Goodwill is a priceless commodity in foreign relations. A country’s warm feelings toward another can do wonders to overcome the international realm’s primary problem — the deficit of trust — and it can become a substantial platform to develop strong cultural and economic ties. Establishing goodwill can be tricky, yet the engagement from sporting competitions is one powerful way that countries can gain a greater understanding of one another, and build lasting bonds.
However, as Australia has recently discovered, sport can also come with diplomatic costs. Relations between Australia and Serbia, for example, have soured after tennis player Novak Djokovic was prevented from playing in the Australian Open. Sport, obviously, does not exist in a bubble. It has to negotiate the world environment like all other forms of human interaction, and the COVID-19 pandemic has proved a serious impediment to these forms of exchange.
Negotiating these ancillary hurdles is where the Australian men’s cricket team currently finds itself with its forthcoming tour of Pakistan. The team is scheduled to play in the country during March and April, yet a cloud continues to hang over the tour. Rather than this being due to concerns about the pandemic, it is instead the team’s security that is proving to be the impediment.
Cricket playing countries have been reluctant to play in Pakistan after the Sri Lankan team bus was attacked en route to a stadium in Lahore in 2009. In the attack, six members of the team and its entourage were injured, while six Pakistani policemen and two civilians were killed. The Afghanistan-based Lashkar-e-Jhangvi was suspected of being responsible for the attack.
Since then Pakistan has mostly played its “home” games in the United Arab Emirates. Yet for the cricket-loving Pakistani public, being unable to watch their team live has been a great disappointment. It has taken away a crucial aspect of the relationship between the team and its supporters, but also the positive relationship between Pakistani fans and opposing teams. These are fans of the game, not just their own country.
In 2015, Zimbabwe became the first team to tour Pakistan after the terrorist attack. Games against Zimbabwe would usually not draw the large crowds that games against stronger teams would, yet the packed stadiums on the tour were a demonstration of the appreciation the public felt toward Zimbabwe for making the effort to come to Pakistan to play. Goodwill is a powerful force.
Since 2018 other countries have started returning to Pakistan to play cricket, but mostly in the shorter forms of the game, not the prestigious five-day Test matches. Last year South Africa became the first team to play a Test match in Pakistan since 2009. However, Australia’s forthcoming tour of Pakistan is set to be the most substantial tour, with three Test matches scheduled as well as a number of games in shorter formats. Given Australia’s status as one of the giants of the game, the tour is of critical importance to Pakistan.
Yet Australia remains tentative. In September last year, New Zealand abruptly cancelled their tour of Pakistan on the morning of the first game, quickly leaving the country after citing security concerns. England followed suit and cancelled the games it had scheduled in Pakistan in October. Teams are obviously still nervous about playing in Pakistan.
Yet there may be another reason for Australia’s hesitation, and this is that Cricket Australia (the sport’s governing body) does not seem to value playing countries that are not either India or England. The “Big Three,” as they have come to be known, dominate the sport’s revenue model and as a result are only enthusiastic about playing each other (with the rare India vs. Pakistan matches being an obvious exception).
The problem is that the Big Three are not necessarily the best three. Until two weeks ago New Zealand was the highest ranked country in Test cricket, while Pakistan, South Africa, and Sri Lanka are all very strong teams. The games Australia will play against Pakistan – if the tour goes ahead – will undoubtedly be of better quality than their recent walkovers of England. Cricket fans will know this, and Pakistani cricket fans will especially know this.
Given that only a small number of countries play cricket at an elite level (12 with the addition of Afghanistan and Ireland in 2018), there are strong bonds of kinship that these countries have with each other. While the sport is often deemed to be perplexing to the rest of the world, this small group share a responsibility to maintain the health of the sport within each other’s countries, not just their own. Former South African captain, Graeme Smith, has openly worried that the Big Three may become the only three.
It is not only financial incentives that are undermining the health of the sport. The attack on the Sri Lankan team’s bus in 2009 was driven by people hostile to this form of cultural exchange. Yet when sporting tours are cancelled out of fear, it is those who wish to disrupt cultural bonds between countries who are victorious. Due to this it is not only Pakistan who has borne the costs of other countries’ reluctance to travel there.
The Pakistani government has a clear self-interest to make sure that visiting sportspeople are kept safe, and last year’s South African tour was afforded “state guest level security.” Yet it is also in Australia’s self-interest to make sure that the tour goes ahead. The Australian cricket team is a significant arm of the country’s soft power, and the goodwill toward Australia they will create by playing in Pakistan should be considered an important element of its engagement with South Asia.