Cricket: Creator & Destroyer

Cricket: Creator & Destroyer

March 23, 2004

Whenever I have gone to Pakistan to cover political happenings there, I have always been struck by the fact that a Pakistani Punjabi from Lahore strikingly resembles an Indian Punjabi from Delhi in his looks, mannerisms, habits — everything but religion. And does one wear one’s religion on one’s face?

Every time I had this experience, I remembered what Sri Aurobindo said it in 1947: ‘But the old communal division into Hindu and Muslim seems to have hardened into the figure of a permanent division of the country. It is hoped that the Congress and the nation will not accept the settled fact as forever settled.’

Today we see an intense aspiration amongst Indians — and maybe also in some lesser degree amongst Pakistanis — to let go of the tensions, to forget the four wars (if you count Kargil) that the two countries have bitterly fought, and avoid a fifth war, which could be nuclear.

Here comes cricket, the passion that unites both countries. Remember the so-called ping-pong diplomacy? For a long time the US regarded China as the Red Evil. The first contacts between the US and China in the late 1960s were initiated by an American table tennis team. After that relations went on a roll. The US is today the biggest investor in China. Can cricket play the same role in South Asia ?

There are two points of view, of course. The first one is that sports unites. When you are on a field, you tend to forget, at least after a while, the colour, nationality and religion of your opponent. Let the best win. Sports helps the unfreezing of confrontational relationships, as it is the case today between India and Pakistan. Viewed from that angle, politicians should never interfere in sports and should allow the innate instinct of man for games take the lead. Let natural bonds establish themselves. This has been the motive of the Frenchman De Coubertin, the father of the modern Olympics.

There is another perspective which says that sports today has been intensely corrupted, whether it is the rough tackling in football, the doping of many athletes, or match fixing in cricket. We also see that sport is often used by politicians for their own self interest — witness India, where there is total interference from the world of politics in the realm of sports — or by sponsors and television who are only interested in making money out of athletes.

More than that, some critics say, sports has become so commercial that it does not reflect the reality of life anymore. Take cycling, for instance. The most prestigious cycling event is the Tour de France. But the different legs are so physically demanding; television viewers demand more and more drama that it is impossible to complete the gruelling month-long tour without doping oneself.

Thus, some people might oppose sports as a diplomatic tool. In the case of these India-Pakistan matches it could be argued that it changes nothing to the confrontational reality. While Mr Vajpayee repeatedly goes out of his way to stretch a hand of peace, in Lahore, Delhi or Agra, while Indian peace activists lead candlelight marches at the Wagah border, even while cricket matches are played, Islamic militants kill innocent people in Kashmir. The Pakistan government does not have the decency to delay by a few days the firing of its long-range missile, which can carry nuclear warheads to any part of India. Who knows, even a Kargil might be planned in Islamabad at this very moment.

As a Frenchman and as a lover of sports, cricket in India is also the destroyer. It attracts media attention and huge sponsorship money on a few privileged ones and leaves in the lurch thousands of more deserving sportsmen, such as long distance runners, swimmers, or football players, who toil much more to achieve results, barely get their travelling expenses paid and have to stay in dingy hotels when they are playing.

It also creates an entire nation of armchair sportsmen, who only exercise slouched on their sofas, a cola in one hand and a packet of chips in the other, while watching the India-Pakistan series. It becomes a tool in the hands of media savvy politicians: Are Sonia Gandhi’s children really interested in cricket, or do they think it will bring the Congress votes by going to Pakistan to support ‘our’ boys?

It is used shamelessly by newspapers to boost their sales; If you look, for instance, at an average Times of India front page, it proposes to its readers lots of cricket, quite a dose of sex, some scandals, Bollywood gossip and very little of politics. The Times of India thinks it is wooing the young and hep in this way, but in the long run, a national newspaper of this stature which offers nothing of substance is committing suicide.

Sports is finally not encouraged in Indian schools and colleges. Only cricket, a colonial legacy of the British meant more for cooler climates, is promoted. As a result, India, a nation of over a billion people, has a pathetic showing in athletics, swimming, football, basketball, you name it…

Look at China. When ping-pong diplomacy began in 1968, China was nowhere in other sport. But in less than 40 years, it became one of the world’s sports superpowers, having the best divers, a world class football team, the best women long distance runners, some of the fastest swimmers and top class basketballers. There is no way India can become the industrial and political superpower it rightly aspires to be unless it matches it by also becoming a Sports Great. But for this to happen, cricket will have to be put on the backburner, so that sponsors and the media take a little more interest in other deserving sports.

The best would be for the government to limit international cricket matches to four or five a year and encourage domestic cricket so that young poor Indian boys can come up.

This being said, we must give a chance to peace between India and Pakistan and if cricket is to be that instrument, so be it. Long live cricket the creator — and destroyer.

Francois Gautier

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