Political tensions between Pakistan and India go back to the time of independence in 1947, and the partition of the subcontinent. In this final ‘Pakistan @ 75’ post, Ali Khan looks at how cricket, the much-loved sport in both countries, has always prevailed with amity amid competitiveness and the shadow of political hostilities, and how it is an unfortunate victim of the current political impasse between the two countries.
The year 2022 marked 75 years since Pakistan and India gained independence. For Pakistan it has also been almost 75 years since the emergence of the Pakistan cricket team. India had already joined what was then known as the Imperial Cricket Conference (now the International Cricket Council, ICC) in 1926. Pakistan had to wait for 5 years following independence to be granted entry to the ICC. Two earlier attempts, in 1948 and 1950, had been rebuffed with the ICC on the grounds that there were ‘insurmountable difficulties for the nation to overcome’. However, on the third attempt, the ICC, on the recommendation of Anthony de Mello (then President of the Board of Control for Cricket in India, BCCI), awarded Pakistan full membership. It was therefore fitting that India was the first team to play a Test Match with Pakistan in 1952 in Delhi.
The 70 years since Pakistan and India played their first series has led to the emergence of one of sports’ most engaging and passionate rivalries born of the two countries’ unique history, and their political tension. And yet this is also a rivalry that has not been continuous, instead being punctuated by long periods of rupture — and in some senses the increasingly rare encounters lately have therefore taken on an even greater significance.
But in the 75 years since independence, the Pakistan-India rivalry has also defied expectations, often going against the grain of the existing political relations between the two neighbours, facilitating diplomatic breakthroughs and occasionally showing what a glimpse of enduring peace between the two countries may actually look like. These years of interaction are broadly divided by three periods of connectivity totalling about 30 years, separated by an equal number of blocks of rupture totalling 40 years.
I have always found the first period of connectivity the most surprising one, surprising because within five years of the Partition of the subcontinent in 1947 (a time when approximately 20 million people moved between the newly-formed nations of Pakistan and India, and more than a million lost their lives in terrible communal violence), India supported Pakistan’s admission to the ICC, and was the first country to play a Test Match against Pakistan. By contrast, England and Germany would not play football against one another for nine years after the end of the Second World War, and 16 years in total if the War is taken into account. Moreover, by 1952, while some of the initial tensions in the aftermath of Partition had eased, Pakistan and India had already fought a war over Kashmir (in 1948) and skirmishes continued periodically along an increasingly militarised border. The relationship remained tense.
The Pakistan cricket tour to India in 1952 represented the first real opportunity for people-to-people contact following the horrors of Partition. It helped that the two captains of the time knew each other: pre-Partition, Abdul Hafeez Kardar (of Pakistan) and Lala Amarnath (of India) had in fact lived a stone’s throw from one another in Lahore. They both learnt their early cricket on the fields of Minto Park, and both played for Lahore’s famous Crescent Club. They spoke the same language and shared the same culture. Amarnath, in fact, went to Delhi train station to receive the Pakistan cricketers when they arrived via Amritsar for their first Test Match.
The Pakistani cricketers had embarked on the tour with a mix of trepidation and excitement. The apprehension revolved around violence accompanying Partition that had torn communities apart. Amarnath’s own house in Lahore was burnt down and he narrowly avoided being butchered on a train. On another train journey, Fazal Mehmood (who would go on to become one of Pakistan’s greatest fast bowlers) was saved from extremists by fellow cricketer C.K. Nayudu brandishing his bat at the assailants; Nayudu had been India’s first ever Test captain.
The excitement stemmed from the thrill of playing their first test series representing Pakistan, and also because (as Lala Amarnath’s biography Lala Amaranth, Life and Times: The Making of a Legend (2007) notes) for a majority of Pakistanis, the tour was an opportunity to meet their old friends, cricketers and relatives who had stayed back in India — a kind of homecoming. And where one would have expected hostility, there was only amity. Waqar Hasan, one of the touring Pakistanis wrote in his diary: ‘the hospitality and the care for the visiting team was such that it seemed to us all the enmity that existed during the Partition of India and in the creation of Pakistan between the two nations had fizzled out in the air.’
A similar script followed when India made a return tour to Pakistan in 1954. Ten thousand Indian fans travelled to watch the Lahore Test match; those that lived in Amritsar were allowed to cross the Indo-Pak border back each night to their homes. It was remarkable that the first tour produced such warmth between the players and the crowds.
How was this possible? My hypothesis is that there existed a cultural capital that a geographical and violent Partition could not extinguish, and which continued to facilitate communication and connectivity so that — even following serious ruptures —shared histories, legacies and cultures promoted reconnection and healing. This happens every time a connection is re-made. When thinking of Pakistan and India, the dominant view is of enmity. But there is also a deep bond that has existed throughout the last seven decades. Their collective histories and culture remain at odds with the political relations between the nation-states. The two countries share similar languages, music, dress, customs and cuisines, and when their citizens meet in a third country, they slip easily into camaraderie. Indian films remain part of culture across the border, and Pakistani television serials and musicians have been popular in India. Until recently, a national of either country visiting the other was soon overwhelmed with the hospitality showered upon them by anyone discovering where they were from.
The first rupture occurred between 1961–78. Two wars (in 1965 and 1971) meant that this was a period when there was a much broader rupture in connectivity, beyond cricket. Trade, travel and postal links were broken, and diplomatic relations downgraded. A reconnection was not made for 17 years, and surprisingly occurred not under the civilian government of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto (1971–77) but following the military dictator General Zia-ul Haq’s succession in 1977. Political scientists have pointed out the lack of substantive breakthroughs in relations between India and Pakistan during this period but the two countries maintained good intentions towards one another, leading to a kind of ‘peace theatre’.
