India and Pakistan may be neighbours geographically but there is very little that is ‘neighbourly’ between them. They have fought four wars since independence and continue to trade barbs and rockets to this day.
However, historically, a swing in political relations between the two countries never affected their willingness to play cricket on a bilateral level — until 2014.
The late Pakistan president General Zia-ul-Haq is known more for coining the term ‘cricket diplomacy’ than his medieval-era ‘reforms’ that plunged his country into darkness. And there is a good reason for it: the popularity of the sport.
Zia understood his people’s passion for cricket. He was surprised to see they cared little about his deposing of the then prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto while team India was on a tour to the country in 1978, a mere few months after his coup.
The ‘cricket fever’ forced Bhutto’s wife, Begum Nusrat Bhutto, to go on a protest outside the Gaddafi Stadium in Lahore as it was where the game was being played and perhaps the only place where a demonstration could have had a significant impact.
Javed Miandad and Iqbal Qasim recall playing with India
Zia used cricket as a tool to further his interests, but the game had not been more affected by politics till Narendra Modi was sworn in as the prime minister of India after sweeping the 2014 General Elections.
Modi based his politics on anti-Pakistan rhetoric and it turned out to be a difficult compromise to start talking peace with Pakistan.
Former Pakistan captain Javed Miandad says he has seen a lot during his cricketing years and urges both countries to consider giving peace a chance.
“What will we achieve by being adversaries? Shouldn’t we try and leave a better region for our generations to come? Sports, especially cricket in this part of the world is something which brings people together. Why should a game become a collateral damage in a political fight?”
The former Pakistan captain confesses that whenever he visited India, he found the people very loving. He particularly remembers a Jain family from Jaipur who later moved to Australia and would cook for him whenever he was on tour.
“They became a close part of my circle,” he recalls.
Miandad says he is convinced people of the two countries have more love for each other than hate, and cited India’s iconic 1978-79 tour to Pakistan — the first series between India and Pakistan post the 1971 war — when many Indian visitors didn’t stay in hotels but as guests in Pakistani homes.
“Imagine the hospitality, imagine the love. Why do we think that India and Pakistan cannot live together in peace?”
Historically, a swing in political relations between the two countries never affected their willingness to play cricket on a bilateral level — until 2014.
Back in 2004 during an assignment, Miandad also met the late Bal Keshav Thackeray over lunch. Thackeray’s Shiv Sena party had opposed Pakistan touring India, and had done everything to disrupt the tour: from digging up the pitch of Feroz Shah Kotla in New Delhi to carrying out an attack at the Pakistan High Commission and hurling life threats at Pakistani players.
“Bal Thackeray’s anti-Pakistan stand is quite well-known but he didn’t mention to me that he didn’t want Pakistan to play in India. He, in fact, told me: ‘Javed, what we say for public consumption is a part of politics and should be taken as such’,” he says.
Miandad says politicians from both sides should realise that India and Pakistan cannot stop being neighbours, so they need to start behaving like neighbours.
“Neighbours don’t fight each other; rather, they live in peace and harmony,” he says.
Miandad represented Pakistan for 21 years from 1975 to 1996, playing 124 Test matches and 233 One-Day Internationals (ODIs). He is regarded as one of the finest cricketers the country has produced.
India, too, has some bitter memories about him as he was the man who hit Chetan Sharma for a last-ball six to win Pakistan a historic Austral-Asia Cup final in Sharjah in April 1986.
But not many know that the 60-year-old is also a big fan of Indian cricket. “I’m a big admirer of the brand of cricket India plays. Sunil Gavaskar tops my list of all-time cricketing greats,” he says. “Pakistanis love Gavaskar, Sachin Tendulkar and Virat Kohli, and I’m sure there is equal love in India for Zaheer Abbas and Wasim Akram.”
Miandad says he has made some joyful memories while playing India. “Many Indian cricketers who would visit Pakistan for bilateral contests, such as Gavaskar and Bishan Singh Bedi, used to stay back afterwards at our homes,” he says.
“Whenever Indian players or visitors came to Pakistan, they would express awe and shock at having received so much love from the Pakistanis. Our people would open their doors them.”
He says during the county seasons in England, Pakistani and Indian players would always come together without any differences. “We often see harsh words getting exchanged between the two nations, but I am sure that none of us really mean what we say — neither Pakistanis, nor Indians … It doesn’t matter whether you are a Muslim or a Hindu. These differences are created out of political expediency,” he says.
Sharing an anecdote, he recalls going to the countryside in Sindh for hunting and his prey jumped over into Indian territory. However, when they came to know that Miandad was around, all the Indian border guards gathered and greeted him with respect.
Miandad’s colleague and former Pakistan international Iqbal Qasim, a slow left-arm orthodox, also adds that sport should never be politicised. Qasim featured in the 1978-79 Indian tour to Pakistan and he has good memories of the “days gone by”.
Qasim, 64, says that in today’s age, cricket has become a tool. “If you use it positively, it can act as a catalyst for peace; and if you decide to use it to further your negative interests, it will act as a catalyst to spread hatred.”
The former Pakistan international recalled the time when, after India’s visit in 1978, Pakistan crossed the border for a series in 1979-80. “The atmosphere was electric,” he says.
“We were surprised by the reception. We stayed at Hotel Delhi Darbar near India Gate and were awestruck to see people lining up outside just to have a glimpse of Pakistani cricketers, especially Imran Khan, Zaheer Abbas and Asif Iqbal.”
In an oblique dig at the commercialisation of cricket, Qasim says he doubts whether today’s cricketers could ever have the same experience as the game had changed a lot.
“You have TV, websites and what not. People then did not have the luxury of watching the game on their TV sets so it was a different feel altogether to be physically present at the stadiums and watch your favourite players play.”
Qasim, who represented Pakistan in 50 Tests and 15 ODIs from 1976 to 1988, names the celebrated Indian spinner Bedi as his mentor, with whom he says he is still in touch.
“I have never seen relations between Indian and Pakistani cricketers get affected by anything that goes on in the political arena of both the countries,” he says. “A majority in India and Pakistan want peace, they want better relations.”
Qasim, who until recently looked after the Pakistan Cricket Board’s High-Performance Centre in Karachi, believes that the people of either country shouldn’t be deprived of watching cut-throat India-Pakistan contests.
“Playing cricket on a bilateral level will also help in bettering relations,” he says. “When people start connecting with each other, they try to look at things from a different perspective, which is essential in resolving conflict.”
The writer tweets @umerbinajmal
Published in Dawn, EOS, March 3rd, 2019