If all art is propaganda, as George Orwell argued, then all sport is politics. You cannot divorce a country’s sport from its politics. One affects the other, yet we often express platitudes about not mixing the two. Sport and politics are not like oil and water; sport dissolves into politics easily and frequently.
Sometimes this relationship can be a force for good, as when sports boycotts helped hasten the end of the apartheid regime in South Africa. It is sometimes a stage for hardened political rivalries to flare, an extreme case being the murder of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics by the Palestinian group Black September.
To say that sport and politics should not mix is naive and fails to recognize that sport is often political by other means.
The brinkmanship that precedes any engagement between India and Pakistan on the cricket ground has begun. Advertising and the platform it provides can be an irresistible draw to politicians and other mischief makers who like to keep the kettle boiling. Any peaceful resolution of the complex issues involved renders the hawks on both sides irrelevant. Political problems cannot be solved on the cricket field; Cricket tours must necessarily be resolved at cabinet meetings. Cricket is unfairly asked to carry the burden of unresolved relationships.
The sport cannot be written off as too trivial in the larger scheme of things and therefore left alone to exist without issue; nor can we pretend that what happens on or around the field of play will not have repercussions elsewhere. Caught between apparent triviality and undeniable importance, it remains a toy of governments.
India and Pakistan recently played the South Asian Federation Football Tournament in India, and it was all about football, not a reenactment of war. They have also found themselves on other sports grounds, playing baseball, hockey, kabaddi, and chess and bridge, without the tension and potential for violence that cricket seems to generate.
Pakistan is hosting the Asian Cup (August 31-September 17), while the Over-50 World Cup is in India (October 5-November 19). A ‘hybrid’ solution (proposed by Pakistan) whereby India plays nine games in Sri Lanka while Pakistan plays four at home has likely saved the Asian Cup. This is despite the recent statement by their Minister in charge of sports, Ehsaan Mazari, that if India does not travel to Pakistan for the Asian Cup, Pakistan will stay away from the World Cup.
It sounds impressive, even threatening, but the fact is that India holds all the cards. They can afford to ignore Pakistan’s bragging (Mazari was careful to say this was his personal opinion; the Pakistan Cricket Board can distance himself from the claim) because Pakistan cricket needs India more than the other way around. The India-Pakistan TV audience could be the largest ever for a single cricket match. Mazari is part of the committee set up by the Prime Minister to make recommendations on participation in the World Cup.
The next two Champions Trophy tournaments are in India (2025) and Pakistan (2029) respectively; the ‘hybrid’ format will probably be well established by then. A stadium audience is, after all, only a small percentage of the television audience, which is what funds the game. A two-sided series is not on the Future Tour Schedule until 2031. By then Virat Kohli will be 43, Babar Azam 37, and two of the best contemporary batsmen could have ended their careers without playing a Test against each other.
India and Pakistan are two countries separated by a common culture, common languages, and common interest in cricket. The series of cricket between the two, in recent decades, have fueled the tensions between them rather than ease them. However, multinational tournaments have generally been played without incident. However, there are relentless fans on both sides, convinced that there is nothing worse in the game than losing to the other.
Three months, the time until the World Cup, is a long time in politics, but with their match scheduled to take place at India’s exhibition stadium in Ahmedabad, Pakistan is unlikely to pull out, especially as it will mean losing a big chunk of the fines. from the International Cricket Council and television revenue. Economics, as often happens, is likely to trump politics.