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The chequered history of cricket diplomacy

Soutik Biswas | 10:13 UK time, Tuesday, 29 March 2011

India and Pakistan flags being made to be handed over to cricket fans before the World Cup match between the two countries

Will Indian PM Mammohan Singh's cricket diplomacy pay dividends? Will it help thaw what former Indian diplomat and minister Shashi Tharoor calls "cold peace" between India and Pakistan? "Cold peace", Mr Tharoor says with characteristic flourish, can easily tip over into "hot war" or melt into warmer friendship.

But can cricket help? Will the presence of Indian PM Manmohan Singh and his Pakistani counterpart Yousuf Raza Gilani and their respective entourages at Wednesday's semi-final between India and Pakistan help revitalise the jaded peace process? Or will cricket diplomacy merely end up causing nightmares for the harried organisers of Wednesday's game which will be held at a small stadium in Mohali in Indian Punjab?

Reports from Mohali suggest that the politics of the event is threatening to take centre stage. "The cricketers have suddenly become the bit-part actors in the drama," writes analyst Sharda Ugra. "The two states and their prime ministers have struck. The Indian invited and the Pakistani accepted which now leaves the local hosts worrying about more than whether their sofas and carpets are spruced up and smelling of roses."

Politicians, Ms Ugra says, have certainly made things difficult for organisers. "Hosting prime ministers is one thing, but where the devil can the 50-strong "entourages" that will accompany each of them, be fitted in?" she wonders. "Surely their Honourable-nesses could have watched the game on some giant LED television? " It's a good question.

Cricket diplomacy between India and Pakistan has a chequered 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 when he came to India to watch a Test match between the two sides in February 1987 as part of his "cricket for peace initiative". Delhi had launched a huge military exercise on its border during the winter, and a rattled Islamabad had bolstered troops on its borders in response. The game in Jaipur turned to be a dismal affair, plodding to a draw after rain washed out a day's play and Pakistan objected to sawdust being strewn on the pitch. Two games later, Pakistan grabbed its first Test series win in India.

During the game, the grapevine buzzed, President Zia apparently whispered to Indian PM Rajiv Gandhi that Pakistan had the nuclear bomb. Later, using pointed metaphors, he reportedly asked Indian reporters: "Why do you ignore my sixers to Indian bouncers?" The "peace initiative" came a cropper - though the tension on the border was defused, Indian-administered Kashmir exploded into full blown militancy two years later. Much of it, India alleged, was plotted, fanned and executed by groups across the border.

Some believe that cricket diplomacy may have sometimes actually helped in lowering the temperature between the two countries. They point to the two sides resuming cricket ties in January 1999 - after a decade-long hiatus - just six months after the two countries exploded nuclear devices. In India, the regional right wing Shiv Sena objected violently: its supporters dug up the cricket pitch and demonstrated outside the Pakistani embassy in Delhi, attacked the cricket board's offices in Mumbai and threatened to release snakes in the stadiums.

On field, things were more cordial. Former Pakistan foreign secretary Shaharyar Khan, who was the team manager, remembered a "certain maturity" among the crowds watching the games in this landmark home series. "Good performances were appreciated without bias," he wrote. "The teams interacted sportingly on the field."

Ten thousand Pakistani fans crossed the border to watch a one-day game at Mohali. Mr Khan remembers the "memorable" hospitality shown by Indians - shop owners and taxi drivers gave out discounts to fans from across the border, and a generous Punjab government organised a free Bollywood film show for Pakistani cricketers and a free dinner for visiting fans. He called the 1999 tour "a huge diplomatic and public relations" success.

A few months later, the war in Kargil neutralised cricket's gains. Relations between the siblings deteriorated. Only in 2004 - three years after the failed Agra summit between the two sides - the then Indian PM Atal Behari Vajpayee travelled to Pakistan for a regional summit to break the ice as India announced a cricket tour of Pakistan. "Mr Vajpayee has, in fact, opened the innings," said Mr Khan who was by then chairman of the Pakistan Cricket Board.

Pakistan was to host an Indian team after 19 years. Twenty thousand visas were issued to Indian fans for the five-week tour. It was a resounding success and Indian fans returned with incredible stories of Pakistani hospitality. India won both the Test and one-day series, both closely fought.

A year later, Indian PM Manmohan Singh tried his hand at cricket diplomacy. He invited former president Pervez Musharraf to watch a one-day match between the two sides in Delhi in April 2005. Pakistan thrashed India by 159 runs and won the six-match one-day series 4-2, an amazing comeback after trailing 0-2. Opening for Pakistan, Shahid Afridi scored 44 quicksilver runs in 23 balls, and returned later to pick up two Indian wickets.

