July 24, 2012

Are we expecting too much from cricket?

If you use the sport to promote better relations between India and Pakistan, you're going about it backwards

There was a time in the 1960s and '70s when Pakistani fans contemplated a match with India the way one might imagine a trip to the moon: it promised to be incredibly exciting, but was essentially the stuff of fantasy. You allowed yourself a private moment or two with the thought but nothing more. It was never really a believable option.

It wasn't that India and Pakistan had never played each other before. But the memory of those encounters hung distant and remote, like sepia-tinged folklore. With scant exposure to players from the other side, the fan's imagination wasn't stimulated. In games played in Pakistani streets and backyards, the imaginary opposition was traditionally English, West Indian, or Australian, but never Indian.

When Bishan Singh Bedi brought a celebrated Indian team to Pakistan in the autumn of 1978, it ended an 18-year freeze that spanned bitter hostility between the two countries. During this period they had fought two major wars, and before it they had played only three bilateral series. In the years since, India and Pakistan have met each other in 11 additional Test rubbers, and in numerous limited-overs matches. Although there have been three other notable Test droughts - from 1989 to 1999, from 1999 to 2004, and the current one, from 2007 onwards - during these periods the two teams have continued to play each other in triangulars or tournament settings.

Media reactions to the latest move for reviving bilateral cricket ties have been positive - at times even overly so - in Pakistan, and guarded or negative in India. The general impression is of India grudgingly doling out a favour and Pakistan gleefully accepting it.

There are, of course, layers of political and historical complexity embedded in this equation, and it makes you wonder about the significance of these efforts. With world-class players on both sides, some fine cricket is bound to be produced if the limited-overs series proposed this winter does go ahead. But how does one enjoy cricket when it is surrounded by so many grievances and sensitivities, so many wounds yet to heal? Sports ultimately are a form of make-believe, and make-believe is fun only if it's not for real.

When played in a climate of mistrust and suspicion, a game of cricket inevitably becomes burdened with unwanted symbolism. It is unclear whether cricket in this atmosphere lessens or intensifies polarisation

Nor has cricket proved quite the elixir of South Asian bonhomie, as has been frequently promoted. After six decades of India and Pakistan playing cricket with each other, albeit intermittently, there is still no peace. It is said that cricket has been a diplomatic ice-breaker, perhaps even a kind of confidence-building measure, between the two neighbours, but are we expecting too much from cricket here? If cricket had the ability to mend fences, India and Pakistan would be friends by now. If you examine the subcontinent's post-1947 history, cricket has never led to a thaw in India-Pakistan relations; rather, it has merely served as an indication from time to time that relations have improved.

And while it is true that cricket contact between India and Pakistan never really stopped after the revival of 1978 - they even met in the 1999 World Cup, when the Kargil conflict was at its peak, and in a warm-up game before the World Twenty20 in 2009, six months after the tragedy of the Mumbai attacks - the value of these ongoing interactions is uncertain.

When played in a climate of mistrust and suspicion, a game of cricket inevitably becomes burdened with unwanted symbolism. A six carved over point can appear to a sensitised population like a mortar shell lobbed across the Line of Control, a knockout defeat can feel like a shameful shattering of national self-esteem. It is unclear whether cricket in this atmosphere lessens or intensifies polarisation, and indeed whether sport continues to remain sport in its purest definition. We have been playing cricket like this, and it hasn't made us friends. The message is clear: we need to become friends before we can play cricket the way cricket is meant to be played and enjoyed.

There is no denying that cricket in South Asia is hostage to geopolitical realities, yet we keep clutching at it, hoping that if cricket between India and Pakistan improves, relations will also improve. The reality is quite the opposite: once relations between India and Pakistan flourish, cricket will also flourish. Ideally, there should be a regular and uninterrupted schedule of fixtures between the two teams, on terms that are mutually acceptable to the boards of both nations. The sport is poorer for their absence.

For cricket between India and Pakistan to serve its true and intended purpose of being high-class entertainment, these contests need to be played in a convivial atmosphere, and in the proper spirit in which a sporting encounter is meant to be played. Otherwise there remains a bitter edge to everything and the sporting ethos of the activity is negated. As distance from the time of Partition has grown, we have come to understand that cricket between India and Pakistan is not a proxy for war. We must understand that neither is it a proxy for peace.

Saad Shafqat is a writer based in Karachi