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Why India Should Keep Playing Cricket with Pakistan

By: Amit Varma

Edited By: Abhimanyu Sen

Last Updated: February 26, 2019, 14:51 IST

India's MS Dhoni and Pakistan's Misbah Ul Haq at the toss in the 2015 ICC World Cup (Getty Images)

India's MS Dhoni and Pakistan's Misbah Ul Haq at the toss in the 2015 ICC World Cup (Getty Images)

You could say that was a mature bunch of guys, and I have no doubt that our current cricketers would be as mature. But is that maturity in evidence among cricket fans and administrators?

Politics has often been an awkward undertone when India and Pakistan have played cricket. When India were touring England in 1971, the Indian players would often hang out with the Pakistani players who were there at the time. And it was around then that the conflict over Bangladesh flared up. In his chapter on Zaheer Abbas in the book Idols, Sunil Gavaskar writes:

“[The] most unfortunate thing was that when the 1971 tour was on, the war between India and Pakistan broke out. A new nation, Bangladesh, was born and that was the time our friendship was put to test because we used to get conflicting reports from people as to the way the war was going. That was the time when we were tense and as the eyes of the media were on us, our friendship was seen in its true colours. All of us, Asif (Iqbal), (Asif) Masood, Intikhab Alam, Bishan Bedi, Zaheer and I used to go out together to a Pakistani restaurant for snacks and dinner and not once did we talk about the war though Bishan seemed to be understandably worried because Amritsar, where he lived, is very close to the border. Never was the war discussed between us.”

You could say that was a mature bunch of guys, and I have no doubt that our current cricketers would be as mature. But is that maturity in evidence among cricket fans and administrators?

After the horrific attacks in Pulwama, there is talk of India not playing Pakistan in the forthcoming ODI World Cup. Or not playing cricket with Pakistan at all. I share the sentiment: we have had enough of Pakistan-sponsored terror, and need to put an end to it. But ending cricketing ties is counter-productive, and has the opposite impact to what we imagine. Here are a few reasons why.


One: The Strategic Reason

First, we need to identify the enemy, and figure out how to tackle that enemy.

Yes, Pakistan is our enemy. But Pakistan is not a monolithic entity. Analysts often say that there are two Pakistans: on the one hand, the Military-Jihadi Complex; on the other, Pakistan’s civil society (or the “putative state” as some call it).

The Military-Jihadi Complex has run Pakistan for decades now. (Imran Khan has been its man since he entered politics in the 1990s.) Its incentives are tailored towards keeping a simmering conflict going with India. That’s its whole raison d’etre. Much of its dominance within Pakistan comes at the cost of civil society, which is as much its victim as India is.

India and Pakistan’s civil society are both victims of Pakistan’s Military-Jihadi Complex, which is our real enemy. And our enemy’s enemy is our friend. It stands to reason, then, that one way of weakening the Military-Jihadi Complex is to strengthen Pakistani civil society. Equally, if we weaken their civil society, we strengthen their army and their terrorists.

That is why trade is important. It is a positive-sum game where both parties benefit. A prosperous Pakistani civil society will be more able to assert itself against the Military-Jihadi Complex. Their incentives will also be tailored towards friendship with India.

Cricket and Bollywood also play that role of increasing goodwill and changing incentives. Some say that sport and politics should not mix – but I would argue that even if we accept that they should mix, cricket can be a tool in our kicking the backside of our real enemies, the Military-Jihadi Complex. We should play cricket with Pakistan because of political reasons as much as cricketing ones. (That said, see reason 3.)

Needless to say, there are of course many civilians in Pakistan who have the same nationalism-fuelled enmity towards India as so many in India do towards Pakistanis. Well, you could say that another enemy of ours is that enmity. Again, cricket lessens it.

Two: The Diversion Reason

As responsible citizens, we need to hold our governments accountable. And no patriotic Indian can deny that the very fact that Pulwama happened at all is a failure of the Indian state. We have faced this terrorism from across the border for decades now, and not managed to solve it. We have faced anger and hostility from our own citizens in Kashmir and not managed to solve it. It doesn’t matter what you think the root cause is: we should have solved it by now.

This is not the fault of any particular government or party. All our leaders have failed us over the last 72 years.

And yet, instead of focussing our outrage inwards, we allow ourselves to be distracted.

This talk of not playing cricket with Pakistan is a diversion from deeper problems. It’s pointless signalling. We need to ask tough questions of our government instead of asking tough questions of the BCCI and the ICC. When we agitate over whether or not to play cricket with Pakistan, we’re being played. Let us not be fools here.

(Getty Images)

Three: The Normative Reason

Should political grievances influence sporting relations?

I would argue that as a norm, there should be no connect between sport and politics. If there is, sports becomes a tool for politics, and is degraded as a result. Instead of a joyous celebration of human character, it becomes “war minus the shooting,” to use George Orwell’s phrase.

My contention is that even when a country has a valid political grievance, it should not use sport as a tool. Once you support a norm that sports can be a tool for politics, it will become commonplace, and countries will use it for all kinds of political reasons. Who is to decide what political grievance justifies the use of such a tool? It’s better that take a stand that no politics justifies this, and that sports will always be separate from politics.

Four: The Cricketing Reason

Sunil Gavaskar made this point earlier this week, and I feel sheepish even repeating such an obvious view: why should we gift Pakistan two points? We have a terrific team that is a favourite to win the World Cup, and not playing Pakistan would not only mean forfeiting the league game, but also the final or semi-final if we’re drawn against them there. (We increase their chances of getting there by forfeiting the league game.) What is this love we feel for Pakistan that we do them such a favour?

Even if you’re mad at all of Pakistan for this, consider this old saying: Success is the best Revenge.

There are other arcane reasons for why we should keep playing cricket. For example, it could be asked that even if the government asks the BCCI to not play cricket with someone, is the BCCI duty-bound to listen? Are we subjects of the Indian state that we must follow its diktats, or its masters that we should hold them accountable? I won’t go into these deeper questions of Political Authority here, or people will stop playing cricket with me, and what is left in life then?

If you look at our bilateral cricketing history—the stories of the individuals involved—you realise that India and Pakistan are one people divided by enemy establishments. Fazal Mahmood was almost attacked during partition, when on a train back across the new border: CK Nayudu pulled out his bat and stood in the way. Sanjay Manjrekar, in his recent book, revealed about Shoaib Akhtar: “Sometimes, out of the blue, I suddenly get a message on WhatsApp from him, ‘Hi Baby.’”

Hi baby indeed. That is the appropriate spirit.

(Amit Varma is a writer based in Mumbai. He has been a journalist for 15 years, some of it in cricket journalism as managing editor at Cricinfo. He has won the Bastiat Prize for Journalism twice. He is currently editor of the online journal Pragati, and a columnist for the Times of India.)

first published:February 23, 2019, 13:04 IST
last updated:February 26, 2019, 14:51 IST