Cricket tours were part of this ‘peace theatre’, boosted further by the enthusiasm of the respective Cricket Boards, the players, and fans on both sides of the political border. Despite lack of progress on outstanding political tensions, connectivity in the decade was higher than at any point previously. Regular flights between the cities of Karachi and Lahore (in Pakistan) and Delhi and Bombay (in India), and sporting and cultural encounters were frequent, particularly in cricket and hockey. Perhaps the most significant feature of this period was the rise of ‘cricket diplomacy’ initiated by Zia-ul Haq famously and successfully when escalating troop mobilisation tensions on the border were dampened through Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and General Zia meeting at the Test Match in Jaipur in 1987. There was also a burgeoning relationship between the two Cricket Boards which showed a glimpse of what Pakistan–India cooperation could achieve if the right circumstances existed.
Unfortunately, beginning with escalation of militancy in Kashmir in the early 1990s and culminating during the Kargil War in 1999, a partial consensus emerged in India that it should not play cricket with Pakistan on either Indian or Pakistani soil while people were dying due to Pakistan’s allegedly subversive activities in India. This led to the second long break (1990–2003) save for a short Pakistan tour to India in 1998–99 which was remarkable in itself for the ‘against the grain’ warmth of the Indian reception for Pakistani players throughout the tour. Unfortunately, the Kargil War put an end to the rapprochement for another 4 years.
Following a decade of hostility and declining people-to-people contact, a political rapprochement between Pakistan’s President Pervez Musharraf and India’s Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee brought about the most enduring gains in connectivity that Pakistan and India have ever experienced. Between 2003–8, relations improved with a glimpse of what real and enduring peace may look like. Amongst the most successful of the Cricket Board Meetings and amongst the earliest was the announcement and the subsequent enormous success of India’s tour to Pakistan in 2003–4. This spurred a raft or people-to-people contacts during the matches themselves and beyond.
I think this had become urgent. A long break in people-to-people contacts and growing negative stereotypes led to Pakistan and India viewing themselves as enemies that were ill-disposed towards one another rather than arch rivals. Yet, as in 1952, the warmth of the interaction after the break, and once a conducive political environment was created, was astonishing. The Indian journalist Rahul Bhattacharya, covering the tour, wrote in his subsequent book Pundits from Pakistan (2005):
For the Indians poured in. They came in numbers that they had never been permitted to come in before; they came by air, they came by foot, they came by road, they came by rail using all the channels that had been opened up since Vajpayee’s January visit. Larger flights, special flights, extra buses, thousands came on foot, with banners saying ‘Friends Forever’.
The goodwill created by the tour spurred a host of additional measures which included a revival of the Composite Dialogue Process in 2003, the launch of a landmark bus service across the ceasefire line dividing Indian- and Pakistani-controlled Kashmir, the lifting of the ban on the screening of Indian films in Pakistan after a period of over 40 years, restored and increased rail links, and the restoration of diplomatic relations at the level of High Commissioners along with an increase in the staff capacities of respective High Commissions. Even the terrorist attacks in Mumbai in 2008, which admittedly were a major setback, did not lead to a break in relations. And all this while, cricketing flourished.
Unfortunately, relations spiralled downwards from 2016 after a number of skirmishes in Kashmir, and India’s tilt towards an increasingly belligerent Hindutva which complicated relations further. The outcome has been no bilateral cricket, the severing of trade, postal, air, bus and rail links, the re-banning of Indian films in Pakistan, downgraded diplomatic relations, and a visa regime which has seen the number of visas issued dropping from hundreds of thousands a year to probably their lowest levels — 200 or so — with even medical visas not being granted.
The fraying of cricketing ties has been a painful one. There have been no bilateral matches since 2012. A generation of cricketers have not played each other in Test Matches. Pakistan was deprived of any home matches for a decade following the 2009 attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team. The return of cricket has been a tenuous and fragile process but in the last 3 years all the major cricketing nations sans India have toured Pakistan. Political tensions continue to prevent this. Pakistan’s hosting of the Asia Cup is therefore in doubt and, in a tit-for-tat move, Pakistan will reconsider playing the World Cup in India in October 2023. It is already unfortunate that while cricketers from all other cricket-playing nations are part of the cash-rich Indian Premier League (IPL), their Pakistani counterparts are shut out. This is akin to inviting everyone in the class to your birthday party except one classmate. As IPL owners buy up teams in other foreign leagues, will the doors of those also shut for Pakistani cricketers? Ultimately, the isolation of Pakistan will impoverish the game of cricket, already robbed of its most exciting rivalry.
Unfortunately, the signs of better relations between Pakistan and India appear distant. Yet, sport has enormous emotional appeal. As Nelson Mandela said at the inaugural Laureus World Sports Awards in 2000:
Sport has the power to change the world. It has the power to inspire. It has the power to unite people in a way that little else does. It speaks to youth in a language they understand. Sport can create hope where once there was only despair. It is more powerful than governments in breaking down racial barriers. It laughs in the face of all types of discrimination.
And in fact, whenever given the chance, players from both teams have often shown more maturity and diplomatic skills than political leaders, and have given Indians and Pakistanis hope of rapprochement that includes, and goes beyond, cricket alone. But the longer the break between Pakistan and India, the more time the states have to poison their people’s minds. And yet while Pakistanis and Indians increasingly think of themselves as more and more different, they are probably more similar than ever before, bound by culture, history, poverty, corruption, youth and similar global aspirations.
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