Standing on the warfront: when sport divides India and Pakistan

By Sanjeev Miglani

(Reuters – Global News Journal) In the run-up to tomorrow’s cricket match between India and Pakistan, passions are running high on both sides of the border and in the diaspora which is following their teams’ progress in the game’s biggest tournament.

How to demolish Pakistan was the title of a programme aired by an Indian television network where former players and experts discussed ways to win the high-voltage game that will be played in the northern Indian town of Mohali, within, in a manner of speaking, of earshot distance of the heavily militarised  border with Pakistan.

Pakistan television in similarly wall-to-wall coverage ran a programme where one of the guests advised the team to recite a particular passage from the Koran before stepping out to play that day. There is even a story doing the rounds in Pakistan that an enraged Indian crowd put a parrot fortune teller to death for predicting a Pakistani victory, according to this report.

All fair in sport, you would argue, and especially for two countries that take their cricket very seriously. But this contest has an edgy undertone of antagonism that flows from the tension in ties since the Mumbai attacks of 2008 carried out by Pakistan based militants and for which New Delhi seeks greater redress from Pakistani authorities.

The charged atmosphere – and this has very little to do with the players themselves – recalls the fervour and aggression of the 1990s when the people of the two countries treated cricket as essential conflict. Each game was seen as a test of national honour in much the way the border guards of the two countries strut their stuff in a bitter-sweet ceremony at the Wagah crossing each day at sunset.

The winner of the cricket game was feted while the loser slinked away in disgrace.
The drums of war are being heard again as the subcontinent virtually prepares to come to a halt for the game this week. “To many cricket fans its a war, to the Pakistani fans it’s match of revenge as they think that the BCCI  and Indian underground agents have been the criminals in causing all the chaos in Pakistan and its cricket, while India thinks Pakistan as the culprit in creating a zone of terrorism surrounding them,” wrote Faisal Caesar in SportPulse.

But what does Indian batting genius Sachin Tendulkar or Pakistan’s resurgent captain Shahid Afridi have to do with all that, he asks.

Pakistan manager Intikhab Alam, one of the country’s great players, sought to cool down passions. “Let it remain a cricket match and don’t make us feel like we are standing on a warfront,” he told reporters as his team practised in the Mohali stadium, an oasis of calm away from the storm gathering outside.

“Both teams cannot win and somebody has to lose but whichever team loses should lose gracefully”, he said.

With Prime Minister Manmohan Singh inviting his Pakistani counterpart to attend the match and break a stalemate in ties, the encounter has assumed even greater significance. The two leaders are also expected to use the occasion to hold talks to try and move ties forward stuck in a deep chill since the Mumbai attack.

Perhaps the two leaders’ presence at the ground will be a calming influence on the crowd and a television audience around the world that once exceeded the population of Europe when Tendulkar faced Pakistani fast bowler Wasim Akram according to Indian historian Ramchandra Guha.

Peace between India and Pakistan, even a lowering of tensions, can only have a positive impact in Afghanistan where the two are engaged in a proxy war every bit as intense as the one in Kashmir.  And if cricket, in which Afghanistan is the latest of the South Asian nations to make its mark on the international stage, can bring the two together it can only be richer for it instead of turning into a battlefield.

Hard to believe now but there was a brief period of rapprochement when Indians and Pakistanis were celebrating the other’s victories on the cricket field.

The two governments had launched a peace process i n 2004, opened sporting links after an interval, leading to an outpouring of goodwill and optimism.

As Indian journalist and noted author MJ Akbar recalled : one of the most moving moments of my life came in Lahore in 2004, when the joy of an Indian victory in a one-dayer soared at the sight of young Pakistani fans waving the Indian flag as a gesture of friendship.”

On another occasion, I recall watching a Pakistani crowd in Karachi rooting for Indian batsman Rahul Dravid when he was on 99 in the first game of the series. “Rahul, Rahul,” they chanted.

It still can be done.  An Indian reader in a comment on a companion blog saw the match as an opportunity to renew ties and bury the rancour of the recent past.

“If Pakistan wins the match, I’d like them to hug their Indian counterparts and thank them for a great match.

Likewise, I’d like the Indian cricketers to do the same if they win the game. The message from that gesture will bring a lot of goodwill that is badly needed.”