Regional rivalries, like the ones between the Bay Area and Los Angeles, or New York and Boston, are always entertaining. Rivalries of close proximity are often a little more energized, like the Old Firm between Rangers and Celtic in Glasgow, or the Derby of the Eternal Enemies in Athens. But nothing compares to the scale of an international matchup — a war on the field.
Every four years since the 1950s, fans were treated to Olympic games that meant way more when put against the backdrop of the Cold War, like the “Blood in the Water” match or the Miracle on Ice.
Nowadays, one of the most historically charged rivalries on the international stage is that between Pakistan and India, and nowhere is it bigger than in the sport the countries are best at: cricket.
I know next to nothing about cricket beyond the parts that are at least a little similar to baseball, but many of the highlights (and lowlights) of what has been pegged as the “world sport’s fiercest local derby” are not as athletic as they are political.
India and Pakistan have been playing cricket against each other since 1952, and the game has become a metaphor of sorts for the countries’ relationship. In fact, the politics between the two nations and the games on the field are so intertwined that a phrase was coined: Cricket Diplomacy.
In 1971, a series of matches coincided with the orders of the leader of India’s ruling Janata Party, Morarji Desai, to cease its spying activities. In 2004, as a sign of renewed peace and trust, the Indian government allowed its national team to go on a tour of Pakistan for the first time in 15 years, and granted thousands of special visas to its citizens to go watch the team play.
But just as cricket can act as an olive branch, too often the sport devolves into what George Orwell called “war minus the shooting.” It’s easy to forget about the bats and balls and just see the match as 11 Pakistanis against 11 Indians, with thousands of screaming supporters in the stands and millions watching at home. In 1978, Pakistan won (in large part due to biased umpiring) and Pakistani captain Mushtaq Mohammad declared it to be “a victory of Muslims all over the world over the Hindus.”
In 2008, the Mumbai attacks ended what had been a period of peace and partnership in the region, exemplified by annual tours from 2004-07, with rousing support of both teams no matter what the venue. Even after the attacks, it didn’t take long for Cricket Diplomacy to start to work again, with a meeting of the two nations’ prime ministers at the 2011 World Cup, followed by a tour of India by the Pakistani team in 2012.
Now, with the two sides set to meet at the Champion’s Trophy on June 4 in Birmingham, England, everyone is hoping that Cricket Diplomacy can come through again.
The two states’ cricket governing bodies are currently at odds with one another, as the Pakistan Cricket Board sent a legal notice to its counterpart, the Board of Control for Cricket in India, demanding compensation for breaking a contract that would have scheduled six bilateral matches before 2023.
Tensions are high, with the International Court of Justice recently ordering Pakistan to stay the execution of an Indian officer convicted of espionage, along with continued violence along the Line of Control, the border within the Kashmir region that separates the two states.
Both sides have acknowledged that hopes for a series at one of the countries is bleak, but as of now, talks are scheduled to take place at the upcoming match. It’s not that odd that the best possible setting for dialogue is at the sport treasured above all else in the region, and maybe, just maybe, Cricket Diplomacy will come through once again.
Reach Sports Editor Josh Kirshenbaum at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @J_Kirshenbaum