Off the field, Mr Musharraf savoured every moment of the game. He later wrote:

Unfortunately for my hosts, the match turned out to be an embarrassment for India because one of Pakistan's star batsmen, Shahid Afridi, clobbered virtually every ball that the Indians bowled at him. Many of his hits headed straight for our VIP enclosure. Like any normal cricket fan I wanted to jump out of my seat shouting and clapping, but I had to control my enthusiasm in deference to my hosts.

Before the match was over, we left for our discussions. It goes without saying that I was dying to get back to the exciting match. So during our official one-on-one meeting I suggested to the prime minister that we go back to see the last hour of the match and also distribute the prizes. I made him agree in spite of his concerns about security. But then, as the meeting continued, my staff kept sending in notes informing me about the collapse of the Indian team when its turn came to bat. India's entire team got out long before the end of the game. Tightly repressing any outward signs of my inner joy, I had to inform Manmohan Singh that the Indian team's batting had been wasted and there was no point in another visit to the stadium.

Boys will be boys, some might say, but they obviously don't know cricket, or the importance of a match between Pakistan and India.

Mr Singh's foray into cricket diplomacy fetched mixed results, say analysts. The two leaders talked about Kashmir, and conflicts over Siachen and Sir Creek. "Coming after a series of failed summits, the conversation between Mr Singh and Gen Musharraf was a game-changer," says analyst C Raja Mohan. "At least for a while."

Three years later, nine gunmen attacked Mumbai and more than 170 lives were lost. India blamed Pakistan-based militants for plotting the terror attack - and peace talks were shelved again.

Will Mr Singh be luckier the second time around? Cricket has suddenly sprung in what could turn out to be a season of bonhomie between India and Pakistan. But relations between the two have been frosty and precarious for long, and it is unfair to expect the cricketers to improve them. Let the cricketers play an exciting game. Let the politicians talk, because silence pays no dividends in this stormy relationship. If things work out in the end, cricket, as Shashi Tharoor says, will only be the "icing on the cake".


  • Comment number 1.

    It’s just another cricket match. Whoever wins or loses nothing is going change overnight between these two countries. Any relationship with India can only be improved if the cross border terrorism stops. If one can’t stop cross border terrorism then nothing will change.

  • Comment number 2.

    A book I have been reading, Diagonal Lengths: Rethinking our world, makes the case for a south asian union consisting of India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, which would run along the lines of the European Union with free movement of people and goods etc. Perhaps next time they go to the match these leaders can take a copy of this book and read it between overs!

  • Comment number 3.

    Well at times you wonder whether it is to discuss affairs of the country or proceeds from betting.

  • Comment number 4.

    mr singh is only trying to deviate public & media attention from the corruption scandals his government is currently facing.
    well tried mr singh, but you could have something to improve corruption situation rather than merely deviating public attention from it.

  • Comment number 5.

    Well cricket may act as a trigger., but it can't change your agenda, it can't change your policy.. (Just pressing the trigger of a gun doesn't mean it will surely fire., what to do if there is no bullet in the gun??.)
    same thing applies here also., just holding a bilateral talk with your counterpart on the occasion of cricket match won't work, if you don't have any intention to change your stand..
    So change your stand,, you will not need any special occasion to meet..
    According to me., both the prime ministers are just putting huge extra pressure on the respective teams., let's see who suffers this pressure more..
    I wish it's not indian team...

    One more astonishing question which is arising in my mind (which although bit off topic but yet i'm posting it here.)
    why the BCCI who have earned more than 2.5 billion $ , only from domestic cricket tournament (IPL), has organised a big occasional match like semi final in a so small cricket stadium (28000 capacity)???

  • Comment number 6.

    I have no doubt the high profile meeting between the two PMs will end up as farce. I hope the cricket match will also not end up a farce. Playing cricket each other every three years or so or for that matter or the politicians talking to each other is becoming if anything a huge Tamaza/joke. I say let the cricketers on both sides of Wagha check post fend for themselves. Can't say the same thing about the politicians though!

  • Comment number 7.

    If it (so-called "Cricket diplomacy") succeed then we (both India and Pakistan) should kick out our (professional) diplomats and political leaders and give that job to our cricketers or Bollywood stars.
    Such invitation to heavy weight politicians, national heads (PM, presidents etc) should not be encouraged, as it put too much pressure on organizers and common spectators while it achieve practically NOTHING, so far political and diplomatic "goals" are concerned.

  • Comment number 8.

