Asia Life

India and Pakistan’s Cricket Diplomacy

Recent Features

Asia Life

India and Pakistan’s Cricket Diplomacy

Cricket matches are used as ice breakers and political signalling in the complex India-Pakistan relationship.

India and Pakistan’s Cricket Diplomacy
Credit: Wikimedia Commons/ Rajiv Bhuttan

India and Pakistan are two cricket crazy nations and whenever these two teams clash with each other, it creates a very unique aura both inside and outside the stadium where the match is being played. The cricket competitions between the two countries are loaded with deeper political and diplomatic meaning.

The rivalry between these two South Asian neighbors dates back to 1947, when Pakistan was carved out from India on religious lines by the British, who were till then the colonial masters of the Indian subcontinent. The partition led to horrific incidents of mass killings, rapes, genocide, and rioting in different parts of India as well as Pakistan. This left some very cruel memories that remained imprinted in the minds of people from both sides. Since then, the cricket lovers of both countries have decided that losing to the other side in a match is unforgivable — particularly a loss on home soil.

The first India-Pakistan cricket series was played in 1954, when the Pakistani team toured India. Later, thousands of Indian fans were granted visas to go to Lahore when the Indian team went to Pakistan for the first time to play a test series. The Pakistanis did the same when their team toured India again in 1961.

But still the concept of “cricket diplomacy” was not born yet. At that time hockey was a much more popular sport in both countries, since the undivided India was an Olympic champion in hockey. From 1947 to 1965 only three test series were played between India and Pakistan. The 1965 and 1971 wars led to complete stoppage of cricket exchanges between the two nations. There was a very little window to use cricket as a tool to maintain goodwill

Initial Phase: 1965-1990

After a gap of 17 years, cricket was resumed between the two countries in 1978. The resumption of cricket exchanges was a result of efforts by the governments in both countries, which were not in power during the 1971 war. In India, it was the Janata Party’s government led by Morarji Desai while Pakistan was headed by Gen. Zia-ul-Haq. This cricket series brought together the two states while on the political front, Desai gave orders to stop the spying activities of India’s Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) in Pakistan. This made him immensely popular in Pakistan and as a result he was conferred Pakistan’s highest civilian award, Nishan-e-Pakistan in 1990.

Though, the relations seemed peaceful, underlying tensions never subsided. These emotions were most evident on the cricket pitch. When Pakistan won the 1978 test series due to biased umpiring against India, it displayed the feeling of Pakistanis who wanted to defeat India at any cost, either by hook or by crook. Public sentiment remained divided along religious lines; after defeating India in the test series, then Pakistani cricket captain Mushtaq Mohammad called the win “the victory of Muslims all over the world over the Hindus.”

Cricket diplomacy between India and Pakistan has a checkered history. Sometimes it has come as an icebreaker; at other times; it has merely marked a deceptive lull before another storm. Former Pakistani President General Zia-ul-Haq started it all with this “cricket for peace initiative.” When he came to India to watch a test match between the two sides in February 1987, tensions were running high. India had launched a huge military exercise on its border during the winter, and a rattled Pakistan had bolstered troops on its borders in response.

According to BBC reports, during the match, Zia apparently quietly told Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi that Pakistan had a nuclear bomb.

Romesh Bhandari, India’s former foreign secretary, in an article on writes, “There was no euphoria when Rajiv and Zia met because people didn’t trust Pakistan. They had heard so often that peace would arrive, but it always remained far away. There was a feeling in India that many within the Pakistan armed forces wanted to take revenge for Bangladesh. So there was no hype.”

To follow up on the Rajiv-Zia talks, then Indian Finance Minister V.P. Singh went to Pakistan. He had a productive dialogue with his counterpart, the pragmatic economist Mahbub-ul-Haq.

Cricket continued to be played at neutral venues like Sharjah, while only one bilateral series was played between the two countries till nearly the end of the millennium. Tensions grew after India’s tour to Pakistan in 1989 for a full-fledged one-day and test series. The reason: Kashmir.

Kashmir Insurgency: The 1990s 

Indo-Pak cricket matches during this period became the center of attention for the entire population on both sides. Even those who didn’t like cricket were glued to their television sets because of the political conflict going on in the background. Cricket was especially popular among both the Indian Border Security Force and Pakistan Rangers. Politicians and diplomats on both sides also liked the game.

This is what made cricket diplomacy between these two countries very special. The people who were directly or indirectly involved in India-Pakistan foreign policy had one thing in common: their passion for cricket. Though people on both sides were very much against each other, still the fans from both sides went into stadiums and sat together for the whole day to enjoy the match.

The peacekeepers saw this game as a tool to bind people together, which was mirrored by the emotions of people from both sides. Though the Pakistani public always wanted their team to crush India in a match, they also wanted Sachin Tendulkar to hit sixes. In the same manner, the Indian public wanted their team to demolish Pakistan, but they wanted Wasim Akaram or Imran Khan to deliver the magic spell of a “reverse swing.” That is why cricketers gradually became the ambassadors of their countries whenever they crossed the border to play on the neighboring soil.

But cricket also brought some horrific incidents to Kashmir during this period.

Kashmir, due to the prevailing anti-India sentiments in the insurgency era, saw itself aligned toward Pakistan. This led Kashmiris to support the Pakistani team whenever a cricket match happened. Media reports in Greater Kashmir and other Kashmir dailies reported that people distributed sweets and burned crackers whenever India lost and they prayed for Pakistan to win.

