Learning from the ancient Greeks

Print edition : July 18, 2003

Sachin Tendulkar (right) and Wasim Akram at the start of their World Cup match in Pretoria, South Africa, on March 1, 2003. The civility that Indian and Pakistani players tend to demonstrate has been absent in the crowd. - AMAN SHARMA/AP

There is no reason why India and Pakistan cannot resume bilateral cricketing ties at the present time.

SPORT and politics have always mixed. Almost 2,800 years ago, the Greeks realised that sport was a political weapon as well as a diplomatic tool. The ancient Olympics, held every four years in Olympia, was accompanied by an "ekecheiria" or truce. The truce, ratified by all the Greek states, guaranteed the safety of participants and spectators travelling to and from the site of the games and also prevented armies from entering Elis (the city-state where Olympia was located) and disrupting the games. Some have even claimed that wars were suspended during the games on account of the truce. Whether the truce had such a far-reaching effect remains unresolved. What is interesting is that the ancient Greeks, whose city-states were incessantly at war with one another, shared the belief that sport and intellectual exchanges - a vital component of the ancient Olympics - could take place in a civil atmosphere amidst differences and conflicts.

There is no better contemporary example of the interplay of politics and sport than cricket in the sub-continent. In response to Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee's "hand of friendship" offer to Pakistan in late April, Pakistani Prime Minister Mir Zafarullah Khan Jamali suggested that revival of sporting contacts could be a "good beginning". In an interview to NDTV on June 13, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf said: "I would like cricket and all sporting ties to resume... but cricket is a trivial issue. And let me tell you that my players don't want to play in India." Ever since Jamali proposed a renewal of sporting ties, the question of India-Pakistan cricket has been in the news. The two countries have agreed to resume cricket at the junior level and the Indian under-19 team is planning to take part in a tri-nation tournament in Pakistan in August and September. Any true revival of sporting ties must foreground the resumption of cricket between the senior sides of the two countries. According to the ten-year plan of the International Cricket Council (ICC), Pakistan's senior side is scheduled to tour India in February 2004.

Troubled sporting relations are an age-old phenomenon. The expulsion of South Africa from the international sporting community on account of its apartheid policies was partly responsible for the downfall of the inhumane system. The United States and its allies boycotted the 1980 Moscow Olympics and four years later, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) and its supporters reciprocated by withdrawing from the Los Angeles games. Interestingly, some U.S. allies including Great Britain, France, Sweden and Italy participated in the Moscow Olympics even though their governments were in favour of a boycott. The Olympic associations in those countries are independent bodies and the final decision regarding participation rests in the hands of the associations themselves. In Britain, the British Olympic Association voted to send its athletes to Moscow in spite of strong opposition and pressure from the Thatcher government. Despite the Olympic boycotts, the U.S. and USSR maintained some semblance of sporting contacts during the Cold War. While they competed against each other in the Olympics and other multilateral competitions, there was a bilateral component to their sporting exchanges. U.S. - USSR dual meets in disciplines such as track and field, wrestling and gymnastics were a regular feature and the two countries took turns to host the event. One of the most memorable U.S. - USSR dual track and field meets was held in Moscow in July 1961, barely three months after the Bay of Pigs invasion.

Indian and Pakistani cricket teams first competed against each other in 1952 and even then, there were differing views on the rationale of India-Pakistan cricket. Although the Pakistani team's first visit to India in 1952 was incident-free, it met with protests from the Hindu Mahasabha in Nagpur and Kolkata. The Hindu Mahasabha president at that time, Dr. N.B. Khare, remarked: "Pakistan is intent upon ousting her unwanted population by the method of intimidation, which includes outraged acts on womanhood. It is deplorable that at this identical period India has invited the Pakistan cricket team here... I regard this action as an ignoble one devoid of any sense of honour and self-respect and an index of the depth of our moral and national degradation" (Ramchandra Guha, A Corner of a Foreign Field, 2002). The teams played each other thrice between 1952 and 1961 but did not play at all between 1961 and 1978. In the period 1978-1989, there were seven Test series between the two teams. The last Test series between them in India in early 1999 went ahead despite opposition from the Shiv Sena, whose activists even damaged the pitch in Delhi weeks before a Test was scheduled to be played there. The teams have met in one-day internationals tournaments through the 1990s.

Few other sporting encounters have the emotional intensity of an India-Pakistan game. It is cricket itself and fans in various countries who have lost through the refusal of the two countries to play each other. It is a shame that the careers of Wasim Akram and Sachin Tendulkar have coincided during one of the lowest points in India-Pakistan cricketing relations. Akram made his debut in 1984-85, five years before Tendulkar, and has played 12 Test matches against India (approximately 11.5 per cent of the 104 Tests he has played). Tendulkar, on the other hand, has played only seven Tests against Pakistan (approximately 6.7 per cent of the 105 Tests he has played). By way of comparison, Akram has played 19 Tests (18.27 per cent of his total Tests), and Sachin has played 13 Tests (12.4 per cent) against Sri Lanka.

The Pakistani team during its victory lap in the Chidambaram stadium during the India-Pakistan Test series of 1998-99. A sporting Chennai crowd did the country proud by giving the Pakistanis a standing ovation.-N. BALAJI

Indian and Pakistani players have, by and large, got along well on and off the field. This was particularly true when the two countries met frequently. However, with India-Pakistan matches becoming rare, a match between the two countries has become a high-pressure situation. There is too much at stake in a single game such as the March 1 clash in the 2003 World Cup. The burden placed on Indian cricketers is already excessive but it is magnified when Pakistan is involved. The pressure cooker situation can be brought under control only if the two teams play against each other in the normal course.

It has been suggested that cricket should resume only when relations between the two countries are more favourable. There may never be a perfect time to renew cricketing ties, especially since the two countries have been engaged in low-scale warfare since Independence. No doubt, Pakistan has actively aided cross-border terrorism but the government has indicated that the time is favourable enough to resume trade, travel and diplomatic links. If the Lahore-Delhi bus service can be resumed and trade with Pakistan can take place, why can't the two teams compete on a cricket field? It has also been contended that cricket cannot improve relations between the two countries. This may indeed be true but boycotting bilateral sporting ties with Pakistan has not stopped terrorism either.

While bilateral sporting ties have been absent since Kargil, the government seems more amenable to contact in other sports. Even as recently as early June, the Indian hockey team participated in a four-team tournament in Australia that involved Pakistan. Indian and Pakistani athletes in other disciplines, including squash, tennis and volleyball, have played in each other's country during the period bilateral cricket ties were suspended. If cricket matches are being boycotted on account of national policy, why is this not equally applied to all sports? If playing Pakistan is purely a moral issue, then the distinction between bilateral and multilateral events does not make much sense. Further, bilateral ties may not be applicable in the strict sense to all sports. India cut off all sporting contact with South Africa in the apartheid era and even forfeited the 1974 Davis Cup final to South Africa, possibly surrendering its best chance to win the prestigious event. Technically, the Davis Cup is a multilateral tournament, even though individual matches are played in one of the countries involved.

Cricket does provoke passion in the two countries like no other sport but the government, media and, increasingly, commercial interests have, to some extent, been responsible for creating the immense hype surrounding India-Pakistan cricket matches. While hockey's popularity is less than cricket's in the sub-continent, Indo-Pakistan hockey games tend to be relatively low-key affairs, partly because they are not hyped. It must be recognised that cricket is merely a game and does not deserve special treatment where Pakistan is concerned. The government and the media must stop placing excessive emphasis on India-Pakistan cricket matches. For a start, the tendency to use metaphors of warfare in relation to cricket matches must stop.

The civility that Indian and Pakistani players tend to demonstrate has been absent in the crowd. For too many years now, cricket in the two countries has carried with it the baggage of hyper nationalism. As Ramachandra Guha points out: "Sporting nationalism has always been most intense where there is a general feeling of insecurity or inferiority... integration of the world through television and liberalisation of India's own economy have made comparisons with other countries more obvious and less palatable... India ranks 150 in the World Development Report, just below Namibia and just above Haiti. It is the cricketers, and they alone, who are asked to redeem these failures" (A Corner of a Foreign Field). Hyper nationalism tends to translate itself into boorish and unruly behaviour from sections of the crowd. Poor crowd behaviour is not specific to India-Pakistan games. One of the most shameful moments in Indian cricket history was the 1996 World Cup semi-final in Kolkata, when the match was awarded to Sri Lanka due to hooliganism in the stands. More recently, in the 2002 India-West Indies series, crowds in Jamshedpur, Nagpur and Rajkot resorted to throwing stones and bottles and setting small fires in the first three ODIs. India-Pakistan matches have, at times, brought out extreme reactions from the crowd. In the 1998-99 India-Pakistan Test series, a sporting Chennai crowd did the country proud by giving the victorious Pakistani team a standing ovation. But the goodwill generated in Chennai was shattered days later in Kolkata when the stadium had to be cleared of cricket hooligans.

