Cricket and Domestic-Foreign Policy
Sport and state ties are closely knit
During India’s World Cup loss to Pakistan in Dubai last month, Mohammad Rizwan prayed on the ground with the Indian players and ten thousand spectators watching. Was it gratitude for breaking the cycle of World Cup losses to India?
More likely it was a cultural expression, built upon decades of gaming to diminish India and Hindus before a superior Islam. Rizwan was enacting a script used intermittently for decades.
The controversy deepened as Waqar Younis, a former cricket captain and coach, praised Rizwan’s praying before Hindus. Younis later claimed that he had spoken in excitement and apologised. Rizwan did not repeat the prayer after Pakistan defeated New Zealand two days later.
Thus, the victory embodied a monoculture that breathlessly spurs the believer. “Kufr to toot gaya” (the infidel was broken) said commentator Bazid Khan to Pakistan captain Babar Azam, who responded approvingly, “Allah ka shukr hai” (all thanks to God).
Some Pakistanis squirmed, but many considered it the natural order of things.
Piety has become mainstream in Pakistan’s cricket culture ever since the Tablighi Jamaat gained recruits among cricketers after 2000. But it was present even earlier. A former captain, Mushtaq Mohammad, had described a 1978 test series win over India as a “victory of Muslims all over the world over the Hindus,” while Shoaib Malik had thanked “Muslims all over the world” after Pakistan’s defeat to India in the 2007 T20 World Cup.
Perhaps such displays are cathartic. They are also political. The ideology of religion-based nationhood is ever present, surveilling the common mass for deviants. How would athletes escape such vigilantism, when the state is the cheerleader? In Pakistan interior minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed called this latest win a victory of Islam. “Alhamdulillah (praise God)… It’s the first one,” proclaimed Ramiz Raja, chair of the Pakistan Cricket Board.
Virat Kohli’s smile and embrace of Rizwan after India’s loss appeared puzzling. But a losing athlete’s hug does not mean he wanted the other team to win. Possibly Kohli, and team mentor M.S. Dhoni, who was seen chatting with the Pakistan players, were accomplices in diplomacy.
India is facing twin pressures from China and Pakistan. Islamists in Bangladesh attacked Hindus during Durga Puja, an important religious festival. The Taliban says it will speak for Muslims in Kashmir. Terrorists attacked civilians in the Kashmir Valley in the buildup to this game, and a few Kashmiris cheered Pakistan’s victory. India needs calm around it.
Recent Indian responses to perceived Pakistani zealotry have been fierce. But their expression is nationalistic rather than religious. As terror sourced to Pakistan began to stalk the state in the 1990s, Indian athletes became hypernationalist.
“I get into revenge mode during a Pakistan game and my blood also boils,” said P.R. Sreejesh after India defeated Pakistan in the gold medal match in the 2014 Asian Games. At the Hockey Men’s World League semifinals in 2017 in London, Indian players and support staff mourned the soldiers killed in terrorist attacks by wearing black armbands. “Another strike on Pakistan,” tweeted home minister Amit Shah after India defeated Pakistan in the 2019 World Cup. Sport and interstate ties are tightly knit.
We could argue that by hugging Rizwan, Kohli failed to go for the jugular. He had bafflingly appealed to the Oval crowd at the 2019 World Cup not to boo Steven Smith. The taunts were about Smith’s role in the ball-tampering scandal during a 2018 test match against South Africa at Cape Town. Kohli rescuing Smith from booing was beyond comprehension to me. Would any Australian cricketer show similar compassion towards an opponent? Has a Pakistani player ever hugged an Indian athlete after losing?
Even while Indians and Pakistanis display ire toward the foe they also remain immersed in one another. Thus, some Indians support Pakistan in sport and even an occasional Pakistani supports India.
“Fireworks all around, feels like an early Eid here,” Kashmiri separatist leader Mirwaiz Umar Farooq had tweeted after India’s defeat to Pakistan in the 2017 Champions Trophy finals. After the 2019 World Cup game, Baloch activist Banuk Zarina Baloch said: “I hope that India will repeat 1971’s history for Balochistan’s freedom to remind to world that defeat is Pakistan’s destiny.” A Kohli fan, Umar Draz, was arrested in 2016 for displaying India’s flag atop his home.
Being immersed in the Other also means that you are in his bone. In 1954-1955, when ties were less embittered, thousands of Indian fans were greeted by Pakistanis “in sentimental embraces,” as the Tribune newspaper reported. England player Wally Hammond said 60 years ago: “If every cricket match between India and Pakistan can be played without a ring of machine guns to keep the onlookers from rioting, then I feel the prestige attaching to the game is great.”
Recall Pakistani and Indian fans displaying their flags knit together during India’s tour of Pakistan in 2004, and Pakistani fans being warmly received at Mohali during Pakistan’s tour of India in 2011.
The present victory over India meant a lot to Pakistan. Perhaps Pakistan wanted it a little more? As the BBC said, “29 years of hurt” had ended. “The win over India allows the entire country to forget the troubles of their routine life… For a few days at least, Pakistan cricket fans would wake up feeling content and happy,” said Dawn.
Putting such high stakes on one game might have had costs, ending both Pakistan and India’s dreams of winning the World Cup.
Jitendra Nath Misra is a former ambassador and Distinguished Fellow at the Jindal School of International Affairs, O.P. Jindal Global University, Sonipat