    Probably the next venue for India-Pakistan bilateral talks will be held at PVR Anupam (a movie theater at New Delhi). Indian and Pakistani PMs/president/Army chief will watch "munni badman hui" type item songs and dance while "discuss" one of the most problematic issues in world politics and diplomacy.
    Such attempts are nothing but shows gross immaturity and/or dishonesty of our political and diplomatic (so-called) "leaders". Indian politicians like Dr Singh or his boss, Mrs Sonia Gandhi, should have the wisdom, courage and conviction to proceed with proper bilateral talks and/or take appropriate measures to prevent Pakistan to promote Islamic terrorism across J&K (and other states) and interfere in our internal affairs. Our (Indian political leaders') immaturity, inability and probably unwillingness can not be wrapped under the carpet using such naive attempts of "cricket diplomacy".
    We ourselves do not know whether to talk to Pakistan "till the perpetrators of 26/11 are brought to justice" or to wait till next 26/11 (before we start such rhetorics all over again). Our PM and super PM, Sonia Gandhi also does not know whether to term such invitations of talks to "bilateral talks" or just an "invitation to discuss mutual affairs"! I do not know whom they are fooling!

  • Comment number 9.

    Mr Biswas,

    You seem to have problems acknowledging that the gunmen in Mumbai attacks were Pakistani nationals . And this, even after Kasab's Pakistani kin have already done so.

    This clearly puts neutrality of your reporting and BBC in doubt. Moreover, it is crystal clear that all India's peace overtures were rejected by Pakistani hostility,
    and each time Pakistan was the aggressor, India not even once. Indians never
    crossed the line of control into Pakistan , but Pakistan clearly did in Kargil conflict.

    Moreover, you make use of the word 'alleged' in every instance where Pakistan's
    inflicted violence in India. Makes me wonder if you are ISI payroll... nothing else can explain your biased reporting !!

  • Comment number 10.


    Your great novel idea of a proposed 'south-asian union' already exists. It is called SAARC (South Asian Association of Regional Co-operation) and meets regularly regarding issues such as free trade, security etc across the region.

  • Comment number 11.

    It is shame that Indian leaders don’t want to understand --- Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me! Fool me 3, 4,100 times they still keep playing the peace game with Pakistan. Nothing changed in last 65 years, only outcome is millions of Indian Kashmirs got killed by terrorists and the Hindus in the valley got killed or fled their homes, thousands got killed in the wars waged by Pakistan on India. It is about time for India to break all relations with failed, un- secular, terrorist state of Pakistan, and move on as a modern secular progressive county. India need to aim high, and ignore Pakistan, stop cat and mouse games with small players like them. Cricket is just a game nothing more, who wins or loose doesn’t really matter.

  • Comment number 12.

    Negotiation and peace making prevails very little in the hands of the politicians and more in the public. A benevolent relationship between the leaders of two different states might calm down political catastrophes to sum extent but it might not implant the same friendliness in the minds of the citizens of the two states. The kind of political scenario prevailing between the states, explicitly puts forward one question-"IS THEIR AN END TO THIS COLD WAR?". The answer to this has got very little to do with the leaders than the people. Cricket being a religion in India, can tranquilize this war of hearts, at the disposal of the cricketers' amiability and on the contrary, can also contribute to the never fading 'STAIN OF BLOOD'.

  • Comment number 13.

    Even if we separate the Pakistani population from the terrorists who murdered innocent in Mumbai, I certainly don't welcome Pakistani establishment to come to India and watch the game as if NOTHING happened in the history between the two countries. I cannot forget and cannot forgive the Pakistanis who hope for destroying the idea of India. They don't deserve to play in a secular country. And if India doesn't thrash them ( as it has in all other fields), they will go on to play in Mumbai which will be a shame. I don't know how Mumbai will take it.

  • Comment number 14.


    As the 2st ICC Cricket World Cup semi final is approaching (30.3.2011) the sentiments of the citizens of both countries are getting higher. Previously we have even seen the cases of suicides and heart-attacks among the spectators.

    Apparently cricket is a sports activity and we should not loose the essence of this beautiful game by involving unnecessary emotion to this event. Of course, we have to show support to our favorite team in a decent manner without creating any unpleasant atmosphere.

    Now looking at the ground reality, Indian team has an upper edge over Pakistani cricket team for a number of reasons.

    a) Indian team has been seasoned though IPL process.

    b) Better batting force and ground fielding ability.

    c) The advantage of home ground and home crowd.

    d) Enjoying 100% support from the aggressive Indian spectators.

    On the other hand, Pakistan has been suffering without cricket stars like, Amer, Asif and Salman Butt, due to which they have inconsistent batting line up and a limited choice in the bowling area. Also Pakistani team has a psychological pressure due to life treats that they receive time to time from the Hindu extremists in India .

