India-Pakistan Rivalry: Exploring the Ebb and Flow of 'Cricket Diplomacy


India-Pakistan Rivalry: Exploring the Ebb and Flow of ‘Cricket Diplomacy

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On Saturday, a Cricket World Cup game between Pakistan and India is set to make history, potentially becoming the most-watched cricket broadcast ever. However, the event is not without its controversies, with black market tickets selling for as much as $300,000. What’s particularly uncertain, though, is whether any Pakistan fans will even be allowed into the country, let alone the stadium.

Despite these challenges, the Pakistan-India cricket rivalry remains one of the most intense and anticipated in the sport, even though India’s last tour of Pakistan dates back to 2006, and the two nations haven’t engaged in a bilateral cricket series for over a decade.

But there was a time when cricket served as a unifying force between these two neighboring nations rather than a divisive one. The term “cricket diplomacy” gained prominence in 1987 when Pakistan’s President Mohammad Zia ul-Haq made a surprise visit to India to watch a test match. This visit took place during heightened tensions over the Kashmir issue, a longstanding point of contention between the two countries, which had led to multiple wars. Zia’s visit was part of his “cricket for peace” initiative, but it took a sour turn when, during a quiet moment in the match, he allegedly mentioned to Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi that Pakistan possessed a nuclear bomb, leading to renewed border tensions.

A more successful period of cricket diplomacy occurred between 2003 and 2008, during which time Pakistan and India played two test series each, both in Pakistan and India. This period of on-field camaraderie reflected the warm relationship between Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, who was born in present-day India, and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who was born in present-day Pakistan.

However, in November 2008, a tragic event shattered this harmony when gunmen with ties to a Pakistani armed group killed more than 160 people in Mumbai, India. Since then, both cricketing and political relations have remained strained, with Kashmir continuing to be a major point of contention.

Osman Samiuddin, a senior editor at ESPNCricinfo and author of “The Unquiet Ones – A History of Pakistan Cricket,” highlights the role cricket has played in high-level diplomacy between India and Pakistan. He notes that cricket often serves as a common language when the two nations are on good terms, but conversely, it can be wielded as an exclusionary power tool during periods of conflict. Samiuddin emphasizes that any diplomatic overtures through cricket must be approved at a political level.

Recent diplomatic exchanges have been acrimonious. Last December, India’s foreign minister labeled Pakistan the “epicenter of terrorism,” while his Pakistani counterpart referred to India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi as the “butcher of Gujarat,” in reference to his time as chief minister of the state during the 2002 riots, which claimed nearly 2,000 lives, primarily Muslims.

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Both Samiuddin and Emily Crick, a UK-based academic with extensive research on cricket diplomacy, see little hope for a swift resolution to the current impasse. They believe that the leadership on both sides is reluctant to make peace, and the political environment is not conducive to progress.

Samiuddin points out that economic changes have also played a role in the freeze of diplomatic cricket relations. In the past, India-Pakistan matches were lucrative for both boards, but India, now the world’s fifth-largest economy, has other substantial revenue streams, such as the Indian Premier League, making them less reliant on playing Pakistan.

Even Pakistan, despite its economic challenges, has managed to make domestic franchise cricket financially viable. While Pakistan would stand to gain more from a resumption in cricketing relations, both sides seem reluctant to make it work.

Crick’s research underscores that India has held the upper hand in this cricketing rivalry, and Pakistani leaders have tried to use cricket matches as a means to initiate unofficial high-level meetings with their Indian counterparts. Conversely, India has often employed cricket as a form of diplomatic pressure, insisting that cricket cannot be played as long as Pakistan supports the armed uprising in Kashmir.


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