Cricket has been a consistent casualty of India-Pakistan conflict over the years. However, there has been a deliberate shift in the use of cricket as an instrument of state policy in recent years, particularly reaching a crescendo after the Pulwama attack. While earlier, there were hopes of mitigating tensions between the two states through cricket diplomacy, cricket has now been reduced to a means of continuing conflict and politics, off the field.
The February 14 Pulwama attack, one of the deadliest attacks on the Indian Armed Forces, was led by terrorist outfit Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM), which is based in Pakistan. The attack caused the death of more than 40 Indian soldiers and escalated the India-Pakistan conflict by several notches. This tension has penetrated into the field of cricket. Two particular incidents have brought this aspect out in the open.
First, India has sought an appeal to the International Cricket Council (ICC) asking for a ban of states harboring terrorists from the cricketing circuit. While there was no specific mention of Pakistan in the letter, there was little room left for guessing as to where the arrows were pointed.
The second incident happened on the cricket field, when the Indian Men’s Cricket Team in one of their recent international matches wore camouflage military caps instead of their traditional blue hats in order to show their solidarity for the soldiers and implement a fundraising campaign.
Although the politicization of cricket in the case of India and Pakistan is inevitable from this juncture, these two incidents raise two corresponding deeper questions: How would cricket feature amid the conflicting interests of the two countries and how far has cricket been politicized?
Cricket as a Means to Pursue Politics
In a letter addressed to the ICC and the organizers of the 2019 Cricket World Cup, the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) petitioned a request to issue a ban against the Pakistan Cricket Board. The argument presented by the BCCI was that ties should be severed with “states harboring terror” in the form of a cricketing embargo. The ICC responded that the banning of any state from the cricketing fraternity is outside the purview of the international board. However, the Indian Board is still hopeful about a ban and the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) is prepared with a defense to nullify that attempt in the upcoming quarterly meeting of the ICC. While there are sufficient number voices from the Indian cricketing community in favor of boycotting the match against Pakistan in 2019 Cricket World Cup, the BCCI, being the richest and the powerful cricketing body, will also increase pressure at the international level for Pakistan’s isolation at the same time.
The BCCI may push forward with its bid to ban Pakistan but it would difficult for the international body to do so for two reasons. First, although India claims that Pakistan has been harboring terrorism, the official stance of Islamabad has always been to deny terrorism as a form of state policy. The only instance when a state was banned from the cricketing fraternity was the case of Apartheid South Africa, where discrimination on the basis of race was an outright official policy of the state. If the PCB is asked to defend against this claim, it would find it convenient to delineate the state’s policy and the violent nonstate actors that Pakistan has been combating from the very beginning.
Second, banning Pakistan would have an adverse effect on the marquee event scheduled this year. For the most emotionally and economically charged cricketing rivalry, the cancellation of such a match would dampen hopes, spirits, and ratings. India and Pakistan have not played a test series in more than 12 years and ICC events are the only place where the spectators get a chance to enjoy the rivalry of the two nations on the pitch. The BCCI has also debarred Pakistani players to play in the lucrative Indian Premier League (IPL) as a response to the attacks of 26/11. However, the irony is that Pakistani cricket has also been a victim of the worsening security situation in the country, even as cricket has largely moved out of Pakistan after a severe attack on the Sri Lankan Cricket Team in 2009.
Political Messaging From the Field
Another incident that has raised controversies is the sporting of camouflage army caps by the Indian Men’s Cricket Team in an international match. While the BCCI says that the act was previously sanctioned by the ICC, the Pakistan Cricket Board has been strongly taking up this issue against the Indians on the basis of the ICC code of conduct. Article 19F of the code restricts cricketers from carrying any form of political messaging through their attire. To support its case, the PCB has raked up two issues from the recent past. First, in 2014 English cricketer Moeen Ali was banned for wearing wristbands that read “Free Palestine” and “Save Gaza.” Second, in 2017 South African cricketer Imran Tahir was reprimanded when he showed the picture of a religious preacher on his attire in one of his celebrations after a wicket. The primary argument from the Pakistani side is that there is no space for such political messaging on the ground. However, India has made it clear that the act was allowed by the ICC previously as it was part of a charity fundraiser.
There can be two ways of looking at this matter. First, there has been a gradual evolution of messaging in sports, where advertising a certain cause has become a part of sporting attire. The most visible symbol is the black arm band. There have also been yearly celebrations of causes through symbolism on the cricket field. The Australian Cricket Board has institutionalized a “Pink” Test Match in order to show support for Breast Cancer Awareness while IPL Franchise Royal Challengers Bangalore sports a green jersey for its environmental campaign once a year in every season. In this regard, the camouflage caps can be justified as the extension of wearing special attire for a cause.
On the other side, the question stands as to whether any such messaging should be accepted as legitimate on a cricket field or not. While sporting army caps is a measure of solidarity, given the context and the circumstances, it is also an act of visible protest in this case. The question is one of normativity, whether such kind of a gesture fits on the sports field or not.
Sports as Collateral Damage
While tensions between the South Asian nuclear powers are at a peak, the turmoil on and off the sporting field is palpable. In lieu of the rising tensions, India had denied visas to two Pakistani shooters for a world event. In response, India has been reprimanded by the International Olympic Council for not following the policy of nondiscrimination, further suspending India’s bid to host Olympic events. In the case of cricket as well, the noticeable presence of political issues has grown.
Two examples from the history of Olympics are with mentioning. First, the 1980 and the 1984 Olympics were half-hearted events due to the heightened tensions of the Cold War, with the U.S. bloc boycotting the 1980 Moscow Olympics and the Soviet bloc boycotting the subsequent 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. Second, the case of 1968 Black Power salute, arguably the most powerful instance of political messaging in sports, still foments polarizing opinions. The India-Pakistan cricket rivalry demonstrates both, compromising the quality of the sport and polarizing opinions, sadly however, even without a ball being bowled on the pitch. While the states have been using cricket as an instrument of state policy, the game has been suffering a blow of the conflicting interests of arguably cricket’s finest arch-rivals.
Udayan Das is a Doctoral Candidate at the Department of International Relations, Jadavpur University