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Checkered history of cricket diplomacy

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Sep 23, 2021 - 08:54 AM

ANKARA (AA) – Even though a sense of deja vu has swept Pakistan after the cricket teams of New Zealand and England abruptly pulled the plug on their tours, the game of cricket has often come to the rescue of South Asia to avoid wars and tensions at many crucial junctures.

Although hockey continues to be the national sport for both India and Pakistan, it is only cricket that is closely tied to national and international relations.

From the Romans who used gladiatorial contests as a way of distracting the public from criticizing their leaders, sports events have mended the fences globally. But at times, games have caused conflict as well, like the “Football War” between El Salvador and Honduras in 1969 that was sparked by a controversial football match.

Five years after India and Pakistan gained independence amid the worst-ever communal riots and a war on Kashmir, leaders of both countries chose cricket to rebuild people-to-people contacts. Pakistani cricket team arrived in India to play a test series in 1952, which included some players who had played for undivided India.

In 1955, when in a return tour the Indian team arrived in Pakistan, for once the Wagah border crossing was left open and 10,000 Indian fans traveled to watch the Lahore test match. Those who lived in the Indian border city of Amritsar were allowed to cross back each night to their homes.

In 1986, tensions had soared between the two countries as India launched Operation Brasstacks – a major combined military exercise in the deserts of Rajasthan state amid insurgency and Sikh separatist movement in the Indian province of Punjab.

Global security experts have described these war games as “bigger than any NATO exercise – and the biggest since World War II”. Pakistan quickly responded with maneuvers of its forces, first mobilizing the entire 5th Corps and then the Southern Air Command, near the Indian state of Punjab. In January 1987, Pakistan had put its entire nuclear installations on “high alert”.

Cricket diplomacy

As the crisis heightened, Pakistan’s then-President Ziaul Haq secured an invitation from the Board of Cricket Control of India (BCCI) to watch a cricket match between the two countries in February 1987. Although Ziaul Haq did not meet formally with then-Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, both of them met briefly at the airport lounge. According to BBC reports, he told Gandhi that Pakistan had a nuclear bomb.

Behra Manan, an advisor to Rajiv Gandhi, later wrote that Ziaul Haq delivered a stern message that in case the conflict goes out of hand, he will use nuclear buttons. The tensions diminished soon and a month later both countries agreed to withdraw 150,000 troops in the Kashmir area, followed by a second agreement to withdraw more troops in the desert area.

After India and Pakistan conducted nuclear tests in May 1998, the tensions were once again consuming South Asia, till Pakistan’s then-Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif approved a proposal from the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) to allow the cricket team to travel to India. It coincided with Indian then-Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee traveling to Lahore on a bus to revive bilateral relations. Both countries signed the Lahore Declaration, which among other things included an agreement on nuclear and conventional military confidence-building measures (CBMs).

In 2005, Pakistan’s then-President Pervez Musharraf traveled to India to watch a cricket match in New Delhi. He stayed in India for three days and the visit was converted into a full-fledged summit, where both countries agreed to start back-channel talks to find an out-of-the-box solution to the Jammu and Kashmir dispute.

After the 2008 terrorist attacks in India’s commercial capital Mumbai again derailed the bilateral process, then-Prime Minister Manmohan Singh invited his counterpart Yusuf Raza Gilani to watch a cricket match in 2011 to revive the peace process.

Experts believe that unlike other sports cricket has an inherent capability to be used for building contacts. Writing in Encyclopedia of World Sport: From Ancient Times to the Present, authors David Levinson and Karen Christensen argued that the length of time that a test match takes – seven hours a day for five days – allows the spectators to interact not only with each other but also with the players.

“There is often communication between the fielders at the boundary and spectators and also between the players on opposing teams. The structure of the match is such that there are periods of intense excitement followed by lulls in the passage of play, this encourages debate and disputation, chatter and gossip all of which help create the opportunity for friendship-building unusual in other sports,” said the authors.

Differences in approach

Further, cricket is the only sport that has the ability to unite the religious, ethnic, tribal, linguistic, and class diversity in both countries.

A study undertaken by researcher Emily Crick at the University of Bristol found that while Pakistani leaders have used cricket matches on two occasions to force high level but unofficial meetings with their Indian counterparts, India, by contrast, has used cricket as a form of diplomatic sanction – arguing that cricket cannot be played whilst Pakistan supports the insurgency in Kashmir.

Varun Sahni, a researcher who writes on nuclear deterrence issues, noted that India has often “securitized” cricket by not allowing bilateral matches. After the hijacking of an Indian Airlines flight in December 1999, India canceled its proposed tour to Pakistan and withdrew from the second Asian Test Championship.

While cricket between the two countries continued despite the Samjhauta Express train blast that killed many Pakistani travelers in February 2007, the 26/11 attacks in Mumbai derailed a proposed series in Pakistan scheduled in February 2009. Pakistani players were also barred from playing in the Indian Premier League organized by BCCI.

But this diplomatic pressure has not been consistent as the matches have been always allowed to resume.

Cricket diplomacy between India and Pakistan has a checkered history. Sometimes it has come as an icebreaker; at other times, it has merely marked a deceptive lull before another storm.

When US team abandoned Indian tour

As New Zealand and England called off their Pakistani tours citing security concerns, in 2002 the US hockey team had abandoned its tour to India in less than eight hours after their arrival in similar circumstances.

It later turned out that a forged letter of then-Indian President KR Narayanan had been faxed to the White House in Washington that there are security issues in the country and India and Pakistan were about to go to war. Instead of checking the antecedents of the letter, the US evacuated the team.

After the matter was referred to police, a former hockey player, who had been denied a chance to play international matches, was found behind the episode. Out of frustration, he had forged the letter and signature of the Indian president to teach the Indian Hockey Federation a lesson. He was arrested and later lodged in Delhi’s Tihar Jail./Iftikhar Gilani


* Opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Anadolu Agency.

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