These activities were seen as anti-national sentiment by the Indian armed forces, which had been granted special powers under the Armed Forces Special Power Act (AFSPA) by then. The problem persists today; in 2014 a few Kashmiri students were expelled from a private university in Uttar Pradesh when they were found to be supporting Pakistan in an Asia Cup match against India. The incident spurred a huge debate in the media.

One noteworthy point is that cricket in India is under the aegis of the Board of Control for Cricket in India. The BCCI takes all the decisions related to where and when to send the Indian cricket team and which teams to invite to India — but when it comes to playing Pakistan, the union government gets involved. The Home Ministry must give a green light to a proposed tour, and the Ministry of External Affairs and intelligence agencies are also put on alert. This shows that cricket is not just a game when it comes to India and Pakistan.

During this period, India went to Pakistan for a three-match ODI series, made possible by the resumption of high level talks between the two countries. Yet cricket between the two nations continued to become more and more tense. In three World Cups where India defeated Pakistan (in 1992, 1996, and 1999), political statements made by both sides using cricketing terminology created controversies.

When Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee met Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in New York in September 1998, it was decided that foreign secretary-level talks would be held between India and Pakistan, and a direct bus service between Lahore and Delhi was proposed. These talks led to the Pakistan cricket team touring India for a two-match test series in January and February of 1999. These two teams were seeing each other in a test series after a long gap of 10 years.

Crowds swelled at the historic Chepauk and Feroz Shah Kotla stadium. Because the two countries were seemingly coming together politically at the time, the crowd displayed immense respect for the Pakistani team, giving them a standing ovation when they defeated India. This was an unprecedented and historic sight appreciated by people on both sides of the border.

Earlier, in January 1999, India had also agreed to allow its cricket team to participate in the first Asian test championship, which was scheduled to be played in India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh to promote goodwill among the South Asian neighbors. Interestingly, the Pakistani team was in India when Vajpayee went to Pakistan.

The Pakistani team played a Pepsi Cup one-day series in April 1999, but by then, the relations were going sour between the two nations. Radical Islamist groups were gaining strength in Pakistan and Sharif’s power was fading. Both bus and cricket diplomacy failed after just three months, and India-Pakistan forces were once again facing each other in the mountains of Kargil. The ensuing Kargil War was followed by a military coup in Pakistan by Gen. Pervez Musharraf.

In the New Millennium: 2000 and Afterwards

After the hijacking of Indian Airlines flight in December 1999, India cancelled its proposed tour to Pakistan and withdrew from the second Asian Test Championship. BCCI pulled out from the tournament just a week before the championship started, after Vajpayee and his ministers met with BCCI and asked them to cut-off any cricketing ties with Pakistan.

The Indian sports minister at the time, Uma Bharti, stated that cricketing ties between the two countries would resume after the normalization of political ties. He also noted that Indian players’ security and safety in Pakistan was a major concern. India’s decision to withdraw from the tournament was criticized by Pakistanis, who said that Indians pulled out over a fear of losing to Pakistan.

In 2004, Vajpayee again went to Pakistan to attend the SAARC summit, which was very successful in bringing the two countries together after a long time. To boost the new-born friendship, the Indian government gave the green light to a full-fledged Indian team cricket tour of Pakistan, comprising of three tests and five ODIs. Thousands of visas were given to people to cross the border to see the match.

Before the Indian cricket team left for Pakistan, they were invited to meet Vajpayee at his residence, where he asked the cricketers to not only win the matches, but also win the hearts of Pakistani public.

The Indian team was given a grand welcome in Pakistan and wherever they went to play, the crowds gave them huge support. It was a new experience for both the Indian cricketers and the Pakistani public. New friendships were forged between the Indian spectators and Pakistani public during the series. Over the next three years, the two countries played each other three times, once more in Pakistan in 2006, and twice in India in 2005 and 2007. Pakistani spectators were given the same heart-warming reception when they came to India to watch the matches.

However, in March 2007, terrorists attacked Sri Lankan cricketers while they were on the team bus, ready to play a test match against Pakistan in Lahore. Some of the Sri Lankan players were injured and they had to be airlifted from the stadium. From then on, the International Cricket Council suspended Pakistan from hosting international matches.

The 2004-2008 years, until 26/11 attacks, were a golden period for India-Pakistan cricket and their political relationship in general. Musharraf later mentioned this in an interview with CNN-IBN news channel.

Cricket between the two countries continued despite the Samjhauta Express train blast in February 2007 but after the 26/11 attacks in Mumbai, India, called off a proposed series in Pakistan in February 2009. India’s cricket team hasn’t visited Pakistan since then. Pakistani players were even barred from playing in the Indian Premier League organized by BCCI.

Cricket diplomacy again emerged when then-Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his Pakistani counterpart, Yousuf Raza Gilani, met each other for the World Cup 2011 semi-final clash between India and Pakistan. Gilani invited Singh to visit Pakistan. Peace talks started again and Pakistan toured India in December 2012 for a T20 and three ODIs.

More recently, Prime Minister Narendra Modi was said to be indulging in cricket diplomacy when he called Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif before the India-Pakistan clash at the 2015 World Cup. This move by the Indian prime minster sparked off a debate in Indian media over the intentions of the Modi government.

Cricket diplomacy has thus long been used as a tool to bring the public in both India and Pakistan closer to each other through sport. For nearly 70 years, the scheduling (or cancelling) of matches has served as a signal of the state of political relations.

Martand Jha is a Junior Research Fellow at Center for Russian and Central Asian Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi.