May 30, 2020
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Cherry Wars In A Desert

The Indians might have withdrawn from Sharjah, but just how long can India refuse to play Pakistan?

Cherry Wars In A Desert

As with all things concerning the two hostile neighbours, the question of whether India should play cricket with Pakistan evokes fierce, divergent reactions. With the field divided between supporters of resumed cricketing ties and those firmly opposed to the idea, sport is becoming anything but play. One side of the argument is that foreign policy and sports can't possibly merge. The other view affirms that cricket in this part of the world is just an extension of nationalism. And given its 'fondness' for that word, the bjp government, after refusing to play Pakistan post-Kargil, has extended the stand-off on the pretext of banning Indian participation in Sharjah, Toronto and Singapore for the next three years. Pakistan, for its part, retaliated by saying it'll never play India again.

The other party in the conflict, the ICC, has been conspicuously neutral about the whole affair. A fact painstakingly reflected in ICC president Malcolm Gray's comments to Outlook. "The ICC has a great desire that all countries play against each other, but having said that it recognises that there are forces outside the control of the council which could disrupt the game. The foreign policy of a country is very much in the hands of its government," he said. In contrast, Jaywant Lele, honorary secretary, BCCI, was much more forthcoming, "If the government asks us to play, we'll play. If it asks us not to play, we won't play. The BCCI doesn't have a stand on this." To a question on the government's view that there is a serious threat of underworld influence in Sharjah, Lele asks, "Is there is no underworld in Mumbai?" But he also clarifies that the BCCI has no reason to be apologetic to the Cricketers' Benefit Fund Series (CBFS), which organises Sharjah cricket. "There was no contractual violation," he says. But then, India has pulled out less than a week before the start of the tournament. Bikram Vohra from CBFS explains, "The sudden withdrawal has seen sponsors and advertisers run away. We have to start all over again, from scratch. What have we done to get this kind of treatment?"

This isn't the first time India has decided not to play in Sharjah. A few years ago, after the Indians were constantly abused by spectators in the vip stand, the BCCI decided not to play in Sharjah again. However, after a small break, the lure of the desert triumphed. Interestingly, 47 Indian cricketers have benefited from the Sharjah series so far, and this year, Rs 20 crore was supposed to be raised for Gujarat's quake victims. In response, sports minister Uma Bharati offers a unique solution. Talking to pti, she said, "Rs 200 crore can be raised if our team plays matches with film stars in India. There's no need to play Pakistan in Sharjah or anywhere else."

Amidst all this, Imran Khan, in his post-cricket politician's avatar, offers a startling counterpoint. He believes India is 'scared' to play Pakistan and so is hiding behind diplomacy. Rebuffs former national coach Ajit Wadekar, "Pakistan cricket is in a shambles right now. We've a bad record in Sharjah against them, and this could've been the right time to change that. I don't think there's anything wrong in playing Pakistan. If we can play hockey, why not cricket?" Former all-rounder Madan Lal doesn't agree. "Cricket is more than a sport here. It's an extension of being Indian. And so I can understand the government's stand against playing Pakistan." Eknath Solkar too believes it's all for the good, "Our players are under so much pressure when they play Pakistan.I've not played in Pakistan but it's obvious that there are many external forces acting on the players. A match between the two is never about cricket."

That's what statistician Anant Goundalkar finds in his records. After a long gap of 17 years, following hostilities between the two countries, India and Pakistan resumed cricketing ties with India's 1978-79 tour. But in a one-day encounter, captain Bishen Singh Bedi called back his batsmen (when just 23 runs were required off 14 balls with 8 wickets in hand) in protest against Sarfraz Nawaz's persistent short-pitched bowling. Again, in 1989-90, when Pakistan was at a precarious 28 for three after 14.3 overs in Karachi, the police had to teargas and baton-charge a riotous crowd. The game was abandoned. In the same tour, which was also India's last visit across the border, captain Krishnamachari Srikkanth was manhandled by a spectator while fielding near the boundary. In 1991-92, Shiv Sena activists dug the Mumbai pitch to protest against Pakistan's tour of India, which was eventually cancelled. The malaise spread to neutral venues too. In 1997-98, during the second match between the two teams in Toronto, a spectator used a mega-phone to repeatedly taunt Pakistani batsman Inzamam-ul-Haq. Inzamam, fielding on the boundary, got a bat from the 12th man and waved it ominously at Shiva Kumar, the erring spectator. In 1999-2000 India and Pakistan didn't play each other in the Toronto triangular series. West Indies played the two countries separately, giving a new definition to the word triangular.

Despite the tense atmosphere, and undeniable excitement, generated when the two countries play, many believe the view that cricket is just a sport and should be left at that is a rather naive outlook. Says sports writer K.N. Prabhu, "You can't rule out emotions here. When our boys are being shot dead in Kashmir, how can we play cricket with Pakistan? It's all fine to say that politics and sports shouldn't mix, but it always does. Wasn't South Africa isolated? Didn't we forfeit the Davis Cup a few years ago? And didn't the US and the Soviet Union lose out on glory many times because they wouldn't face each other in the Olympics?" Noted journalist Raju Bharatan believes otherwise. "The Pakistanis are world-beaters. Indians always stand to gain a lot of experience by playing against such a team. It's a wrong policy not to play against any country. Let's not forget that Pakistan has made every attempt to play cricket with us. They've constantly been rebuffed." Avers legendary spinner E.A.S Prasanna, "Pakistan's reaction was only a retaliation. I don't think they're serious about never playing against us." There's been some confusion over whether Pakistan's stand will create problems during the next World Cup in South Africa, where the two nations may well face each other. Says Malcolm Gray, "As I understand it, they'll have no problems playing each other in South Africa." Adds K. Srikkanth, "There will be such noises now. Then the two cricket boards will get together and we'll start playing each other. Nothing to worry."

So then, does sport really have to be a handmaiden to politics? Indeed, the question isn't restricted to the subcontinent—Latin America has even seen a war or two over football matches. But many have abiding faith in the genuine following cricket has here. And the overriding feeling is that Indo-Pakistan cricket will go on. It's the bjp that may not last at the crease for long.

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