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To Play or Not to Play: It’s Not Just a Match

On June 4th 2017, India will be playing against Pakistan in the coveted ‘Champions Trophy’ i.e the mini world cup of cricket. Even before the match has started, the intensity is running very high among the public on both sides of the border. This is precisely because people rarely get to see these South Asian rivals play against each other in a sport which is almost followed like a religion in both the countries.

The reason behind playing matches rarely is a completely political decision taken by the Government of India after the Mumbai attacks where the terrorists came from Pakistan. Until then, cricket was being played regularly between these two countries. After 2004, when India’s the then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee visited Pakistan for SAARC summit, relations between the two countries improved rapidly.

Cricket was used as a tool for improving the diplomatic ties between the two countries. Through playing bilaterally against each other, it was ensured that people to people contact could be increased allowing the public in general to cross the border and experience each other’s culture. When the Indian team did the goodwill tour of Pakistan in March 2004 after Vajpayee’s SAARC visit, both the Indian cricketers as well as cricket fans who went to Pakistan to see the cricket matches were humbled by the hospitality, love and respect they received from people there.

This is well documented in many interviews given by former cricketers, cricket administrators and cricket fans who expressed cherishing those memories even today. This ‘bonhomie’ continued well up till the Mumbai attacks. This bonhomie wasn’t just seen on the cricket field where the two teams played almost every year against each other but this was also reflected in the good diplomatic relations between the two nations. Even the issue of Kashmir was being dealt via talks and negotiations at the diplomatic table.

In fact, Cricket became a marker of good relations between these two countries. When Mumbai was attacked, the Indian cricket team was scheduled to visit Pakistan in March 2009 for a full- fledged test and one day series. All that ended, after 26/11. Immediately after the attacks, all diplomatic ties with Pakistan were cut off briefly but Cricket suffered the most.

This is because the two nations have not played a single test match since then. The two teams have only been playing against each other in tournaments conducted by the ICC (International Cricket Council) which includes World Cup, Champions Trophy and T20 World cup. The two teams also play in Asia Cup, again a multi-lateral tournament organized by Asian Cricket Council.

Through, diplomatic ties have been improved when the then Indian Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh invited his Pakistani counterpart, Yousuf Raza Gilani, to the semifinal match of the cricket world cup 2011 in India. Mr Gilani accepted the invitation and came to watch the match with the Indian Prime Minister in Punjab (Mohali).

After this, the Pakistani team visited India for a short trip in 2012 after a long gap of 5 years as a goodwill gesture to improve ties with India, while India is yet to pay a return visit. This is primarily because of the deteriorating security conditions in Pakistan where no prominent players want to go and play since the infamous attacks on Sri Lankan cricket team way back in 2009.

Today, things have deteriorated especially after the Pathankot attacks, Uri attack, instability in Kashmir and deaths of soldiers at the border. Pathankot attacks happened just a week after the Indian PM Narendra Modi paid an impromptu visit to Pakistan on Nawaz Sharif’s birthday. Since then, India and Pakistan’s relations have reached a new low.

Pakistani movie actors, cricketer turned commentators and cricket umpires have been banned to work in India. Earlier only the Pakistani cricket players were banned to participate in the popular Indian Premiere league tournament while cricket coaches, umpires and cricket commentators from Pakistan regularly participated in these tournaments. Now, that all of them are banned to work in India and a new debate has cropped up in Indian media.

The debate relates to boycotting Pakistan even in international tournaments such as the Champions Trophy which is currently going on in England. The argument is that India should not want any relations what so ever with Pakistan. Playing with Pakistan will dilute India’s strong stand against Pakistan based terrorism and boycotting them in a high profile match will be like giving a firm statement to the international community.

There have been great examples in history where teams have boycotted playing against each other. South Africa was boycotted by the entire cricket fraternity for almost two decades as a form of protest against the existing Apartheid regime. Also, teams have refused to play in countries like Sri Lanka and Zimbabwe in cricket world cups citing security concerns. A section of Indian journalists, politicians and security analysts have been citing the above examples to make their point that the time has come for India to follow suit.

These groups have been arguing the days of ‘Cricket Diplomacy’ are over and therefore there should be no engagement with Pakistan. The other viewpoint is coming from cricketers, cricket fans and a large section of public who just want to enjoy a good cricket match between the two countries. Their viewpoint is why should only Cricket be stopped whenever these two countries do not share good political relations? Why not ban all sporting activities at all levels, ban all trade related activities and ban all existing engagements with each other.

Their argument is that if there is a demand for boycotting cricket matches with Pakistan, the boycott should be in every field, cricketers and cricket fans shouldn’t be the only ones targeted.

While and despite this debate continues, India and Pakistan are finally set to play against each other.