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Tuesday, 29 March 2011

India-Pak cricket – Does winning matter?

Remembering that sporting allegiances does not necessarily reflect 'nation-state' allegiance, the spectators of Kashmir are perfectly placed to be neutral. One even wishes for an extension or elaboration of the IPL to cover federal states throughout the sub-continent. 

To ardent supporters of India and Pakistan, winning a cricket match against their arch foes provides as much satisfaction as winning a war on the battlefield. There are in fact many 'nation-state' related metaphors used by commentators and spectators alike that try to grasp the intensity of feeling whenever the two cricketing nations meet on a 20.12 metre pitch. In one's opinion, the spectacle of sporting contest that ensues is one of the few positive dividends of the fractious 1947 partition.

What one finds so heartening and almost liberating for over 1.3 billion potential spectators of the region is the transition from a sustained cold-war status between the two countries to an almost festive like approach to life; enabling the region to physically interact as closely as is politically possible. The fact that today's match is being played barely 221 kilometres from the Wagah-Attari border in the divided Punjab, adds extra spice to the joviality that Punjabis (of either side) are well capable of. Even the earth must be heaving a sigh of relief that those humans who tread it, have been given somewhat of an opportunity to traverse a forbidden path that nature deemed to be open.

This is not to undermine the ability of this fixture to present a political opportunity for nature to be restored. In line with various other confidence-building measures that have emerged of late (including a six-month permit for multiple-entry access across the LOC in Kashmir), Manmohan Singh took little time or hesitation in inviting Pakistan's Prime Minister and President to come and watch the match with him. While his direct counterpart accepted the offer, it is quite possible that Zardari's fascination for horses and camels prevented him from joining the party.

This is also not the first instance of 'cricket diplomacy'. 1987 witnessed Rajiv Gandhi and General Zia-ul-Haq do it at a test match in Jaipur. 2005 saw Manmohan Singh and General Musharraf do it at a one-day match in Delhi. Indeed, the General came to watch two matches in Pakistan between the two teams in a contest dubbed as the 'goodwill series' in 2004. One remembers that episode of cricket diplomacy from personal experience whilst covering events for a British newspaper. Not only was there great camaraderie displayed by both sets of fans, many journalists were excitedly gushing about the abnormally high instances of interaction between various Indian and Pakistani politicians during the series. General Musharraf quite obviously placed high value on cricket diplomacy because in 2006, despite India's win he took the effort of 'barging' into the presentation ceremony to not only facilitate India's performance but to recommend Mahendra Singh Dhoni not forego his then hippie-like hairstyle!

Coming closer to the cricket and Kashmir, there is little doubt that Muslims in our region have traditionally supported Pakistan and vehemently so. It should also be stated that the Hindus of our region have displayed similar support for India. Remembering one's own childhood growing up in Britain and much before the advent of satellite/cable and internet, short-wave (SW) radio was the only live means of tracking Pakistan's progress.  Those of us who were avid followers or even relative 'connoisseurs' of Pakistan's cricketing fortunes didn't think much of the time difference, whether Pakistan were playing in New Zealand or the West Indies. Pakistan's world cup victory in 1992 had about 50 of us huddled in a room from around 4am to midday, watching on what was then uncommon satellite TV. The subsequent 'flag charge' to our local town had very few Pakistanis from Pakistan proper. Most of us were kashmiris jubilant at Pakistan's victory.  

That was then and now is now. Though most Kashmiris in Britain still keenly support Pakistan, as do Kashmiris of the Valley; increased political awareness hasn't really been reflected in a shift of sporting allegiance. The vagaries of Pakistan's cricketing fortunes, more often than not associated with corruption and not unlike how Pakistani society in general operates, has left deep scars on many a committed supporter. Structural issues such as unfulfilled potential, nepotism, intra-team wrangling and a clear refutation of long-heeded advice to develop a competitive domestic structure, have constantly irked genuine well-wishers of Pakistani cricket. It's unpredictability on the cricket field is as agonising as it is exciting for the neutral observer.

Recognising that cricket interaction has at least some positive effect on diplomacy, the ability of the internet to further coalesce sentiments of togetherness has proved phenomenal. Facebook groups in which members promise to support the winner in the final is a surprising example of that. One has even heard of some Indians fans (in a touch of spirituality perhaps) giving up their tickets for guests from Pakistan. In a quote from the Times of India, a Haridwar educated 18 year old by the name of Ranjai Sodhi offered wisdom much beyond his years when he explained, ''Offering your seat or possessions to somebody whom people have branded your enemy, is a journey to destroy stereotypes to explore peace, friendship and love.'' One wonders if a maddrasah educated Pakistani would perform a similar gesture given similar circumstances?

There have been attempts to counter the above examples with traditional rants of demanding religious allegiance but it seems the sway of the 'net' is thankfully far too overwhelming for traditional propaganda to be effective. The only disadvantage is that the gusto generated by an India vs. Pakistan World Cup semi-final - being played barely a few hours drive from their common border – is probably destined to have an ephemeral effect on the politics of the region.

What is encouraging nevertheless is a quote from Pakistan's in-form seamer Umar Gul on cricinfo(.com) who felt a 'real-life' urge to momentarily move beyond the crucial consequences of the match when he described the event as bringing, "both countries closer, it's very good not only for the players but also for both countries."

In one's opinion, if the notion of a loss of pride is associated with defeat by any of the competing teams or their supporters, the 'windfall' diplomatic gains associated with this event could be diluted. Taking it as a sport which enables humanity to exert their physical and mental capabilities in a genuinely healthy and non-destructive manner should be the approach. There could be no better alternative to battling one's wits on a battlefield where the venue takes more out of the local population than it does those that represent that enmity viz. Kashmir. In sport, the venue probably acccrues the most benefit from the event. The contrast between sport and war is that stark.

Remembering that sporting allegiances does not necessarily reflect 'nation-state' allegiance, the spectators of Kashmir are perfectly placed to be neutral. One even wishes for an extension or elaboration of the IPL to cover federal states throughout the sub-continent. The excitement surrounding an India -Pakistan cricket match also has something to do with the insatiable appetite of the region for the sport, regularly repressed by a lack of action throughout the region. This event and a sense of regularity attached to such, holds far more significance than who wins and who loses.

...

The writer is a writer, broadcaster and activist working for civil society development in Pakistani-administered Kashmir and can be mailed at sahaafi@gmail.com

This article was first published in Rising Kashmir (a Srinagar-based English daily) on the 30th of March 2011

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