Why does cricket have to be a tool of politics?
Cricketing ties between India and Pakistan are likely to resume shortly. The decks have been cleared for India to host a mini series against their arch-rivals Pakistan, albeit pending the Indian government's approval, which is likely to be forthcoming. India haven't played Pakistan in a bilateral series for quite some time, and while we can get excited by the prospect of another mouth-watering contest, the reasons for hosting the series in a hurry are difficult to fathom.
Why has the BCCI squeezed a series of three ODIs and two T20s into the smallest window available, in the middle of England's tour to India? Is it purely a goodwill gesture extended to our neighbours in the hope of improving diplomatic relations between the two countries? Or is cricket being used by the BCCI to strengthen its hand at the ICC board? Either way it takes us back to an old question: is it fair to use cricket and cricketers as a tool to gain ground or to propel a peace process? Evolved nations don't use cricket, or any sport, as a means of showing dissent or consent. Besides, when we attach goodwill to such a tour, cricket ceases to be just a game.
This series is already more than a contest between 22 individuals of two countries. When a match becomes bigger than the game itself, the pressure increases manifold.
I distinctly remember the pressure we, as a team and individuals, were under during the 2004 series in Pakistan. When cricket appears on the front pages of national dailies, you know that you're walking a tightrope. It was almost a given that if we failed on that tour, our houses would be vandalised and effigies of us would be burnt. We could not help but think about the safety of our families back home. Exaggerated reaction, you think? Not after what happened to the houses of Mohammad Kaif and other players following India's poor showing in the first half of the World Cup in 2003.
The last time India and Pakistan met, in the World Cup semi-final in Mohali, both nations came to a standstill. Jingoism was sold as patriotism and people on both sides of the border regarded the game as the final before the final; the winner was bound to be pardoned if they went on to lose the actual final.
Some say cricket can ease the environment, break the ice. Let's face it, an India-Pakistan encounter does anything but make the environment friendly or conducive to peace talks. The use of phrases like "life and death", "do or die" and "mother of all battles" is not only appalling but also exposes the countries' obsession with winning a game against the other. In such a scenario, are we really talking peace?
A reason for passions running so high could be that India and Pakistan haven't played each other often enough in the recent past. We did see a considerable drop in interest, enthusiasm and animosity between the two countries in the 2004-07 period, when India and Pakistan played each other every year.
More importantly, though, from a cricket point of view, aren't we doing a disservice to the players and fans of both countries by not giving a series of this nature its due? Are three ODIs and two T20s played over a 12-day period of any relevance? Aren't we aware that meaningless bilateral limited-overs series are currently the bane of international cricket? Why couldn't we wait for an appropriate window to host a full-fledged three-Test, five-ODI series?
Spare a thought for the Indian players, who will be on a treadmill from the time India host New Zealand in August. The small window in December was ideal for them to recuperate and recharge batteries in, but they will instead now be thrust into an even higher-profile series than the one against England. If you talk about exhaustion and tiredness, the response will be that anyone who wants a break can ask and the board will oblige. But would any cricketer worth his salt ask for a break against Pakistan and risk a backlash?
Who stands to gain from this series, logically? To believe that cricket would set the ball rolling and get the nations to talk peace is a fallacy. In fact, both cricket and cricketers could have done without this meaningless scheduling. An educated guess would be that it is the Indian board that gains, on two counts. One, an unprecedented amount of money is guaranteed to reach its coffers via the sale of broadcast rights. And two, Pakistan is likely to repay the favour by toeing India's line on crucial matters in the ICC. If the Pakistan Cricket Board manages to convince the BCCI to share the TV revenue, it will also earn some money. Besides, of course, the governments of both nations will give each other a pat on the back for taking the peace process to new heights.
Amidst this hullabaloo, though, we may be treating cricket as a mere tool in the process. If diplomatic exchanges can resume, and artists, commentators and coaches travel to India soon after 26/11 to ply their craft, why don't we treat cricket in a similar fashion? Why is cricket considered something to be used to make a statement of intent with, or worse, a solution for long-standing political problems? Let's allow a game to be a game.