The Platform

Photo illustration by John Lyman

Tensions between Pakistan and India have long roots. When British rule ended in 1947, the subcontinent was divided into two parts resulting in massive sectarian violence. Fast forward several decades and things haven’t improved.

The Asia Cup cricket tournament will be held in June in Pakistan. At the moment, without clearance from the Indian government, the Indian team cannot travel to Pakistan since diplomatic relations have soured.

Javed Miandad, Pakistan’s former captain, harshly criticized the Indian Cricket Board for taking a hard line against visiting Pakistan for the tournament. Miandad said, “India can go to hell if they don’t want to come to Pakistan to play cricket…If teams like these don’t come, they should be [banned].”

India and Pakistan are cricket obsessed. Cricket matches between the two countries have broader political and diplomatic implications. The history of cricket diplomacy between Pakistan and India is turbulent. It has occasionally allowed each country to have a brief pause in tensions before starting to hate each other again.

With the globalization of sports, countries will use the popularity of a certain sport to try and bridge the gap with a rival country. Countries will also use sporting events to their advantage to attempt to clean up their image or fall into the good graces of the international community. Think Qatar and the World Cup or Russia and China with the Olympics. Hopefully, Qatar uses the positive PR to chart a positive path. After hosting the Olympics in Sochi, Russia soon annexed Crimea and China hasn’t really made any effort to be a force for good. So essentially sports can be a mixed bag.

In 2004, cricket did offer a reasonable diplomatic path for India and Pakistan. Both sides loosened their strict visa requirements, permitting thousands of supporters to cross the border. Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan’s former prime minister, visited India in 2005 pretending to travel there for a match. But the trip swiftly assumed the atmosphere of a summit. After the 2008 Mumbai attack, India-Pakistan ties improved during the 2011 Cricket World Cup semi-final. Manmohan Singh invited Yousuf Raza Gilani to observe the match in Mohali.

Narendra Modi, India’s prime minister, has used cricket to spin a positive image for himself or to try and repair diplomatic relations. In 2015, he wished Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Bangladesh success at the 2015 Cricket World Cup. Each of those countries heads of state reciprocated by conveying their good wishes.

In his book, Cricket: A Bridge of Peace, Shahryar Khan shares his experience managing the Pakistan cricket team on its 1999 tour of India: “Before the opposing team received an unexpectedly warm welcome from the people of India, I had not intended to broadcast my impression. Their ecstatic response gave me the idea that cricket has an enormous amount of untapped energy that might be used for tolerance and understanding. I realized cricket could serve as a bridge of peace after spending my entire career in diplomacy trying, mostly unsuccessfully, to alleviate tensions, hatred, and war.”

That time was a historic moment for India-Pakistan cricket. Over 40,000 Indian spectators rose to their feet in unison to applaud the Pakistani cricket team during their tour of India in Chennai. The exuberant spirit of the occasion was further manifested by the sight of Sikh girls in Mohali painting the Indian and Pakistani flags on their cheeks, while the Pakistani contingent in the crowd chanted “Pakistan-Hindustan.”

Unfortunately, cricket has also fed an atmosphere of animosity. In the 1996 Cricket World Cup, Pakistan lost to India in Bangalore, and Indian spectators threw stones at Pakistani left-handed fast bowler Waseem Akram.

Sports provide opportunities for integration, and the popularity of cricket in particular has been utilized to ease tensions between the two countries. Cricket diplomacy has the potential to encourage both sides to mitigate feelings of anger and hostility. Hopefully, in the future, both countries can set aside their historical grievances to enjoy a good game of cricket.

MD Obaidullah Siam holds a degree in Public Administration from the University of Barishal, Bangladesh. Currently, he is working as a Research Assistant at the Centre for Advanced Social Research, Dhaka. He regularly writes on the topics of Public Policy, Politics and Governance, Sustainable Development, and Climate Change.

MD Sohrab Hossen holds a BSS degree in Public Administration from the University of Barisal, Bangladesh, and is pursuing an MSS degree in Public Administration. Sohrab currently works as a Senior Research Assistant at BRAC University. He frequently writes about politics, governance, public policy, and sustainable development.