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Cricket’s Bypassing of On-Field Boundaries

Pakistan’s shock defeat to Ireland in the first round of the 2007 Cricket World Cup had the entire nation aggrieved. The pain of loss, however, was temporarily curbed when India suffered the same fate a few hours later. Such has been the nature of these two countries’ cricketing rivalry. For many, India’s loss is Pakistan’s win, and vice versa. Some call it passion for the game, others view it as the forefront of repellant patriotism. Cricket has been, for both positive and negative, a major player in the relationship between these two countries. Scorching subcontinental cricket grounds prove to both create and expel the nationalistic fervor that has embodied the plagued Indo-Pak border.

Through the sixties, seventies, and eighties, umpiring controversies tormented the countries’ bilateral cricket relations. When in Pakistan, Indian players complained about controversial decisions, and the same happened when the Pakistanis visited India. On December 20th, 1989, Karachi’s National Stadium was home to ugly scenes of crowd violence, as students pelted the field with stones. After a showdown between rioters and the police, and the sounding of gunshots, the match was eventually called off. This marked the end of an era, as neutral umpires were instituted into their games. However, the fierce contests and heated political debacles would be everlasting.

Pakistan’s tour to India in 1998-99 was marked with even more controversies. Hindu nationalist Bal Thackeray, and his Shiv Sena party vowed to disrupt the tour, and even said that “Pakistan would not be allowed to play”. Nationalists dug up the pitch in Delhi, and the schedule had to be altered. On the first day of the first test match, Shiv Sena members rallied in front the Prime Minister’s house. Fortunately, the radical’s efforts failed to stop the tour. And in a landslide victory for the game, the two sides played out an enthralling 1-1 draw. The majority, the moderates in both countries, briefly reveled in the on-field drama, and politicization took a back seat. But the nature of this sporting rivalry meant that India-Pakistan matches would be forever entangled in politics.

Roots: Bombay Quadrangular and Colonialism

The East India Company, and then the British Crown, stamped cricket as their foremost colonial export. Cricket runs through the blood of every impoverished soul in the Indian subcontinent. Cricket was officially brought to India in the form of the Bombay Presidency, which eventually became the Bombay Quadrangular. Being the premier first-class tournament in British India, the Bombay Quadrangular pitted Europeans against Parsis (Zoroastrians), Hindus, and Mohammedans (Muslims). This line of divide and consistent political turmoil have materialized into an Indo-Pak rivalry of unmatchable passion and zeal.

Often, colonized countries seek to expel the remnants of imperialism, but, ironically, both India and Pakistan, have incorporated cricket into their core national identity. The sport embodies nationalism, and serves as a reminder of the successful British philosophy: “divide and conquer”.

“Cricket Diplomacy”

“Cricket diplomacy” signaled a change in approach by both governments. It first occurred during the Soviet War in Afghanistan, when Pakistan funded and fostered the Afghani forces, and India was caught in a tangle with Soviet pressure for an alliance. Pakistan’s leader, General Zia-Ul-Haq, attended a test match in Jaipur, and the resulting diplomatic dialogue helped cool relations. President Musharraf rekindled the positive cricket-politics dynamic as he visited India for a match in 2005. The Kashmir dispute was among the talking points, and, while no tangible results were achieved, the efforts to find a compromise over lingering historical issues was a major plus point at the time. Indo-Pak relations have again been strained after the people behind the Mumbai terror attacks of 2008 were found out to have Pakistani passports.

India’s Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, invited his Pakistani counterpart to Mohali for the 2011 World Cup semi-final, in a gesture of good faith after three years of uncertainty. The offer was accepted, and images of the two leaders together stormed through the subcontinent, promising much hope to those alienated by the animosity.

In South Asia, cricket and politics will forever be intertwined. It is necessary that rather than fostering mass nationalism, cricketing ties serve to create an environment for compromise and togetherness. For cricket is what Indians and Pakistanis love, and while it is Britain’s stamp, in the essence of an addiction, it’s one that has been embraced and will be forever.

Bilateral cricket ties are resuming on December 25th for the first time since the Mumbai attacks, and rumors suggest that diplomatic relations will also simultaneously commence. Following the promise of recent history, heat on the field will hopefully not materialize into anything greater, and the boisterous neighbours will unite in love for the one thing that succeeds in unifying their own inhabitants: that beloved colonial drug.

– Sameer Tayebaly


Featured photo: AttributionNoncommercialShare Alike  cwgreeny, Creative Commons, Flickr)

About Sameer Tayebaly

Student of Economics and History at McGill University. Sameer’s interests include food, fiction, film, FIFA, fascinating (or farcical?) sports like cricket, philosophy, and music. Together with the Bouillon team, he strives to provide a fresh take on politics while remaining calculated and informative. His eighteen years in Karachi, Pakistan, the experience of travel, and an avid interest in writing arrange a toolkit equipped for specialization in the intriguing politics of South Asia from a broader, global, panorama.

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