When soldiers are dying on the borders, how can there be an appetite for a friendly Indo-Pak series?

Published: January 2, 2018
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India's captain Virat Kohli shakes hands with Pakistan's Mohammad Amir after the game. PHOTO: AFP

The world of sports is replete with famous rivalries, be it Ronaldo-Messi, Argentina-Brazil, or Carl Lewis-Ben Johnson. Even cricket has the historic rivalry between England and Australia, in the form of the much-celebrated Ashes. However, all of these pale in comparison to the one that exists between India and Pakistan on the cricket field, which has been one of the greatest international sporting rivalries over the past several decades.

Few other sporting contests have had the power to inflame the passion of millions of people to such an extent. When India and Pakistan play a cricket match, it’s not just sport. The contest becomes a proxy to exhibit national pride and let loose some of the hostility that has engulfed both countries for much of their modern existence. It’s almost like a sibling rivalry on steroids, with a good measure of unpleasant geopolitical history thrown in to the incendiary mix. While victories are celebrated like veritable conquests, television sets are smashed, heart attacks are caused, and effigies of the players are burnt on the losing side.

Of course, underneath the politics, there is great sporting rivalry as well. Both sides have been blessed with abundant cricketing talent, and there have been many riveting contests over the years between the players. Kapil Dev and Imran Khan were two of the greatest all-rounders of all time, and it is fortuitous that both happened to play in the same era. Furthermore, the intensity of Wasim Akram versus Sachin Tendulkar, Shoaib Akhtar versus Virender Sehwag, and Mohammad Amir steaming in to Virat Kohli, are all a sports lover’s delight and belong at the pinnacle of the greatest sporting rivalries of our time.

Unfortunately, however, Kohli versus Amir is a contest that has not been able to blossom to its full potential, as the two teams have not played each other much in recent years.

The years preceding the Mumbai attacks had seen a thawing of tensions, with India touring Pakistan in 2003-04, both teams subsequently visiting the other’s state, and Pakistani players being included in the first Indian Premier League (IPL) in 2008. However, since the 26/11 attacks, ties between the two countries worsened, with bilateral cricket ties being suspended. While visiting players and fans in both countries have been accorded the warmest of welcomes, and usually return with fond memories of the fabulous hospitality they experience, in the aftermath of the attacks, the political climate has simply not been conducive to a bilateral series.

There are several complex and pressing issues that remain unresolved for both states. Several conspirators of the 26/11 attacks are seen by India to walk free in Pakistan, the Kashmir issue has no resolution in sight, and to date there is almost a daily exchange of fire between both forces along the Line of Control (LoC). After the 2016 attack on the Pathankot airbase, even diplomatic dialogue has broken down between the two countries. The situation between India and Pakistan is hence certainly not normal at this point in time. There is an immense amount of distrust and the gap between the two only seems to be getting wider, with cease fire violations and cross border raids having become a norm.

While military action or economic sanctions may not be feasible options for the Indian state, cricket is one area where the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) gives the Indian government significant leverage to be seen taking a tough stance. With ties worsening yet again, Indian Foreign Minister, Sushma Swaraj, released a statement suggesting that, given the tensions on the border, cricket with Pakistan is not possible and neither is “cricket diplomacy”.

One may argue that sport should be seen only as sport and not be mixed with politics, but the case of Indo-Pak cricket is anything but ordinary. As mentioned earlier, the significance of cricket in this part of the world transcends the idea of sport, and is instead seen as a symbol of national pride.

As much as cricket fans would like to see the two countries slug it out on the cricket field, cricket’s unique positioning in the collective psyche of the subcontinent means that it will be viewed as much more than just a game. Given the circumstances, perhaps holding a bilateral series would be inappropriate. National sensitivities take precedence over a cricket fan’s desires, and as popular sentiment on both sides suggests, when soldiers are dying on the borders, how can there be an appetite for a friendly series?

For its part, the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) has repeatedly sought the resumption of bilateral series, since normalisation of cricket ties with India would be lucrative. They have tried various tactics to convince the BCCI, including threatening legal action, and former PCB chairman Shaharyar Khan even suggesting that India was scared to play Pakistan after their loss at the Champions Trophy. Throughout all this, the BCCI has remained unmoved.

