Could The World’s Biggest Cricket Tournament Help Ease Indo-Pakistani Relations?

The Indian Premier League, or IPL for short, is a weird and wonderful spectacle; as a cricket tournament, it shows very few similarities to the archaic, ‘gentlemanly’ game played in crisp whites, over five days, interspersed with pauses for tea and cake. Unlike its stuffy grandfather, test cricket, IPL matches last only three hours and are played in enormous stadiums packed full of screaming fans, fireworks and cheerleaders. All this, alongside advertising, endorsements and sponsorships that saturate every nook of the game, the IPL seems far closer to American football or Major League Baseball than its tea-sipping forefather. It’s raw sporting entertainment, built for the modern age.

The brainchild of an Indian businessman, Lalit Modi, the IPL began in 2008, attracting the most outstanding cricketing talent worldwide to franchise teams where they could earn pay-packets never before seen in cricket. For the first time, players became millionaires as they battled it out in short-form matches in the wet heat of an Indian April. Tapping into a tried-and-tested American-style format, as well as a seemingly unquenchable thirst for cricket in India, the tournament has grown exponentially in popularity and wealth. Today it is the most-attended cricket league and the sixth most-attended sports league globally. The value of the IPL brand in 2019 is estimated at US$6.7 billion, and it contributes hundreds of millions of dollars each year to the Indian economy. The popularity, wealth and reach of this league, which has transformed the sport of cricket, is undeniable and unmistakable. However, what is less apparent is how a cricket tournament, loaded with glitz and glamour, might help to thaw the frosty relations that have plagued India and its neighbour, Pakistan, for generations.

The 2020 instalment of the IPL was, expectedly, a little different. Like most major sporting events in the past year, the tournament was affected by the Covid-19 pandemic. However, unlike football’s Euro 2020 tournament and the Tokyo Olympics, it did manage to go ahead, albeit after a lengthy postponement. Long-time fans of the IPL watching the game this year witnessed a somewhat altered spectacle. Most notably, it did not take place in its usual home of India, in stadiums packed with adoring, loud fans. Instead, for the safety of all those involved, matches took place in the United Arab Emirates, behind closed doors in empty, clinical grounds. However, one thing remained the same as it has done since the tournament’s inception in 2008 – there were no Pakistani players.

At first, this seems strange. Cricket’s global governing body, the ICC, ranks Pakistan as the world’s fourth-best side for Twenty20, the short-form format played in the IPL. Why, therefore, does a tournament that prides itself on attracting the best cricketing talent from around the world excludes players from one of the world’s strongest cricketing nations? On an individual level, the decision seems even more nonsensical. The ICC currently ranks the Pakistani player, Babar Azam, as the second-best batsman globally, yet he has never had the chance to showcase his talent on the world’s biggest stage. The same is also true of Imad Wasim, currently ranked by the ICC as the world’s eighth-best bowler. If we look at the ICC’s all-time rankings, Pakistani talent’s historic absence is even more curious – five of the ten highest-ranked bowlers since the beginning of Twenty20 are Pakistani.

Therefore, the omission of Pakistani players is not a question of talent. Instead, it is a profoundly political move. Sport is often projected as apolitical, where ‘fair-play’ and sportsmanship supersede politics and injustice, but this is rarely the case. Sport is intertwined with politics, and the IPL is a clear example of that. The decision to not include Pakistani players is, as writes Jonathan Liew of The Guardian, “driven largely by ideology, nationalism and geopolitics.” Certainly, it is a symptom of India and Pakistan’s fraught political relations, but, in refusing Pakistani cricketers, the IPL also reinforces a diplomatic deadlock between the two nations.

Cricket may seem a somewhat trivial platform on which to counter a national rivalry so heavily infused with historical, religious and geopolitical factors. Following the revoking of Jammu and Kashmir’s special status in 2019, Pakistan has closed its airspace and suspended bilateral trade with India. Furthermore, the string of terror attacks, primarily carried out by Pakistani militants in India in the last twenty years, have regularly brought India and Pakistan close to another full-blown conflict. The fact that they are both nuclear powers makes this all the more concerning. Undoubtedly, the IPL and cricket are not going to solve Indo-Pakistani relations – it is far too small a tool for a job so great. We cannot underestimate cricket’s ability to ease relations between the two countries.

 Sport has always been a diplomatic tool for policymakers to implement political will or to improve frosty relations. For example, the Olympics has long been a sight for soft power manoeuvres and diplomatic aggression – the consecutive boycotts between the U.S.A. and the U.S.S.R. in the 1980s being the most famous example. However, the sport has also carried positive political pressure. An example where cricket played a large part was the sporting boycott of South Africa during Apartheid. Although only a small factor, dwarfed by many within South Africa’s sacrifices to counter the Apartheid regime, the boycott did help alter world opinion towards Apartheid whilst putting pressure on the government and its advocates. 

More specifically, ‘Cricket diplomacy’ also has a long and diverse history of both easing and worsening tensions between nations. In the case of India and Pakistan, this has been startlingly apparent, given the immense popularity of the sport in both countries – one can’t forget that the Pakistani Prime Minister is himself a former captain of the national cricket team. Cricket matches and tours between the two countries have, historically, eased diplomatic tensions by bringing Pakistanis and Indians together under a shared love of the game. For example, the two countries’ meeting in the 2011 Cricket World Cup was seen by many as a critical moment in easing frictions exacerbated by the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks. The match, which the Prime Ministers of both countries attended, also led to a series of games between the sides, further improving relations.

Therefore, IPL has the opportunity to create an impetus. By welcoming Pakistani players to the tournament, they are creating the opportunity for meaningful cross-cultural exchange. Even if only symbolic, Pakistanis and Indians playing on the same team make a bold statement about the possibilities for future relations between the two countries. The size, wealth and influence of the IPL also make the inclusion of Pakistani players far more feasible. Suppose anything can supersede political sentiment in India. In that case, it is the IPL – Yajurvindra Singh, former Indian cricketer, who once described cricket in India as a religion, but the IPL as ‘a cult’. The tournament certainly has the money and the power to bring in Pakistani players; they just need the drive.

If the tournament organizers care about the spectacle, then finding the drive should be easy. As Pakistani players continue to dominate in Twenty20 cricket outside the IPL, the questions surrounding their omission only become more plentiful. By ignoring Pakistani talent, the IPL is shooting itself in the foot – shortchanging fans by failing to provide all the best cricketers and restricting the quality of the spectacle they put on. It is possible that, as the tournament grows, becoming more international, the apparent omission of some of the world’s finest players will become unpalatable for fans and sponsors who don’t concern themselves with diplomatic rivalries. In the meantime, other cricketing nations should exert what pressure they can on Indian to push forward a decision that will improve both the IPL and Pakistan’s relations.

Of course, cricket will not fix the long-standing and deeply entrenched disputes between India and Pakistan, which have, at times, spilled over into active conflict and continue to create deep insecurity in the region. The inclusion of Pakistani players in the world’s biggest cricket tournament is a step in the right direction. It makes the opportunity for symbolic exchanges and the normalization of Pakistanis and Indians existing side-by-side. What is more, the move would be readily justifiable if the IPL is serious about being the best cricketing exhibition in the world. Including Pakistani players will improve diplomatic relations, but it would also make the tournament more exciting, more profitable and better viewed.

Although we shouldn’t overplay the role of sport in forming stronger diplomatic relations, we shouldn’t underplay it. Historically, the sport has offered a successful and very easy way of bringing two sides together on a level playing field – the IPL might have the power to do just that.

Jake Tacchi

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