Photograph of VT Joshi


Cricket diplomacy, a flash back
Author - VT Joshi

It is an exhilerating experience that two cricket crazy neighbours who have fought wars in the past are now poised to bid for peace through the same grand gestures. Cricket has indeed provided for the most effective form of people to people contact touted so long through various types of track II diplomacy.

While prospects are bright for an enduring thaw, it is ironical that far too long Indo-Pak cricket has been equated with Indo-Pak war as two sides of the same coin. How horrific it once used to be can be gauged from the remarks of an Australian cricket commentator some time ago. He amused, indeed shocked, TV viewers when he began his commentary with a stark observation before the start of the Indo-Pak cricket encounter in the World Cup series in Australia. "There is always great interest in India and Pakistan for they have fought three wars. There has been no war since 1971. So there is so much more excitement in this match", he averred. A critic may dismiss it as a diabolic sense of humour and pardon the imaginative commentator. But nevertheless it is not far from the truth -- at any rate until recently.

Mercifully now it is Indo-Pak cricket for peace. Hopefully the euphoria will last till the incipient peace process and composite bilateral dialogue gets going. Despite President Pervez Musharraf's re-play of his Kashmir rhetoric, no doubt partly uttered, in reply to loaded questions at the celebrated India Today Conclave. And again notwithstanding the US Secretary of State Colin Powell's "out-of-the-blue" announcement granting Pakistan special status as America's "major ally" outside NATO. Pakistan will be in good company with Israel and Egypt. On the face of it, Powell has thrown the proverbial "spanner in the works", as it were. However, looked at dispassionately, it should be no surprise as Pakistan has never been anything but a favoured ally ever since its birth. There is all the more reason for it at the present juncture as Pakistan is the only country in the world that can actively help the United States as a conduit to deal with Osama and his deadly Al Queda network. One must hope and pray that the American gesture does not go to General Musharraf's head and encourage him to indulge in more sabre rattling and verbal missiles, jeopardizing the peace process, cricket et al.

It is interesting to recall how what has long been hailed as cricket diplomacy began in the annals of truculent Indo-Pak relations in recent years. Way back in 1987 the armies of the two countries were in an eye-ball-to-eye-ball confrontation on the border in the wake of General Sunderji's Operation Brass Tacks. (Just as it was some two years ago after the December 13 attack on Parliament except that the earlier exercise was not exactly the brink of a possible nuclear disaster).

It was at that juncture that the late "un-unlamented" Pak President, General Zia-ul-Haq, hit upon his brilliant idea of cricket diplomacy by inviting himself to witness an Indo-Pak fixture at Jaipur. It caused consternation in Pakistan as much as in India. Wily Zia deftly parried pointed questions at a press conference, exclaiming: "Why do you ignore my sixers to Indian bouncers!". He carried the day and silenced his critics. Among various other factors it too helped to avert a possible war.

Apparently unlike now when both sides seem to be earnest about resolving all bilateral disputes including Kashmir, it was then a kind of phony diplomacy on either side. Even so, it did help to defuse the sharply escalated border tensions that had begun to force visitors to beat a hasty retreat to return home on both sides, just in case.

At a much later stage and in a different context, Zia proudly asserted that his India policy had ensured that there was no armed conflict between the two countries since the 1971 Bangladesh war. (That Zia himself planned the subsequent 'proxy' war on the K-issue is another story).

Deadly rivalry in sports has always been matched by deadlier competition in everything Indo-Pak. It is essentially on an unequal footing. Pakistan's obsession is its ambition to claim "parity" with India in everything while India's is the delusion of super power status and potential. (Which in fact scares the immediate neighbourhood).

India and Pakistan are "twins born in 1947 with their hands at each other's throat", as they used to be described by the late General Akram Khan, a senior Pak army officer and former President of Pakistan's prestigious Institute of Regional Studies. The grip periodically tightens and eases, but it is never released.

Indo-Pak cricket always excites keen interest not only in the two countries but also well beyond them. In a way it is a legacy of the colonial era, dating back to pre-independence days. The older generation might recollect what was then known as pentangular cricket played between teams made up exclusively of various communities and each named after them - as Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Parsee and the rest. The present day games are a virtual extension of the pentangular matches, which were wildly popular; Against which Mahatma Gandhi fought tooth and nail and got them scrapped. He rightly considered it communal cricket principally between Hindus and Muslims. Its spirit has some how survived. The ghost has not been exorcised.

Hopefully, the prevailing bonhomie and the spirit of sportsmanship on the field and beyond it will soon exorcise the ghost. It was indeed a minor miracle when India and Pakistan jointly hosted the 1987 World Cup series as a grand gesture not only to the world of cricket but also to each other. Subsequent events however soured the bilateral relations again, as has often been their fate for no fault of the cricketers themselves. The rest is recent history.

In the past, rivalry on the field has often degenerated into partisan barracking from the home side at the visiting teams, whether in Lahore or in Calcutta. Sometime back a wag remarked that a stage might come when visiting teams might have to take with them their own "national shouting brigades" as an integral component of their sporting kits. Fortuitously the liberal issue of visas by Pakistan to cricket fans flocking from India has well taken care of such exigencies. And the shouting brigades have themselves behaved admirably well amidst mirth and merriment almost waving the flags of the two countries together.

Tailpiece: Time was when, on popular demand, Enquiry Commissions used to be set up to find out the "causes of failure" of a home team to win a match! The legendary cricket commentator, A. F. S. Talyarkhan, decried such tendencies as if cricket matches were an event fit for public probe to apportion blame and punish the guilty under the Enquiry Act. It was against the spirit of sportsmanship, he argued convincingly. Of course match fixing was then unheard of.

VT Joshi

26 March 2004

VT JOSHI (1925-2008) worked for more than fifty years as a journalist. He retired from THE TIMES OF INDIA in 1989. During 1985-89 he was the Special Correspondent of THE TIMES OF INDIA in Pakistan. His books "PAKISTAN: ZIA TO BENAZIR" and "INDIA AT CROSS ROADS" (co-author GG Puri) were widely reviewed in both India and Pakistan.

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