Eden Gardens, Kolkata, February 19, 1999. The stadium had to be emptied following violent crowd behaviour during an India-Pakistan Test match.-V.V. KRISHNAN

When exaggerated stakes are placed in India-Pakistan matches, crowd behaviour tends to deteriorate and emotions become highly charged. This was evident when India beat Pakistan in this year's World Cup. There were no violent acts but some fans on both sides resorted to chanting unpleasant and often communally tinged slogans against each other. It was sad to hear Indian supporters boasting to the media that beating Pakistan was as good as winning the World Cup. No doubt, a Pakistani win would have aroused the same sentiment among its supporters. The average Indian fan is no longer gracious enough to acknowledge the performance of a player belonging to a rival team. More reprehensible is the fact that after almost 56 years of Independence, the patriotism of Indian Muslims is questioned during India-Pakistan cricket matches. Even in a seemingly cosmopolitan city like Bangalore, there were violent acts directed at Muslims after India's victory over Pakistan in the 2003 World Cup.

The tension of Indo-Pakistan cricket matches can only be removed if the teams play each other more often. The novelty of the "clash" will be removed, emotions will be less charged, and high stakes will not be placed on a single game. Moreover, the point must be driven home that there is no religious, cultural or any other kind of non-sporting significance to a cricket match. It is almost always a small section of fans that causes disturbances during games. Cricket hooliganism is not exclusive to India-Pakistan matches and matches cannot be cancelled on account of the fear that a small section may disrupt proceedings.

The current level of mutual distrust between civilians in India and Pakistan is very high. For years, there was no demonstrable ill will between civilians themselves on both sides but today ordinary citizens on both sides are totally misinformed about each other. Along with political steps, sporting, cultural and people to people contact must be encouraged. Indians and Pakistanis tend to co-exist peacefully outside the subcontinent and social interaction is one of the main reasons for this. Such interaction must be encouraged in the subcontinent, partly through the instrumentality of cricket, a potent non-political influence.

The security angle has often been cited by both governments as a reason to cancel India-Pakistan cricket tours. There have indeed been terrorist threats to Indian cricketers but it must also be recognised that politicians of both countries have, in the past, played the security card to hide political motives and cancel cricket matches. Both countries must have a zero-tolerance policy with regard to security concerns and crowd behaviour. The government has indicated that it is safe enough to resume diplomatic, trade and transport links and this maybe a signal that cricket can also start. New Zealand withdrew from its Pakistan tour in May 2002 after a bomb blast outside the team's hotel. It also refused to play a World Cup match in Kenya for security reasons but New Zealand has now agreed to play five one-day internationals in Pakistan in November this year. There have also been suggestions that India and Pakistan should play at neutral venues. However, cricket in neutral venues takes the sheen off the game. Playing in neutral venues is a temporary solution at best and the true spirit of sporting ties can only be revived if sport is played in India and Pakistan. There is no reason why the two countries cannot follow the example of the bellicose ancient Greeks and play cricket for its own sake.

A letter from the Editor


Dear reader,

The COVID-19-induced lockdown and the absolute necessity for human beings to maintain a physical distance from one another in order to contain the pandemic has changed our lives in unimaginable ways. The print medium all over the world is no exception.

As the distribution of printed copies is unlikely to resume any time soon, Frontline will come to you only through the digital platform until the return of normality. The resources needed to keep up the good work that Frontline has been doing for the past 35 years and more are immense. It is a long journey indeed. Readers who have been part of this journey are our source of strength.

Subscribing to the online edition, I am confident, will make it mutually beneficial.

Sincerely,

R. Vijaya Sankar

Editor, Frontline

Support Quality Journalism
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor
×