Why India and Pakistan should try Cricket Diplomacy 2.0
In these shallow times, walking away from sport is seen as a tool of war.
By Allan Jacob
Published: Tue 5 Mar 2019, 8:00 PM
Last updated: Wed 6 Mar 2019, 2:20 PM
If countries could settle scores on the sporting field, the world would have been a safer place, where the victors celebrate for nights without end while the losers live to fight another match. But that's wishful thinking and I can be forgiven for my unoriginal idea when suspicions are rife and tensions are mounting across the world.
So, what if wishes were horses? The theatre of war over land, air and sea could shift to creative pitches where nations on the brink of conflict can resolve their differences without violence or spilling a drop of blood. And I am not talking of contact sport like boxing or a South Asian leg-pulling contest named kabaddi but cricket, where players can swing the game with some nippy bowling, smart fielding, and lusty hitting. Spin is also a weapon of choice in on the pitch.
Imagine the roar of the crowds in stadiums, the surge in TV viewership, the spate of commercials and millions to be made by sponsors, promoters and the winners of such a contest. Peace can be given a chance through a game of cricket but sadly, mass sport is being abused to complete a triad of punitive measures as conflict looms on the horizon. Diplomatic, economic, and sporting sanctions make some patriots believe they are taking a higher moral ground as the world slips from right under their feet. The military option is the oft-repeated last option, yet in most cases this dangerous call to arms serves the greater cause of populism and nationalism than wielding the bat with flair, or using the ball as a missile to rattle the stumps.
In these shallow times, walking away from sport is seen as a tool of war. This goes against the grain of being a good sport. Political spin takes the game away from the spectator who is disrespected and forced to stay on the sidelines.
In such a situation, the pleasure of watching a batsman standing his ground against a searing pace attack may not be realised. What remains is a pall of uncertainty, the glimmer of normalcy being tested through needless sporting controversy.
I read that tickets for the India-Pakistan cricket encounter on June 16 at the World Cup have already been sold out. Reports said 400,000 people applied for 25,000 tickets at Old Trafford. But terror happened and some political circles are charmed by the virtues of an impending boycott.
An Indian no-show in a match against Pakistan in Manchester would mean the team loses two points in the qualifiers. Historically speaking, boycotts have failed to garner any benefits for countries staying away from global events like the Olympics or the World Cup. Take a look at the Cold War years which took a turn for the worse during the seventies beginning with the 1972 Munich Olympics massacre of 17 athletes.
The games continued that year but the US-led boycott of the Moscow Olympics in 1980 put an Iron Curtain over sporting contests. The boycott was to protest the 1979 invasion of Afghanistan by the Soviets, and 62 countries joined the US in staying away from the battle for medals.
The Afghan conflict soon got worse for the erstwhile Soviet army as the Mujahideen put them under pressure on many fronts with tacit support from the United States. The Mujahideen groups, who were then considered freedom fighters mutated into terror outfits like the Taleban and Al Qaeda. They now hold Afghanistan by the jugular and are in a low-level conflict with the Americans who invaded the same country two decades later.
Meanwhile, at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, it was the turn of the USSR to lead the boycott. In 1989, the Soviets beat a retreat from Afghanistan under the Geneva Agreement with the US, Pakistan and Afghanistan, and terror unleashed by the Taleban and Al Qaeda came of age.
Those who engage in sporting boycotts, I believe, have a dim view of history. They allow hawks within their ranks to take the lead politically when they should let their teams play sans the poltical intervention, on neutral pitches.
If history is any indication, it is the sport of table-tennis, or ping-pong, as the Americans call it, that brought China in from the cold. The Ping-Pong Diplomacy of 1971-1972 saw visits by American and Chinese teams to each other's countries that set the stage for US president Richard Nixon's historic visit to China. Beijing hasn't looked back since then.
This brings me to the India-Pakistan equation where sporting ties are at a new low, a fallout of dreadful politics. In such a nadir, the two sides would do well to take a leaf out of history. Former Pakistan president Zia-ul-Haq's visit to India on February 21, 1987 to watch an India-Pakistan Test in Jaipur helped avert war after troops amassed on both sides of the border.
According to estimates, there were 80,000 of them on both sides. By March, they had withdrawn and talks resumed between the countries. Cricket Diplomacy had won but the gains were frittered away by successive governments.
This Cricket Diplomacy needs to be revived, and it helps that Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan is a former captain. Indian PM Narendra Modi's interest in cricket is open to debate but that's alright as the majority wants the toss to happen on June 16.
The two leaders can take inspiration from arch-foes North and South Korea who plan to send a joint team to the Tokyo Olympics in 2020. Khan and Modi needn't go that far, but if they sit together and watch a cricket Test match, or even a shorter T20 game, who knows, they could be on the right side of history.