Forget cricket diplomacy. A sporting event of the stature of an India vs. Pakistan World Cup semi-final is too important to allow diplomacy to get in the way. To get a sense of what is about to happen tomorrow, when Pakistan faces off against India in the cricket World Cup semi-final in Mohali, India, consider this: Over a billion and a half people in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka will likely be watching. That is one quarter of all of humanity glued to television screens. The ones that don’t own TVs-and with astronomical poverty levels in the region, there are millions that don’t-will be watching on large public screens, at neighbors’ houses, in town squares, at restaurants and at tea stalls. Sure, the peaceful and conciliatory proclamations from politicians are nice, but neither Indians nor Pakistanis are going to be watching the match in order to help deepen relations between the two countries – they’ll be watching to cheer their team to victory. And that is a good thing.
For a few hours tomorrow the people of India and the people of Pakistan will do the rarest of things, and that is that they will be doing something together, collectively, with fierce and unrelenting passion. Much of the media rhetoric in both countries keeps using words like war, battle and nationalism, and a fair bit of the mainstream coverage of the event in both countries has shown a distinct jingoism. In truth, however, this cricket match, dubbed by some as the Greatest Match Ever, delivers the opposite of the negative vibe of jingoistic nationalist sentiment. Instead, it opens up space for Indians and Pakistanis to talk about something other than the 2008 terrorist attacks on Mumbai, human rights violations in Kashmir, the contentious debate about the rights to river waters, or the on-going battle for the Siachen glacier.
For a few hours on Wednesday, as for the few days after we learned that it would be an India-Pakistan semi-final, the conversation between India and Pakistan will be about calmer, more aesthetic, less contentious things.
The conversation will be about India’s Sachin Tendulkar-the Michael Jordan of cricket and one of the greatest batsmen (batters) in cricket history, if not the greatest. The conversation will be about Pakistan’s Shahid "Boom Boom" Afridi-who was given this nickname by an Indian commentator for his outrageously powerful and audacious batting style. The conversation will be about Indian players’ traditionally dominant batting abilities, and Pakistani players’ traditionally dominant bowling (think "pitching") abilities. There are newfound habits and traits to be discussed too. Indians are keen to demonstrate a ferocity and assertiveness on the field at which players from previous generations can only marvel. Pakistanis can’t stop admiring the unprecedented unity of their cricket team-something not even the 1992 World Cup winning team could claim in the same manner, at least not with a straight face.
This kind of discussion is a pleasant change, and deserves attention even in the parts of the world that won’t be skipping work tomorrow to watch the match. Cricket is a complicated game, and writing about it is a bit of an art, one which political analysts and policy hacks best leave to the artists themselves (my personal favorites are Osman Samiuddin and Dileep Premachandran, both of ESPN’s Cricinfo). Unlike any sport that does reasonably well in the United States, the purest form of cricket takes five days to play. The athletes involved take a daily tea break, probably with crumpets. Cricket is, above all else, the gentlemen’s game. And it is refreshing that for a few days commenters have been and will be focused on gentlemanly disagreements, about which country has the better cricket team, and some unavoidable agreements about how certain players, like India’s Virender Sehwag, represent a certain other-worldly quality, one that leaves Indians, Pakistanis and people around the world in awe.
None of the major issues between the two countries will be solved because of cricket. Not now, and not ever in the future. However, there are policy lessons here for those in the South Asian region who are truly serious about forging a future that is different from our conflicted, war-torn and terror-influenced past: Culture and sport do matter. Human exchange and interaction do matter. Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s invitation to the Pakistani leadership to watch the match with him, and Pakistani Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani’s decision to accept and attend the event, are just the icing on the cake. What’s more important is the humanization of a billion and a half people that takes place when we look at one another through the lens of cricket, instead of war. And all it took were some bats and balls, and the unrelenting genius of South Asian cricketers-Indians and Pakistanis alike.
Mosharraf Zaidi has served as an advisor on international aid to Pakistan for the United Nations and European Union and writes a weekly column for Pakistan’s the News. You can find more of his writing at www.mosharrafzaidi.com.