The Indian cricket team went to Pakistan in 2004 — after a gap of 14 years for a full “friendship tour” held in the shadow of the Kargil conflict. With a general election around the corner, the series was so rife with diplomatic overtones that allusions to the US-China ping-pong diplomacy of 1971 seemed to pale in comparison.

Back then, when the Indian cricket team went somewhere, I usually tagged along. So, one March afternoon, I found myself standing on a tree-lined street in Lahore that looked like an alternative-universe version of Delhi’s Lodhi Road, wondering what this confluence of cricket and politics would offer over the next two months. As a North Indian carrying an onerous second-hand burden of Partition, I was in a country we’d been told we must be very scared of, surrounded by people we should be very wary of.

But Pakistan 2004 was an epic eye-opener because what the Indian team, and the small entourage that accompanied it, found across the border was a warm welcome that slowly mutated into lasting friendships. We would get extra helpings at restaurants; taxi drivers would refuse to take money when they learnt we were “mehmaans” (guests); paan was fed directly into our mouths at night markets; someone even sent one of our touring party a Persian carpet to take back home. Every time politics was discussed, the locals would say “koi masla nahi hai” (there is no issue), so much so, that is became our “takiya kalam” (hard to translate – loosely, a habitual phrase used without relevance) during the trip.

The tour was a perfect example of sport’s power to overcome the boundaries imposed by politics. We had gone there for the cricket, but returned as people who had forever overcome an irrational prejudice that stemmed from a line on a map.

Even at the worst of times — sometimes in tiny little ways, and sometimes in a hugely significant manner — sport has played the role of a healer despite the war metaphors that are freely attached to it.

Whether it was the camaraderie between Jesse Owens and Luz Long at the 1936 Berlin Olympics (which this column referred to a few weeks ago in a different context) that deeply upset Adolf Hitler, or a unified contingent marching at the opening ceremony of the 2018 Asian Games in Jakarta despite North Korea and South Korea technically being at war for 68 years, sport has served as the counter to oppression or as the symbolic first gesture towards resolution.

Even in the India-Pakistan context, the images surrounding cricket — beyond the last-ball six by Javed Miandad at Sharjah and the repeated Indian victories at the World Cups — have largely celebrated the spirit of competition and tried to either re-sow or water the seeds of friendship. In 1987, Rajiv Gandhi and Zia-ul-Haq famously marked a thaw in relations by shaking hands in the pavilion in Jaipur; in 2011, Manmohan Singh and Yousuf Raza Gilani watched a match together in Mohali. Whenever cricket has been given a chance by leaders on both sides of the border over the last 75 years, it has strived to build bridges.

These events contradict the great George Orwell’s belief that sport is more likely to breed hostility than friendship between nations. In a 1945 essay, The Sporting Sprit, Orwell wrote that sport is “bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all rules and sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence: in other words it is war minus the shooting.” But Orwell, one of the finest depicters of totalitarianism and a founding father of dystopian literature, may have misunderstood the sporting spirit. In a gloomy post-War age, he may not have grasped that admiration — mutual between players; fawning from home fans; and grudging from followers of the other side — can spark a greater understanding that can eventually lead to bonhomie. That, like art, sport doesn’t just imitate but also informs life.

This month, the Indian cricket team turned out in camouflage caps for matches against Australia in the aftermath of the Pulwama terror attack and the ensuing tensions between India and Pakistan. It was a digression from the role cricket has played through decades of political turmoil in the sub-continent. The gesture, for the 40 troopers who were murdered on February 14, was also a political statement that used a military symbol to express grief. At a time when fighter jets were crisscrossing airspace and mortar shells flying across the Line of Control, Team India appeared to add to the noise rather than attempting to muffle it. Instead of acting as a tool to quell anger, it unwittingly became an instrument that normalised it.

For a new Indian team, representing New India in a new age, it may have fulfilled an immediate nationalistic urge to be heard. But the gesture ended up going against the larger sporting spirit.

First Published:
Mar 15, 2019 20:08 IST

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