Is “Cricket Diplomacy” An Oxymoron?

Mukul Kesavan gave a rather bewildering interview to NPR today on the subject of the India-Pakistan game. The host asked Kesavan to explain a recent editorial in which he said nothing good comes from a game between the two rivals.

Prof. KESAVAN: What I meant by that is that cricket games between India and Pakistan tend to be so fraught with national feeling. And its national feeling that is of a strange Balkan thought, because it’s not a republican nationalism. Its nationalism based upon notions of partition, and irredentism, and war, and blood and soil. […] . If my team lost, I’m filled with a kind of poisonous bad feeling; and this, despite the fact that I now that I should be grown up and adult about this.

Two points: first, it’s not clear to me what Kesavan means by “republican nationalism,” because I’m pretty sure it doesn’t exist. What nationalism isn’t based on a notion of “partition…blood and soil”? You could point to revolutionary France or America, but both countries emphasize their cultural and historical differences even as they blend in ideals of universal rights and freedoms. No nationalism is based solely on republican rights for all.

But that’s a relatively small point next to Kesavan’s argument that “poisonous feelings” erupt, especially in the shorter versions of the game. It’s a fascinating hypothesis that because Tests last so long, it forces fans to calm themselves and their tension, so that the match’s narrative overpowers personal ones (or even national histories).

I’m not sure I buy it. The case for pushing a sporting tie is that a) it fosters cultural dialogue and cooperation (millions of fans in both countries are watching the same program and seeing commonality rather than difference; moreover, fans from one side — in this case, Pakistan — get to travel across the border); b) it sublimates whatever nationalistic tension to cricket’s own traditions (e.g., listening to both anthems before a match; watching the players shake hands and congratulate each other after the match; seeing teams play each other according to prescribed rules and neutral umpires); c) if you do end up with poisonous feelings, it’s about a freaking cricket match, and not, say, Kargil or Islam v. Hinduism.

I don’t want to be misunderstood: I’m not saying playing cricket automatically leads to better relations between the country. Sadly, no. But there’s enough of a case to believe that it’s not an exercise inevitably fraught with tension, as Kesavan suggests. On the other hand, one problem with incorporating cricket into countries’ diplomatic negotiations is that it makes the game a pawn in each cycle of tension/thawing. So, when things are going well, India and Pakistan tour the lands and much merriment is had. But when things go badly — and let’s face it, they inevitably will — one country barring the other from sending a cricket team is part and parcel with recalling a High Commissioner. Banning cricket ties has become a signal of a diplomatic freeze. In doing so, the game inadvertently becomes infected with the discourse of conflict, and it must carry more cultural baggage than it needs. I don’t mind people getting worked up over an India-Pakistan game, but I do mind it getting tossed around like a regional pawn. It’s sort of like childishly boycotting the Olympics during the Cold War.

2 thoughts on “Is “Cricket Diplomacy” An Oxymoron?

  1. I think infrequent, high-stakes India-Pak matches cause poisonous feelings. If the games were more frequent, we’d get over it.

    • duckingbeamers says:

      Perhaps you’re right — if we played more often, it would normalize the exchange. Which is why I’m against tying cricket to the latest fickle shifts in India-Pakistan relations. At the very least, it should be a last resort, not among the first steps.

      On the other hand, I don’t think people felt all that poisonous after this game. But I’m also removed from India — and, of course, Pakistan. Who knows.

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