Cooperative Security, Arms Control and Disarmament By Ramesh Thakur  |  09 October, 2023

India-Pakistan Cricket is Downstream of Politics

Image: Poetra.RH/

On 14 October, my attention will wander between three unconnected stories as they unfold in real time. I will be in New Zealand on that general election date. Polls indicate the Labour government will be replaced by a centre-right coalition. But the peculiarities of the electoral system make election results and the outcome of post-election negotiations between the major parties and potential allies teasingly uncertain.

In Australia, the people will vote on whether to insert a new chapter into the constitution to grant recognition to Aborigines and authorise Parliament to create a special advisory entity dedicated to them. On present indications, the initiative will be rejected, mainly because most people are opposed to dividing Australians by race. The outcome could threaten Anthony Albanese’s prime ministership.

The politically most consequential event, however, will take place in the Narendra Modi Stadium in Ahmedabad. In the early afternoon, India and Pakistan will play their first cricket match in many a year on the soil of either country. In the last two years, we have witnessed how the war in Ukraine has impacted the participation of Russian and Belarussian players in major tennis tournaments. The intense passion and bitterness is amplified manifold in any sporting clash between the subcontinental rivals into which politicians cannot help inserting themselves.

Decades ago, while visiting Beijing, I looked for an Indian restaurant as a break from Chinese cuisine three times a day. I discovered a Pakistani restaurant within walking distance that featured live classical music in the evenings, underlining the reality of shared food and musical traditions, although religious Hindus avoid beef and Muslims avoid pork.

Another time I attended a nuclear arms control conference in Tashkent on the president’s initiative. The government organised a trip to some other locations. A Pakistani brigadier and I engaged in extended discussions over the shared historical and cultural links via the Mughal dynasty with Central Asia. The experience was almost identical on a visit to Afghanistan years later where another member of the group was a UN colleague from Pakistan. On both these trips we were able to speak in our own languages with a common frame of reference to enrich the conversation.

On a trip to Pakistan itself, while working hours were devoted to geopolitical discussions, some evenings were given over to dinner with family of overseas Pakistani friends. They could not have enough of my answers about places their ancestors had lived in or where long-separated branches of the family might be, the ties that bind amidst the conflicts that divide, and the reception they could expect if ever a visit were possible. In other words, a poignant mix of nostalgia and dreaming the impossible. The closest I came to sensing hostility was in the hotel bar. My recognisably Hindu name and Australian passport permitted me to order alcoholic drinks prohibited for locals.

Thus, at the people-to-people level, there is a hunger and thirst for mutual respect and understanding that transcends the complex conflict. This is not to understate the deep roots of the fraught and intractable conflict, but to argue that cultural interactions and sporting exchanges can sustain the sentiment of shared history and destiny to provide ballast and texture to the relationship that could once again blossom if and when the conflict is resolved and dies out.

Another passion that unites the two peoples is cricket. Writing in the Indian Express on 30 September, Menaka Guruswamy argued that allowing Pakistan to take part in the cricket World Cup that opened on 5 October is a betrayal of those who have been killed by Pakistan-sponsored terrorists. She discusses the cases of one police and two army officers killed in the line of duty in Kashmir on 13 September.

The first thing to note in response is that, much as the government and most Indians might deny it, the reality is that Kashmir is recognised internationally as disputed territory. There is some merit to Pakistan’s complaint against India as well. What is open to contention is the balance of blame for the failure to resolve the dispute on terms that both countries can live with in the bigger cause of ending the human toll and suffering. Not for the first and nor for the last, negotiation and compromise are shunned as four-letter words and equated with appeasement and surrender. Because both sides take this position, the conflict drags on and both sets of people suffer.

In the last three years, the lockdown-induced enforced community-wide social isolation brought home the realisation of just how critical social engagement is to our emotional health. Family events like weddings, significant anniversaries and funerals, concerts and sporting events help to give meaning and purpose to life and structure to society. There’s some interesting academic research on the relationship specifically between sports and individual wellbeing and happiness. An article in Applied Psychology, Health and Well-being in February 2021 found that passive engagement, whether attending sporting events or watching on TV, has a closer positive relationship with individual happiness than active participation in the sports. Another article in January this year in Frontiers in Public Health confirmed that live attendance at sporting events reduced anxiety and loneliness and improved subjective wellbeing, with participants reporting enhanced feelings of life being worthwhile.

At international cricket matches involving any of the teams from the subcontinent – Afghanistan, Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka – passionate diaspora crowds bring the colours, sounds and spectacles of their home countries to create a joyous, festive atmosphere. Given the harsh conditions for the millions in that part of the world, who would begrudge them their shared moments of escapism?

It is in that context that the great cricketing rivalry between India and Pakistan must be appreciated. While politicians seek professional profit by positing it as a continuation of war by other means, fans prefer to enjoy it as an escape from the shared grimness of life into the fantasy world of vicarious dreams. How many children and parents watch their present heroes on the field and dream of emulating their glory in the years ahead? For how many years to come are the greatest hits and the biggest flops going to be debated in person and virtually among cricket afficionados? To interpret that simple pleasure and moments of ethereal joy as callous indifference to those who gave their lives on the border seems unnecessarily churlish.

People should not be punished for the sins of governments. Also, more Indians need to realise that the monster of terrorism, often fed by the state, is now devouring Pakistan more than India. The South Asia Terrorism Portal is described as ‘the largest website on terrorism and low intensity warfare in South Asia’. Between 6 March 2000 and 2 October 2023, it estimates total terrorism-related fatalities in India to be 46,791 (7,481 security forces, 23,826 terrorists and extremists, 14,282 civilians, and 1,202 unspecified). The corresponding numbers for Pakistan are 66,980, (8,308, 34,163, 21,301, and 3,208).

One other notion that Indians share with fellow-South Asians, including Pakistanis, is that of hospitality. Traditional etiquette demands that grace and charm be extended to all visitors without discrimination on grounds of nationality, religion or skin colour. In the opening match between the finalists of the last World Cup – itself the stuff of cricketing legend – the player of the match was a Kiwi of Indian origin, Rachin Ravindra. His first name is a unique amalgam of two all-time Indian greats, Rahul Dravid and Sachin Tendulkar. In his debut World Cup match, playing in the homeland of his ancestors where cricketing passions overrule all else, he became the youngest and the fastest Kiwi to score a World Cup century. How good is that?

Let the memories accumulate.

More from this author:

Diaspora politics blow up Canada-India relations (3-minute read)

US decides to supply depleted uranium shells to Ukraine (3-minute read)

Powerful nuclear norms trump tinkering with treaties (3-minute read)


Ramesh Thakur, a former UN assistant secretary-general, is emeritus professor at the Australian National University, Senior Research Fellow at the Toda Peace Institute, and Fellow of the Australian Institute of International Affairs. He is the editor of The nuclear ban treaty: a transformational reframing of the global nuclear order.