His provocative and much-quoted observations on the latent aggression of competitive sport were made in the year that World War 2 ended. As formal peace agreements were drawn up, the Soviet Union had sent a team of footballers on a “friendly” tour of Britain. But what followed was anything but convivial.
As crowds jeered and players came to blows, the Russians abandoned the trip mid-series, prompting a cynical Orwell to write that sport is “bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all rules and sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence. In other words it is war minus the shooting.”
Orwell’s pithy but vastly over-stated quote would soon become the anthropologist’s favourite template to study the rituals of mass hysteria that inevitably mark the clash of countries on the field. But there were equally robust counter-arguments to the Orwellian broad stroke.
In The Ancient Olympics, Nigel Spivey raised the most commonsensical one. “If denunciation were intended, the obvious riposte is that war minus the shooting is surely preferable to war with the shooting,” going on to argue that neither the Greeks nor the Romans ever imbued their sports with any philosophical gentleness, believing “essentially that all games were war games”.
If either Orwell or Spivey had been present at Mohali this week, both men may have had to amend and nuance their conclusions with the complexity and contradictions of real life.
There is no doubt that a certain gladiatorial hunger characterised the India-Pakistan semi-final clash. Losing, the players on both sides knew, was almost unforgivable. That would explain Shahid Afridi’s rather endearing, gracious and moving apology to his nation after the defeat.
And yet, for all the intense friction on the field, there was a laidback friendliness in the stands. As we roared in support for our team to win, catching our breath every time Tendulkar got to stay on, gasping in incredulous joy at the number of catches the Pakistani fielders dropped, we also smiled indulgently every time a small splash of green would bob up and cheer in the sea of tricolours.
The Pakistani fans sat shoulder-to-shoulder with us Indians in a state that was once the most bitterly impacted by Partition, but today seemed ready to step out of the shadows of the past.
The dichotomy of the moment — the merciless jokes on the one hand and the bonhomie on the other — perhaps most aptly captured the often schizoid India-Pakistan relationship.
Cricket today is the modern metaphor for a relationship that is both hostile and sentimental at the same time, befuddling outside observers with its many paradoxes. Competition and conviviality co-existed this week in Mohali, in many ways drawing on the best energies that only an honourable, well-fought game can provide.
The energy was definitely contagious.
I met the two prime ministers as they came strolling off the grounds having shaken hands with players of both teams. Usually a formal bureaucracy and a tense secrecy envelops all India-Pakistan encounters.
This time, however, both Manmohan Singh and Yousuf Gilani seemed at ease, informal all-smiles, and more than willing to stop and chat. Both leaders could also draw comfort from the fact that very few people in the subcontinent cared what they were up to that afternoon.
For the first time in recent history there was a de-facto summit-level meeting between India and Pakistan without the scathing pressure of public scrutiny.
That perhaps was the smartest aspect of Singh’s diplomacy initiative — the spotlight was not on their talks at all.
Sitting in the stands, both men got more time with each than most structured bilaterals permit. And mercifully this was one cross-border conversation that did not get constricted by the need to deliver a joint-statement or by the pressure to make a big-ticket announcement.
Indo-Pak watchers have rightfully warned against over-romanticising the ‘Mohali Spirit’. And it’s true that what plagues the relationship between New Delhi and Islamabad is that it has such little emotional detachment, fluctuating wildly between love and hate. Neither is healthy, when there are real issues that need tackling with sobriety and engagement.
A smothering sentimentalism will only harm this equation further without strengthening it substantially. So the absence of hyperbole around the prime ministerial talks or the dinner diplomacy that followed is most welcome.
In fact, the most promising development came this week when the home secretaries on either side agreed that an Indian panel will travel to Pakistan to follow up on the 26/11 Mumbai attacks.
The circumstances of cricket provided Singh with an opportunity to resurrect a dying equation. Now, if Islamabad were to show concrete and visible progress in bringing the perpetrators of those attacks to book, the Indian PM may get domestic support for furthering his initiative.
He would then be able to more easily accept the long-pending invitation to him to travel to Pakistan.
As it stands, cricket has provided a rare moment where a big fight has underscored the potential for a better friendship.
George Bernard Shaw scathingly said of the English, “They are not very spiritual people, so they invented Cricket to give them some idea of eternity.” In a game that the once-colonised subcontinent has now made its own may lie a few answers to the tumultuous questions that plague our region and our future.
(Barkha Dutt is Group Editor, English News, NDTV, The views expressed by the author are personal)