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Are India and Pakistan Looking to Restart Cricket Diplomacy?

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Are India and Pakistan Looking to Restart Cricket Diplomacy?

An invitation from India’s cricket head to his Pakistani counterpart could provide the opening for a thaw in the broader relationship.

Are India and Pakistan Looking to Restart Cricket Diplomacy?
Credit: Depositphotos

On October 15, Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) President Sourav Ganguly met Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) Chairman Ramiz Raja on the sidelines of the Asian Cricket Council’s Executive Board meeting in the UAE. Ganguly invited his Pakistani counterpart to the Indian Premier League (IPL) final.

Observers say the invitation could be taken as Ganguly’s willingness to resume cricketing ties between India and Pakistan. His invitation was a gesture of good faith on the part of the BCCI.

As Martand Jha wrote in a previous analysis for The Diplomat, “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.”

The credit for initiating “cricket diplomacy” between the two nuclear archrivals goes to former Pakistani military ruler General Zia-ul-Haq, who visited India in 1987 to watch the India-Pakistan match at a time when tensions between the two countries were particularly high.

In late 1986, India announced that it would conduct military exercises in Rajasthan under the name “Operation Brasstacks.” The exercises, which lasted for five months from November 1986 to March 1987, were the largest military mobilization since World War II, involving nearly half a million Indian Army troops.

The area selected for the exercises was adjacent to the Pakistani province of Sindh and the number of Indian troops in the area at one time during the exercises exceeded 400,000.

It was not possible for Pakistan to ignore such a military movement right next to its border. In Islamabad, it was understood that India was preparing to attack Sindh.

In view of these concerns, the then-Pakistani government had deployed all available Pakistani troops on the border with Indian Punjab in mid-January 1987 and there was a strong possibility of war between the two countries.

In these extremely tense circumstances, when the clouds of war were hovering over the heads of both the countries, Pakistan’s President Zia traveled to India under the pretext of watching the India-Pakistan Test match being played in Jaipur. His visit and his meeting with Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi helped ease tensions between the two countries and normalize the situation. Zia’s visit has been hailed as the beginning of “cricket diplomacy” in the subcontinent.

Since then, the leaders of the two countries have resorted to cricket to alleviate occasional tensions in relations. Before the Indian cricket team left for Pakistan in the late 1990s, then-Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee instructed the players to “win not just matches but hearts.”

Under Pakistan’s military chief, General Pervez Musharraf, when the two countries agreed to take steps to build mutual trust through diplomatic efforts in 2004, a few initial steps were taken to bring Test cricket to each other’s soil, an effort that had been stalled for 15 years.

Following in the footsteps of his predecessor, Musharraf, by then the military president of Pakistan, also visited India in April 2005 to watch an India-Pakistan cricket match in New Delhi. His visit was at the invitation of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. A statement issued after Musharraf’s meeting with the Indian prime minister during the cricket-sponsored visit called on the two nations to “work for a solution to the Kashmir issue.”

However, cricket has not only helped restore relations between the two traditional rivals but has also caused a number of controversies in the past, which have led to some tensions in the relationship.

According to sources, Ramiz Raja could not attend Friday’s IPL final, as he had a full itinerary ahead of the T20 World Cup. However, it appears that the relationship between former players could help ease ties between India and Pakistan.

Former Pakistan international player Kamran Akmal has said that he believes Ganguly will make good on his intentions to ensure that bilateral cricket resumes. “The biggest factor is that Sourav Ganguly is the BCCI President. He has played so many games against Pakistan and he understands the importance of these games and how the games can bring the two nations closer,” Akmal said.

“I think he would like to see India play Pakistan during his tenure. I know he wants it; I have played with him and I am sure he thinks about this. The players of that era, they surely want India vs Pakistan games to resume. They can’t say that openly because it may be created into an issue. They aren’t like us, who are always ready to take the first step,” Akmal added.

India and Pakistan last faced off in a bilateral series nearly a decade ago, when they played a limited-overs series in India in 2012.

Earlier Raja, while briefing the Senate Standing Committee on Inter-Provincial Coordination regarding the cancellation of the tours of New Zealand and England cricket teams to Pakistan last month, said that the PCB was indirectly dependent on India in financial matters.

Stressing the need for improving the economic condition of Pakistan cricket, Raja said that the International Cricket Council (ICC) collects 90 percent of its money from Indian cricket, and the ICC in turn provides 50 percent of the funding for Pakistan cricket. If the Prime minister of India decides not to give money to Pakistan out of this fund, the PCB will collapse, Raja suggested.

According to him, the ICC’s economic interests are connected with India; as a result, “India’s business houses are running Pakistan cricket.” Raja said that if Pakistan cricket was economically strong, then “no team will leave us in half an hour,” a reference to the embarrassing withdrawal of New Zealand just ahead of a match. The PCB chairman said that in the opinion of experts, “politics is taking place in the ICC” and the ICC has become an “event management company.”

The PCB chairman’s candid admission of India’s influence on Pakistan cricket, and his Indian counterpart’s invitation for him to attend the IPL final, hints at a new start for India-Pakistan cricket relations. And whenever that transpires, it is likely to set the ball rolling on bilateral diplomacy outside of cricket as well.