sum game © Getty Images

Zero-sum game in a non-zero-sum world
Orwell's case that sport between nations is like war has backing in terms of both evolutionary psychology and game theory, fields which had yet to take off in his lifetime. Sport and war are both, as the terminology goes, zero-sum games. If two parties are involved, then for one to gain something, the other must lose. Both cannot gain from the encounter, just as both India and Pakistan cannot win the same match. To gain something, one must defeat - and thus, humiliate, as national pride is involved - the other.

But the military and sporting paradigms do not reflect how civilisation, and societies, evolve. Economic and social progress, to use the phrase popularised by Robert Wright, are a "non-zero-sum game". If two parties interact, both stand to benefit if they co-operate with each other, and it is, in fact, for our own benefit that we should help the other. (As Adam Smith famously put it, "It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their self-interest.") The basis of modern capitalism - and its success, compared to socialist and communitarian systems - lies is recognising the non-zero-sumness of progress.

Sport and war, thus, function on a different paradigm than society does. India and Pakistan, in virtually every sphere - economic, social, cultural - stand to gain from interaction and co-operation with each other. But sport emphasises zero-sumness - that one can gain only at the expense of the other, which is a regressive notion.

More than just mimic warfare
If the twentieth century was one in which international sport flourished, it was also one in which, sadly, war took on new proportions. Warfare has been a recurring feature in human history, but in the twentieth century it was played out on an astonishingly large scale. Vast amounts of cruelty - from the gulags to the Final Solution to the atrocities in China and Cambodia and Yugoslavia and Rwanda, among countless others, including what continues today in West Africa - were accompanied by vast amounts of indifference, as masses of people stood by and did nothing to protest against the most inhuman behaviour. Why were they so silent?

Jonathan Glover, a philosopher, raised just this question in his book, Humanity: A Moral History of the 20th Century. Glover postulated that the cause of the indifference was the "degradation" of the victims: their status or cleanliness, or both, was taken away, and they were thus stripped of their personhood. In Nazi Germany, herding the Jews into ghettoes, and making them wear the Star of David for identification, was just such a method of dehumanising them. Making racial jokes, dressing up a group of people in humiliating outfits - like prison garb - serves the same purpose. And so did ancient India's caste system, where the Sudra caste was effectively reduced to the status of non-human by virtue of being treated as dirty and untouchable.

A Pakistani fan flips the switch © AFP

For Indians and Pakistanis, the people of the other nationality have been dehumanised thus, through decades of mutual distrust and nationalistic propaganda. (Some of it has come from popular cinema; witness the mindless stereotyping of Pakistanis done in the monster hit, Gadar, and a legion of similar films.) But the switch from "person" to "non-person" can be thrown both ways, as in that famous example of a soldier who sees a fleeing opponent holding up his trousers while running, a sign of humanity that flips the mental switch from "fascist" to "person". This is why intellectuals in both India and Pakistan stress the importance of people-to-people contact, so that the other can be seen as human again, and one can feel empathy with them.

Sport can play a part in this process. The more we see of our opponents, the more we are exposed to their humanness, and the less the mythic differences seem. The cricketing skills on display, the emotions on the field, all draw us towards the other side - and the appreciation can sometimes go beyond national pride. The spontaneous applause that the Pakistan team got from the Chennai crowds after they won the enthralling Test there in 1999 is a great example of that.

Exposure to cricketers and ex-cricketers from the other country also helps us feel warmer towards them. Witness Sunil Gavaskar's popularity in Pakistan, which goes beyond his 1992 prediction that Pakistan would win the World Cup that year. Imran Khan and Zaheer Abbas have enjoyed similar popularity in India, and Wasim Akram and Ravi Shastri, in 'The Shaz and Waz Show', the popular TV program that ran during the India-Australia series, are a perfect example of a Pakistani and an Indian working together to mutual benefit, in a non-zero-sum interaction. If cricket can be played between the two countries regularly, then perhaps it can move from being a metaphor for war to a vehicle of peace.

Amit Varma is managing editor of Wisden Cricinfo in India, and a writer at large for Wisden Asia Cricket.

This article was first published in the March issue of Wisden Asia Cricket.
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