The prospects for rapprochement on the diplomatic or political front also seem bleak because whenever we have seen progress, a major incident takes place to promptly set the relationship back. The most recent example of this was seen after Pathankot followed a week after Modi’s surprise stopover to meet Nawaz Sharif in December 2015. There is seemingly a prevalence of taking two steps forward and three steps back when it comes to the Indo-Pak relationship.

For all his efforts, Shaharyar Khan also seems to have now accepted that a bilateral series is not possible anytime soon, at least until the political climate of both countries cools down. A lot needs to be done by both countries to overcome the mutual suspicion, and at the moment, neither seems to be inclined to budge. Thus, until there is a political rapprochement, we will only get to experience the thrill of India and Pakistan playing each other in tournaments like the World Cup or the Champions Trophy.

Thankfully, both countries have thus far not backed off from playing each other in international tournaments, so fans can still relish the spectacle of Kohli and Rohit Sharma summoning the best of their technique and temperament to negotiate Amir’s fast swinging deliveries, albeit less frequently than desired.

Amit Nangia

Amit Nangia

The author is a learning and development professional with a background in finance and human resources that informs his commentaries on geopolitical and socioeconomic trends. He tweets as @amitnangia06 (twitter.com/amitnangia06)

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • Yogi Berra

    The writer has missed a crucial point. Indian public do not want any interaction with Pakistani people. Be it sports or trade or entertainment. Government of India is respecting this sentiment.
    Also bilateral Cricket series is not even a discussion point in India unlike in Pakistan. That speaks for itself. No one is even thinking on those lines.Recommend

  • PatelPara

    that is absolutely incorrect. tons of indian my friends here in usa are accepting how stupid and naive indian govt is. indian and pakistani players are playing in different leages, pakistani commentators, umpires, match officials etc. from bollywood to writing articles on this website or on other indian websites. there is definitely interaction.

    don’t forget indians wishing 14th august to pakistanis.

    keep on crying. but don’t say that indians don’t want any interaction. ppl like you and other hawkish elements in RAW-BJP are the root cause of the problem.Recommend

  • Striver

    Thank you for presenting the Indian government’s views. You may be surprised that we are already aware of what you have written here.
    By the way I totally understand your need to stick with the Indian government’s line on this.
    The issue I have is that its fine inserting “both governments” or “both sides” in your sentences to you show neutrality. But the truth is, Indian government has not assisted PK’s investigators to help it bring issues to a close. The reason for this, as has become clear over the periods the alleged attacks, is that Indians want to milk it as much as possible to gain advantages internationally.
    Truth will come out. It has a habit of coming out at the most unexpected moments.Recommend

  • junaid sarfaraz

    Disgusting remarks…don’t give such sweeping statement that people don’t want to interact…being Indian I know how government mobilise and play with the sentiments of general public using state control media for their vested interests…Recommend

  • kulbhushan Yadav

    Pakistan is bothered about bi-lateral cricket only because of the money. They have no other reason.Recommend

  • IT-Guru

    Totally Agree with the Author, when innocent Kashmiris being killed of thousands of innocent Kashmiri kids are being made blind by pallet guns in (illegally) occupied Kashmir by Indians HOW can Pakistani ask for Cricket? Instead they should be the one to refuse to play with Indians until or unless Indians gave Kashmiri their long overdue right of vote so that the can decide their faith!Recommend

  • Malkeet Singh

    speak for yourself…Since when you became voice of Indians in general but yes until there is RSS government in India relations with Pakistan will keep going down hill in every field. hopefully sanity will prevail though coz people to people contact and sports can help things calm down.
    love and peaceRecommend

  • MJ

    Hockey is being played between the two countries.
    There is a kabaddi tournament here or there.
    Artists from both countries are mostly allowed to perform on either side of the border, except for when RSS goons create unfavorable conditions.
    Cricket could’ve been used as a medium to release tensions and bring the public of the two countries together. But BCCI is trying it’s best to appease BJP and it’s supporters.
    They are using bilateral cricketing series as a tool to forward the hawkish BJP agenda. If cricket could’ve been played after 1965 and 1971 wars, what has changed now?Recommend

