The World T20 clash between India and Pakistan bore out Indian captain M S Dhoni’s reading that the cricketing rivalry had mellowed over the years. It was a largely well-mannered game on and off the field, as had been their clash earlier this month in the Asia Cup. That is to be appreciated; as Dhoni said, the game should be played in the right spirit and without crossing the line. Both matches were also, however, curiously bloodless affairs, lacking in the tension that has defined clashes between the two teams through the decades. This is not a new development; what was once one of the great sports rivalries has gradually eroded over the past few years. It is a cautionary tale of how politics — both of the administrative variety and in a larger national context — can undercut the raison d’etre of sports.
There is a reason India-Pakistan matches generate such little heat now. Cricketing rivalries are not built on infrequent meetings in limited overs tournaments or one-day series that lack context. They require a narrative informed by the rigours of Test cricket. But the last time the two countries played a Test series was in 2007-08 when Pakistan toured India. The suspension of cricketing ties between the two countries in the immediate aftermath of the 26/11 attack later in 2008 was both inevitable and understandable. Likewise, the 2009 attack on the Sri Lankan team in Pakistan meant that no cricket board or player would be comfortable touring the country. In the years since then, the Pakistan team has become nomadic, playing its home series in the UAE, and experienced the nadir of the spot-fixing incident. It has still managed to produce bursts of the erratic brilliance that is its calling card, but its changed circumstances have been damaging. This is a loss for the cricketing world, but most of all for India.
Enough time has passed since the Mumbai attacks to revisit the issue of India-Pakistan series. Unfortunately, politics has played spoiler and continues to do so. No party has dared to be the one to support the notion of inviting the Pakistani team to India; the exclusion of Pakistani players from the Indian Premier League shows how deep the animus runs. And while India touring Pakistan remains unfeasible, board politics stop it from playing on the latter’s turf in the UAE. For one thing, that would mean less control over the series revenue for the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI). For another, BCCI’s status as the predominant power in world cricket and its attempt, in concert with the Australian and English boards, to strengthen its control over the game make it even more difficult for the two countries’ cricketing administrations to find common ground.
Certainly, the rivalry has always had its ugly side, propagated by those who confuse chest-thumping jingoism with being sports fans. The treatment meted out to Kashmiri students over the matches this month is a case in point. But the tremendous warmth with which the Indian team and cricket tourists were greeted in Pakistan during the groundbreaking 2003-04 series showed what it can be when taken in the right spirit. That potential will not be fulfilled without political will.