Can cricket cool India-Pakistan political hostility?

By Faras Ghani

London witnessed one of the biggest upsets in the history of international cricket when Pakistan demolished favourites India to win the 2017 Champions Trophy.

Pakistan’s win was their first over India since 2014.

But the rivalry, the biggest seen on the cricket field, is positioned against a backdrop of major political hostility between the two countries, at the centre of which is the disputed Kashmir region. 

Pakistan and India have fought three wars since gaining independence from British rule in 1947. Two of them have been over Kashmir.

On the cricket field, the two sides have played a total of 194 matches but have been limited since the 2008 Mumbai attack, which India says was orchestrated from inside Pakistan. 

The Pakistani team has not toured India for a bilateral series since January 2013 and has not hosted the Indian team for a series since 2006.

The Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) said it is open for resumption in bilateral ties, terming cricket an ice-breaker for resumption in diplomacy.

The BCCI has repeatedly turned down the invitation, citing lack of permission from the Indian government.

There have also been suggestions from the Indian side that there is reluctance to improve ties.

Youth Affairs and Sports Minister Vijay Goel said. “India cannot consider playing a bilateral series with Pakistan as long as it supports terrorism and creates trouble in Kashmir.

“We have clearly stated terrorism and sports cannot go side by side. As long as Pakistan does not stop cross-border terror and it creates trouble in Kashmir, there is no chance for a bilateral series, the national mood also does not support it.”

Analysts hoping for resumption of ties on and off the field argue that the Indian government’s stance has resulted in not only fans being robbed of seeing their idols in action but also the sport being held hostage.

But would a movement on the cricket pitch force a shift of ties on the government level?

Mukul Kesavan, an Indian historian and novelist, believes there is no link.

“There was a time when cricket between India and Pakistan bulked so large it seemed to have constituted the whole relationship,” Kesavan told Al Jazeera.

“There is no chance of a bilateral series taking place any time soon. Indian politics, over the last year or so, has become so centred on what is taking place on its borders with Pakistan, it seems the government will trivialise the soldiers’ martyrdom if it allows the team to play Pakistan on either side of the border.

“When we play our ultimate enemy at sports voluntarily, it seems as if we stand to demean the soldiers. This is the DNA that the state approves.”

Is cricket enough?

But even if Pakistan and India do resume ties across the border, “the goodwill that emerges from a cricket match will not be enough to chip away at the underlying and age-old tensions that keep India-Pakistan relations on tenterhooks”, according to Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Asia Program at The Wilson Center.

“There’s something about sports that allows us to bring our guard down and happily interact even with our most bitter rivals,” Kugelman told Al Jazeera.

“All this said, I don’t think we should overstate the power of sports to reduce tension. Sports can serve as a sanctuary from geopolitical tensions, but only to an extent.

“Cricket won’t magically enable the Kashmir dispute to be resolved, or to make cross-border terrorism go away.”

The “enormous” trust gap, added Kugelman, was too wide to be bridged by a cricket match and it was diplomacy on the government level that was needed to solve the issues. – Al Jazeera.

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