  • vasan

    We do not want to contribute to Pak’s coffers whichever way they beg to join IPL or Test/ODI/T20 matches. Period. Let them book and punish Mumbai attackers and reveal the real conspiracy behind that attack by LeT, come clean on Kasabs family disappearance etc. We will consider that. Emergency Medical visas on humanitarian grounds are just the maximum we should do.Recommend

  • Saadi

    It matters not to the Pakistani public whether we play them or not. The last whopping we gave them in the ICC Champions Trophy is sufficient for Pakistanis even if the country does not play them for the next 10 years. As it is, the focus needs to be on more physical sports like Football and hockey!Recommend

  • Veer Singh

    I disagree with the author that the India-Pakistan cricket rivalry is one of the greatest rivalries in sport. Sure, the rivalry WAS a great rivalry in the past but if you see the results of the last 10-15 years, it has become a one-sided rivalry as India has dominated Pakistan with Pakistan getting lucky occasionally, like it did in the Champions Trophy final. Indian cricket fans would much rather see their team play a strong opponent like Australia, South Africa, New Zealand etc than Pakistan which is an inconsistent team.Recommend

  • Ahmed ali khan

    India is scared of Pakistan in any field that is the reason it does not want to engage in sports, entertainment or any other field. As for shusma’s statement I have a question, who started border firing its India who did that so don’t blame Pakistan.Recommend

  • raj

    that is what extremist BJP has done to indian public. they have created differences, won election on the behiest of Pakistan and now making borders thicker like Trump. Pakistan itself doesn’t want India so don’t worry.Recommend

  • Amer Lodi

    Yogi sb first of all this is your self analysis so don’t drag your public in it. Secondly even you can’t miss commenting on Pakistani newspaper due to your over obsession with Pakistan……But here in Pakistan people have absolutely forgotten you. You don’t play cricket with Pakistan for fear of losing due to one excuse or the other while we wanted to play cricket with you to beat you.Recommend

  • Simla

    ‘Pakistanis have forgotten about India’. This is probably the reason why so many news, articles and blogs about India in your newspapers everyday. When an article talks about India, an Indian has a right to present his/her view on the subject. Please learn to differentiate between right to reply and obsession.Recommend

  • Simla

    anecdotal evidence is no evidence.Recommend

  • Suchi Baat

    Just google and find for your self. India has lost more matches than Pakistan. You need to reconcile with reality.Recommend

  • Suchi Baat

    So did India take any action against perpetrators of Samjhota Express and other terrorist acts in India against Pakistan ?Recommend

  • kulbhushan Yadav

    Terrorist act in India would be against India and not Pakistan. If you guys fear for your security in India, do not come , just like we don’t come in Pakistan.Recommend

  • Veer Singh

    The rivalry was never as one-sided as it has become now. The lop sided figure in Pakistan’s favor in the 80s & 90s was largely due to ODI matches won by Pakistan in Sharjah, which have been proven to be fixed in Pakistan’s favor. Take out those fixed Sharjah matches and the records for both teams would be fairly even. Even back when Pakistan had a pretty good team, India won most of the big matches against Pakistan in World Cup & other ICC tournaments. Whether you accept or not, the reality is that Pakistan’s team is much inferior to the Indian team and the ICC Rankings reflect that reality.Recommend

  • Amir Al Alwani

    Ha! Ha! Ha! Indian Cricket team is one of the top team in the world.
    You guys crying about not allow you to play in IPL. You wants us, we don’t need you.Recommend

  • Milind A

    Fear of losing??? Had your team been the team of Akram, Younus, Akhtar, Miandad then yes. Your current team is a team of pie-chuckers and am surprised why people are interested in them. In fact, I suspect that Champions trophy was gifted to you to revive your team (India – Pak matches are big money for everybody – players, politicos, betting mafia), which was languishing at the bottom of the heap (8th position in the world rankings if I’m not mistaken)Recommend

  • raj

    Delusional hypocrites. Always think Pakistan is running after India, when the truth of the matter is that India is always shouting against Pakistan as if they don’t have anything else to do. Your PM should thank Pakistan for winning his elections. Pak-phobia is such that anyone using it can win Indian electionsRecommend