History suggests sport eases tension between countries — even those that have fought bloody wars

Cricket diplomacy has worked before Its time to try it again
Blog Cricket Sunday, March 13, 2016 - 16:11

By Abheek Dasgupta

The 2016 ICC World Twenty20 started this week amid confusion over where the second round match between India and Pakistan, scheduled for March 19, will be played. There was even confusion over whether Pakistan’s cricket team would come to India in the first place.

This happened after Himachal Pradesh Chief Minister, Virbhadra Singh, claimed that he would not be able to provide adequate security for the match. Subsequently, the match was transferred to Kolkata and after many crisis talks, Pakistan finally decided to send their team to play in the tournament.

This is not the first time in recent history that tensions have run high over cricket matches between India and Pakistan. Last year, a series between the two sides was cancelled after members of the ruling party claimed that they cannot invite Pakistani cricketers to India as Indian soldiers are being killed at the Line of Control.

We also saw a lot of tweets about how India should not be letting “terrorists” enter the country. This has shown how far we have come in the last couple of decades – from respecting the Pakistani pace bowlers but hoping our batsmen can score plenty of runs off them, to labeling sportspersons as terrorists just because they were born in a country.

 This sporting crisis probably began after the 26/11 terror attacks in Mumbai. Since then, the only series played between the two nations was a 3-ODI and 2-T20I series in late 2012. No Test matches were played, and all the other clashes occurred in multi-nation tournaments like the various ICC events, and the Asia Cup.

Pakistani players, some of whom played a major role in their IPL franchise’s wins in the first season, have not played ever since, and it doesn’t seem likely that we will see them donning the colours of various Indian cities. After all, when one actor and team owner suggested that Pakistani players should play in the tournament, there were childish calls by a political outfit to boycott his upcoming film.

 There was a time when the two sides were meeting each other regularly between 2004 and 2007. It is no surprise that this was also the time when the relations between the two countries were the warmest in this century.

The 2004 series in Pakistan was well-known for all that happened on and off the pitch – the Pakistani cricket fans became big fans of L Balaji, and many Indians who went to watch the series had mentioned that their Pakistani hosts were very hospitable.

 Even recent history suggests that there is great mutual respect between the cricketers and fans of these two countries. When India beat their arch-rivals in the recently concluded Asia Cup, Pakistani fans were left appreciating Virat Kohli’s man-of-the-match performance, while we Indian fans were left wishing for a pacer like Mohammed Aamir who can run through the opposition’s top order with pace and swing.

 There is a popular school of thought that says we should not be playing each other as the other country has backstabbed us, and that three wars have been fought between the two countries. Examples from history have suggested that sport has eased tension between countries – even those that have fought bloody wars.

 One of the best known examples is that of Bert Trautmann. A paratrooper for the Luftwaffe, he had earned five medals fighting for the Nazi regime during the Second World War. After a few years in a British POW camp, he decided to stay in Lancashire, where his goalkeeping talents were discovered by Manchester City.

After he was signed by the club, many fans protested and threatened a boycott. The captain of the side, Eric Westwood, who was a Normandy veteran, announced “There’s no war in this dressing room.”

Thanks to good performances by Trautmann in home games, protests shrank as fans discovered his talent. He then became an integral part of the club for the next fifteen years and was considered to be one of the greatest goalkeepers of the era.

 Such examples suggest that cricket diplomacy can play a major role in easing the tension between these two countries. This would include having the best Pakistani cricketers in the IPL, and playing series between the two countries just like any other bilateral series.

Memories of the Eden Gardens crowd cheering Shoaib Akhtar on as he took the wickets of India openers Virender Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir in the 2008 IPL suggest that fans put the team first, and not the nationality of the players, in such tournaments.

And which cricket fan wouldn’t love to see another showdown between Mohammed Aamir and Virat Kohli, if it turns out to be as good as the one that happened in Dhaka last month?

Abheek Dasgupta is a student at IIT Madras.

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