Why India Should Play Pakistan at the World Cup, Despite Pulwama Attack

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Why India Should Play Pakistan at the World Cup, Despite Pulwama Attack

Illustration: Robin Chakraborty

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pril 15, 2007, would have been a red-letter day in the 2007 Cricket World Cup. It was the day India was supposed to play Pakistan.

All the anticipation was dealt a harsh blow when both sides exited the competition prematurely, not getting the chance to play each other. In place of the much-touted India-Pakistan encounter, Bangladesh and Ireland played each other. If someone was looking for an example of a terrible alternative, this was it. The 2007 World Cup, one of the least memorable in cricket history, lay threadbare a truth everyone knew — if India didn’t progress, it was a financial catastrophe for the sponsors. And also, an India-Pakistan encounter was what everyone wished to see, even more than the final.

After the Pulwama attack, there have been several calls for India to boycott playing Pakistan in the upcoming cricket World Cup. The players have been guarded about their response, giving diplomatic replies such as “we will do whatever the government tells us to do”.

But a question that bears asking is, is it likely that a boycott will make a difference? The peace process between the two countries is quite a different matter, which unfolds behind closed doors after complex strategising and negotiations – let’s admit none of us are actually schooled in the diplomatic arts to know enough about it. But popular sentiment can call for putting an end to the easiest, most visible targets, i.e., sporting and cultural ties between the countries. We’ve called them off several times in the past: Has that stopped the terror forces operating in that country from attacking us?

For as long as we can remember, India-Pakistan encounters have never been just about cricket. India’s tour of Pakistan in 2004, after a gap of 15 years, was heralded as a diplomatic masterstroke by the Vajpayee government before the general elections. Pakistanis welcomed the Indian team and tourists with open arms and the tour was a resounding success, with India winning the Test as well as ODI series. India won but the Vajpayee government suffered a shock defeat. That tour underscored a truth that has got lost in all the hyper-nationalism of today — we aren’t really that different from our neighbours. It’s politics and terrorism that has held us hostage.

And also, an India-Pakistan encounter was what everyone wished to see, even more than the final.

Now, with a World Cup encounter between the two sides at stake, it’s a good time to remember that even against a troubled political backdrop, India and Pakistan have come together on the field in contests that simply cannot be replicated by any other rivals.

The 1999 World Cup match between the two sides was played in the backdrop of the Kargil War where Rahul Dravid and Inzamam-ul-Haq both anchored the innings for their sides. Venkatesh Prasad, who had already carved his name in India-Pakistan cricketing history with his face-off with Aamir Sohail in the 1996 World Cup encounter, came to the party again with a five-wicket haul. And what of Virender Sehwag smashing Umar Gul for five boundaries, and Tendulkar’s nine lives in the super-charged 2011 World Cup semi-final? That encounter came after the 2008 Mumbai attacks — the last “last straw” when it came to cricketing relations between India and Pakistan. Both sides have only met in major tournaments since then. It’s hard to fathom but Virat Kohli’s generation might be the first to end their careers without playing a Test series in Pakistan.

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After Pulwama, the debate over whether India should play Pakistan at this World Cup has been reignited. In the current political scenario, Pakistan-bashing is seen as a sign of nationalism. Moderate and sensible statements are few and far between, and calls from the likes of Sourav Ganguly and Harbhajan Singh about not playing Pakistan are the order of the day. If at all any dent is to be made, it must come from the ICC taking a stance on allowing Pakistan to compete. Such a call is unlikely.

In many ways, Pakistan is already a pariah in World Cricket. After the shocking attack on the visiting Sri Lankan team’s bus on the way to a match in March 2009, international cricket being played in Pakistan is an over-optimistic pipe dream. It has had to shift its home ground to UAE, and its great stadiums with magnificent histories now live with only memories of the halcyon days when the best teams still toured Pakistan.

In the last couple of years, the West Indies, Sri Lanka, and Zimbabwe have played in Pakistan. But even these were with caveats. Prominent players from the West Indies pulled out because of security concerns and Sri Lanka played only one T20 fixture at the Gaddafi stadium in Lahore. Australia, which was supposed to tour Pakistan this year, has refused because of security concerns. Pakistan has suffered crores in losses because of the lack of cricket being played there. That hasn’t meant that state-sponsored terrorism has abated.

In the current political scenario, Pakistan-bashing is seen as a sign of nationalism.

Pakistani cricket is a reflection of their political climate – mercurial, unpredictable and explosive. While India controls world cricket and has players flocking to play the IPL, no team in its right mind will want to tour Pakistan. It survives on raw talent that explodes and surprises, but its cricketing structure is in shambles. When they last won the World cup in 1992, they were led by the inspirational Imran Khan. Today, he has gone from being an iconic captain to being a prime minister with extremist views.

As much as the advertising campaigns would want us to believe, an India-Pakistan encounter on the field isn’t war. It’s just a game. And like any game, it is far removed from the ground realities that either nation is facing.

India playing Pakistan isn’t about giving peace a chance but about giving its own World Cup campaign a chance. Sachin Tendulkar seemed to see the pragmatic side when he said that he would “hate to give them two points and help them in the tournament” by forfeiting the fixture. Even the BCCI’s Committee of Administrators chief Vinod Rai, who called for the international sporting community to ostracise Pakistan yesterday, has said, “We would be shooting in the foot if we don’t play Pakistan in the World Cup.” Those calling for an outright boycott of the match seem to be acting on sentiment, and haven’t thought about what happens if India and Pakistan were to face-off in the semi-finals or the finals. What happens then? Forfeiting two points may come back to haunt India as they progress to the knockout stages.

One thing is for certain – if and when India and Pakistan play each other, it’s probably the only place on the planet where citizens from either side, albeit grudgingly, will shake hands with each other.

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