    In conclusion, I feel that India is in a better winning position because it has all the benefits/advantages that a team requires for the victory. Now we need to exercise sportsmanship and watch this important match with the game spirit. I wish good luck to the players of both the teams.

  • Comment number 15.

    This comment has been referred for further consideration. Explain.

  • Comment number 16.

    #14 - sure it's a game, but if thinking of it as a battle makes it more exciting, so why not! It's all entertainment in the end and lets treat it like that! I for one hope it's a royal massacre on the pitch and we proudly march to Mumbai for the final push BOYAH! -- err Indian speaking ))

  • Comment number 17.

    #2, did the book mention anything about what happened or is happening to these "unions"? And did it mention anything at all on NAFTA (asked since you didn't mention anything about it)?

    To recap: the EU is near-ready now to collapse (it was billed once as a revival of the Roman Empire) due to its own unwieldiness. And, btw, the suggested South Asian "union" has long been present--it's known as SAARC--but is as dismal a failure as the UN.

  • Comment number 18.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 19.

    INDIA beat PAK this is a win OF GOOD against EVIL........
    As an INDIAN I do not want WAR with PAK but we have right to DEFEND ourself.
    I am waiting when USA pull out of AFGHANISTAN , then TALIBAN and ISI will work together and FIRST target will be INDIA.
    I do not understand STRATEGY of USA why LIBIYA? Siple answer OIL. Mugambe ZIMBABWE, CONGO, AFRICA onflict lot of PEOPLE BEEN KILLED but no one BOTHER.
    NEXT 15 Years WILL CHANGE POWER..................FROM WESTERN to ARAB ,
    WE ARE GOING ON THE BRINK OF 3 WAR..............

  • Comment number 20.

    This comment has been referred for further consideration. Explain.

  • Comment number 21.

    Today the Indians have won the cricket semi-final. Congratulations!They also have the chance to win hearts of the Pakistani's by making good the promise their late Prime Minister Panditji made for the plebiscite in Kashmir.Mr. ManMohan Singh, the Indian Prime Minister, is the right person who can do the right thing at a right time.All other problems will be automatically resolved if this burning issue is resolved with a sense of mutual trust, respect and understanding by the two Prime Ministers in Mohalli today.This is my ardent wish and the wish of millions on both sides of the isle.Cricket can bring them together, but negotiations have to be made with generosity-give and take.
    The common men/women in both the countries are suffering because of the unfair war mongering and billions spent on armaments. Just think about the dangers posed to the quality of life, education, food, shelters and things of these innocent citizens of both the countries.I hope them to win this game with given spirit of 'sportsmanship'.

  • Comment number 22.

    Sounds good, looks OK,

    But can we not move further.

    Can we not expect India neck to neck with US, Russia, China & other European countries in Olympicg medal list.

    Can we not expect India in other field of sports like athletics, baseball, rugby, football, swimming, badminton etc.

    CRICKET the only sports in India and we feel proud!!!!! (what a fun...) in a field of sports where only eight countries play this (not even their primary sports events at all).

    CRICKET! India beat Pakistan..... nothing but a very usefull instrument to divert the interest of common people of both countries.

    The easiest way to avoid the answers of the following questions to our most destitute common people of India by our leaders:

    1. 70% of of our people earns less than Rs. 100 in a day, Why????

    2. More than 70% of our children suffers mal-nutrition. Why????

    3. Why a common man cant get justice even after his/her death.

    4. Why people are exploited every day in the name of religion, cast, money & power.

    5. Why India's rank in Human Index Value by UN is 183???? (even worser than sub Saharan countries)

    6. Why common people have to work more than 11 hours a day? What's the rule for over time? What's the employment law about this?

    7. Why a common people to be harrasses by police while reporting any incidence in a police station??

    8. Why common people's shoes become tainted in order to get any certificates or letters from the so called government babus??

    9. Why a nation treat us like a animals instead of human being.

    10. How the allocated money spends for the benifit of common people?? Where the moneys gone??

    11. Why social leader become a gurdian to decide the fate of young self choced couples (honour killing).

    12. Why thousands of girls are killed before or soon after their birth?

    13. In an independent country, why people feel not free at night??

    14. Can we ask or sue our beurocrats, ministers, MPs, MLAs about their expenses????

    15. Can we ask the Govt. about the names of black money holders (even our Supreme court failed)

    16. whats the outcome or status of investigatios or recommmendations of committees (a plenty of such committees are set up since independence) regarding any financial or parliamenterian scam or scandals

    A numer of such many questions there are my friend.

    We need to grow up, need to broaden our views/mentalities.

    Otherwise we will remain a small fish in a stagnant pond not in a deep ocean.


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