Once again demands are being made on cricket to resolve the deep-rooted prejudices of people divided by political and religious ideologies that have place only for hatred.
The World Cup all of a sudden finds itself being propelled to a stage where the two teams pitted against each other find it impossible to keep sport away from the politics of the region.
The Indian Prime Minister’s initiative of inviting his counterpart from Pakistan to watch the semi-final with him is seen as a diplomatic move to break the ice between the two nations post the 26/11 terrorist attack in Mumbai.
As someone who has in the past been a great votary of using cricket for people to people contact and someone who in the 1999 World Cup drove to the stadium in Manchester with a Pakistani friend, holding the flags of both nations, I am now very uncomfortable with cricket being used as a metaphor for peace.
Those who have been to Pakistan on that memorable 2004 tour would vouch for what cricket did to bring the people of the two nations together. For someone whose autographs were sought in Lahore’s Qadhafi stadium for being an Indian on that tour, I should have no reason to disagree.
There are many other such memorable off the field moments when the two countries have played, which raised hopes of a better future ahead. Sadly, instead of a way ahead, the two nations keep warring against each other. And if today India and Pakistan are clashing on a cricket field, it is not as if the two nations planned it. It has happened inadvertently because the World Cup is being held in India.
Sure enough, if the Indian PM wants to use this opportunity for making overtures of peace and create an atmosphere of camaraderie and not divisiveness, it is to be welcomed. Maybe this is needed in a nation whose middle class is reaping the benefits of an economic boom and is peopled with ultra nationalists who can’t differentiate between patriotism and jingoism; between a sporting contest and a war.
Since this semi-final clash has come as a boon for commercial interests, the use of war symbols is any day more profitable than advertising cricket as a pure sport, a contest between two sets of skills, where the instruments used are not guns but bat and a ball.
In this mish-mash of various vested interests, the ultimate casualty becomes the very sport and its main protagonists, people whom we all admire, regardless of which nation they belong to.
When in 2004 an atmosphere of goodwill and peace was being created in India, and the players were told they were ambassadors of love, a senior player had this to say: “Yes, it does feel great, but please don’t burden us with your expectations. We are mere cricketers and know only how to play and beyond a point this pressure is hard to handle.”
Imagine the plight of this Indian team. They are already burdened with the hope of a nation which is demanding the World Cup from them as if that is their birthright. And now comes this contest with Pakistan, which for many is a bigger prize than winning the Cup.
I shudder to be in the shoes of a cricketer today, Indian or Pakistani. They are not only supposed to win, they are also defending the honour of their motherland and by a strange twist of logic they are also supposed to be emissaries of peace.