The South Asia Channel

A more important Final Four match

"If you wanted to add to the vast fund of ill-will existing in the world at this moment," George Orwell wrote in 1945, "you could hardly do it better than by a series of football matches between Jews and Arabs, Germans and Czechs, Indians and British, Russians and Poles, and Italians and Jugoslavs, each match ...

Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images
Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images

"If you wanted to add to the vast fund of ill-will existing in the world at this moment," George Orwell wrote in 1945, "you could hardly do it better than by a series of football matches between Jews and Arabs, Germans and Czechs, Indians and British, Russians and Poles, and Italians and Jugoslavs, each match to be watched by a mixed audience of 100,000 spectators." Certainly, international sport has all too often amplified the worst aspects of jingoistic behavior, but this Wednesday’s Cricket World Cup semifinal between India and Pakistan, ­ to be held in a suburb of Chandigarh, the capital of the Indian state of Punjab,­ promises to prove Orwell wrong, much as previous such encounters between the two teams have done. Cricket, in fact, perhaps best illustrates why the India-Pakistan relationship may be among the world’s most misunderstood.

World Cup organizers could scarcely have written a better script, with Pakistan and India boasting a rich rivalry both on the field and off. The Indian cricket team, oozing with talent but constantly on the verge of buckling under the weight of immense expectations in a cricket-mad nation, defeated three-time defending champions Australia in a nervy quarterfinal. Meanwhile, Pakistan’s team – ­ undisciplined, unpredictable, and underrated – ­beat both Australia and co-hosts Sri Lanka in the first round before demolishing the West Indies in the quarterfinal stage. Each side has won the cricket World Cup once before (India in 1983, Pakistan in 1992) and lost once in the final to Australia (Pakistan in 1999, India in 2003).

Pakistan has traditionally enjoyed greater success than India in the one-day format in which World Cup games are played, but has never previously defeated their rivals in four previous World Cup encounters. Each side has shocked the other in memorable games in the past, with Indians still smarting from Pakistan’s improbable victory off of a final swing of the bat in 1986, and Pakistanis ruing India’s down-to-the-wire win in a tournament final in 2007.

The fate of the two cricket teams has also eerily reflected the overall trajectory of each country, never more so than during the last World Cup. In 2007, both India and Pakistan crashed out in the first round after surprise losses to Bangladesh and Ireland, respectively. In India, the media slammed the country’s cricket stars for being money-grubbing fame seekers, spending far too much time seeking endorsements and filming television commercials. Cricket players, it was believed, embodied the worst of self-indulgent Indian consumerism.

The Pakistani team, by contrast, was criticized at home for spending too much time in ritual prayer and proselytizing. One of its star players, Yousuf Youhana, long the only Christian on the team, had converted to Islam some time earlier, changing his name to Mohammad Yousuf in the process, and credited his religious conversion with his spectacular form entering the World Cup. Chaos and rumors also abounded when Pakistan’s coach, an Englishman named Bob Woolmer, was found dead in his hotel under sinister circumstances, with allegations of murder bandied about in the press and the country’s rumor mill.

Developments since 2007 only served to reinforce national narratives of rise and decline. India is now home to the Indian Premier League (IPL), the world’s richest cricket league, which holds a glitzy television-friendly competition each spring. But the IPL’s reputation has been tarnished by credible reports of corruption on a massive scale, even leading to the resignation of an Indian minister. Meanwhile, the fate of cricket in Pakistan took a tragic turn for the worse with an armed attack in broad daylight on the visiting Sri Lankan team’s bus in Lahore in 2009, fortunately with no fatalities to players. As with other such incidents in recent years, a conspiracy theory immediately gained currency, with rumors circulating in Pakistan that the attack had been planned by Indian intelligence to deny it co-hosting rights at this year’s World Cup. Although this rumor proved unfounded, the absence of a successful follow-up investigation meant that international cricket in Pakistan was interminably suspended. Pakistan has since been forced to play its home games in Britain or the UAE and the elites, who can afford to travel to London or Sharjah to watch games, have readily adapted. For the moment, it seems the average Pakistani cricket fan has been the biggest victim, denied the opportunity to watch live international cricket in a country where the sport is a national passion.

With Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani expected to attend tomorrow’s semi-final, the spotlight will be in no small part on the political relationship between the two countries. The visit follows close on the heels of the resumption of high-level diplomatic dialogue between New Delhi and Islamabad. Indeed, cricket has played an interesting role in the history of diplomatic relations between the two states. In 1987, Pakistani dictator Gen. Zia ul-Haq, an avid cricket fan, attended a match in India after the previous few years had witnessed a spike in tensions between the two countries’ militaries. In 2004, the Indian team conducted an immensely successful tour of Pakistan, an opportunity that allowed many young Indians to travel to that country for the first time.

This history stands in sharp contrast to the way in which the bilateral relationship between India and Pakistan is often portrayed, particularly in the Western media. (One commentator, writing in 2009, claimed incorrectly that India and Pakistan almost went to war over cricket, possibly mistaking the two countries for Honduras and El Salvador.) But far from the existential or civilizational clash often described by commentators, cricket suggests a far less adverserial -­ although still very much competitive -­ relationship between India and Pakistan. In the first few seasons of the Indian Premier League, Pakistani players were among its top stars. Their participation was sadly brought to a close two years ago with a collective decision by teams not to sign Pakistani players, citing added security concerns. Nonetheless, Pakistani players such as Shahid Afridi and Shoaib Akhtar remain among the biggest commercial draws in India, with another Indian professional league – now defunct – having even boasted a Pakistani team, the Lahore Badshahs. Shoaib Malik, Pakistan’s former cricket captain, is half of one of India’s most famous celebrity couples, having married tennis star Sania Mirza. Following Pakistan’s victory to reach the World Cup semifinal last week, visas were granted to thousands of Pakistani fans to attend the game.

It may be tempting to write off India and Pakistan as two states locked in an intractable territorial conflict or insurmountable arms race. It was fashionable not that long ago to call South Asia "the world’s most dangerous place," particularly once both states had acquired and publicly tested nuclear weapons.  But as these examples suggest, the bilateral relationship – particularly at the level of popular consciousness – displays a strange resilience, with even a slight inclination towards reestablishing normalcy. Despite fluctuating tensions over the past few decades, diplomatic channels have remained open and social and cultural exchanges, of which cricket has been but the most high-profile example, have persevered. Whatever the outcome of Wednesday’s match, both the sport of cricket and the relationship between India and Pakistan could very well emerge victorious.

Dhruva Jaishankar is Program Officer for Asia at the German Marshall Fund of the United States in Washington DC. He blogs at http://polaris.nationalinterest.in.

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