Imagine a world without India-Pakistan Test cricket

The two teams meet fortuitously if drawn together in international events, the players in leagues in third countries.
Published March 27, 2015

By Richard Heller and Peter Oborne

Imagine an international cricket scene with no Ashes series between England and Australia because the two teams were kept apart for political reasons.

The two teams meet fortuitously if drawn together in international tournaments, and individual players encounter each other in domestic cricket or commercial ventures in third countries. But without the Ashes Tests, they never compete before their supporters at the highest level of cricket. They cannot measure themselves against their countries’ past giants.

This is what has happened to India and Pakistan. Their Test encounters have the same resonance as the Ashes: as with England and Australia, their players are most valued for their performances against each other. These include India’s first Test triple century by Virender Sehwag in 2004: Javed Miandad would probably have posted one in 1983, but for a still-controversial declaration. In bowling, Anil Kumble followed Jim Laker by taking all ten Pakistani wickets in an innings in 1999, while Imran Khan produced one of the greatest-ever spells by a fast bowler in taking eight for 60 in Karachi in 1982. Even the long spate of draws between India and Pakistan in the first decade have a certain epic quality in their dullness.

Indo-Pak Test series (they have yet to acquire a special name or trophy) have a much shorter history than the Ashes, starting in 1952, but they are invested with even deeper emotions. They are more than sporting contests. They are expressions of national identity, which, of course, is why they are so vulnerable to politics.

From 1961 to 1978, a time of permanent tension and two wars, the two team did not play any matches (they missed each other in the inaugural World Cup in 1975). The more relaxed period which followed saw a positive glut of matches: 20 Tests from 1978 to 1985 and 11 bilateral one-day internationals.

There was another freeze for most of the 1990s. Test cricket reappeared briefly in 1999 and was then shut down again by the Kargil confrontation (in the uninhabited heights of the Himalayas).

Another political thaw produced twelve Test matches and 24 ODIs between 2004 and 2007. Then the fallout from the Mumbai terrorist attacks in 2008, followed in 2009 by the attack on the touring Sri Lankans in Lahore, brought yet another freeze on Test relationships, now in its eighth year. The Indians have never gone to the UAE, where Pakistan has played all its “home” internationals against other countries since 2009. Pakistan did go to India in December 2012 to play three one-day internationals, but there have been no further bilateral encounters since then.

The current lot of Pakistani and Indian cricketers cannot measure themselves against their countries’ past giants
The current lot of Pakistani and Indian cricketers cannot measure themselves against their countries’ past giants

For Pakistan, the shutdown of cricket relations with India has brought not only cultural and emotional deprivation but also financial loss, because it has cut them off from the colossal revenues generated from Indian media.

We calculate that the cumulative loss to the PCB caused by the shutdown at $90 million. This was before the new settlement within the International Cricket Council (ICC), in which the “Big Three”, India, England and Australia, grabbed a bigger share of revenues from rights to the World Cup and other multilateral tournaments at the expense of all the other Test-playing countries (and indeed affiliates and associates). With a smaller share of the multilateral pie from the ICC, it became all the more imperative for Pakistan to restore bilateral relations with India.

In May last year there seemed to be a breakthrough when the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) announced that it had reached a Memorandum of Understanding with their Indian counterparts over future tours, the first would be hosted by Pakistan at “home” in the UAE in December this year.

However, the Memorandum awaited confirmation by a binding legal agreement and its timing created uncertainty – just days before Narendra Modi, the BJP leader, was sworn in as Prime Minister. That legal agreement has yet to be signed, and the problems appear to lie with the new Indian government’s attitude, although Modi has made a series of conciliatory gestures – including sending a good-luck message to the Pakistan team before its World Cup match against India.

Recently, the PCB sent its chairman, Shaharyar Khan, to expedite the issue. The urbane and highly experienced diplomat has a better chance than anyone of securing the prize. In his previous spell as PCB chairman he presided over one of the most glorious series between the two countries, in Pakistan in 2004, which produced some stupendous cricket in a generally festive atmosphere with minimum of crowd problems.

Shaharyar reported back to the board there had been some positives in his discussions with the BCCI chief, Jagmohan Dalmiya (also a returnee) and other BCCI appointees since the Modi government came into power. But he added significantly that they still needed permission from their government. Until that happened, none of the future series could be guaranteed – and therefore Pakistan could not hope to sell the valuable media rights.

He remained optimistic and even mentioned the possibility of a tour on Pakistan soil by the Indian women’s team – as a signal to their male counterparts of the improvements in the security situation. He also hoped for 'A' team and junior team visits.

Cricket diplomacy has been a regular feature of Indo-Pakistan encounters, but usually in the form of unproductive gestures. Modi now has the chance to make a move with real practical impact, by making the BCCI commit itself to the planned programme of tours. He would not only give a financial and emotional lift to Pakistan but also add new life to the Indian Test team with the media in the country focussing more on the IPL and shorter forms of the game.

The authorities in both India and Pakistan might be understandably nervous of releasing the passions of a bilateral series in an era when both countries have to confront different sets of religious and political extremists, often linked to organized crime. Past players have been abused, threatened, stoned and besieged by irate fans – often from their own country if they are thought to have underperformed against their rivals.

However, India-Pakistan series have also been used by both sets of spectators to signal their hopes of peace and reconciliation.

This happened on Pakistan’s very first visit to India, in 1951-52, and on India’s return visit to Pakistan in 1954-55. The Pakistan authorities then issued special “cricket visas” for Indian spectators, who often received free food, accommodation and taxi rides from local people at the Test centres. Such hospitality was repeated in 2004, as Shaharyar Khan will recall well. At the end of that tour the Indian High Commissioner told him: “Twenty thousand Indian cricket fans visited Pakistan. You have sent back 20,000 Pakistan ambassadors to India.”

It is surely time to repeat that life-enhancing experience, and allow cricket to be used once more as a symbol of the ties of affection and common sporting enthusiasm that will always unite India and Pakistan.

Richard Heller is the author of two cricket novels, A Tale of Ten Wickets and The Network. Peter Oborne is a leading commentator on British and international politics, latterly in the Daily Telegraph and the Spectator. He is the author of Basil D’Oliveira, Cricket And Conspiracy: The Untold Story. Assisted by Richard Heller, he published Wounded Tiger, a comprehensive history of Pakistan cricket, in 2014