It is war minus the shooting

A short hop, but a momentous journey -- the start of their first full cricket tour of Pakistan since 1989.

india Updated: Mar 12, 2004 01:27 IST

India's superstar cricketers - among the country's most famous faces - after meeting Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee at his Delhi residence to receive his official blessing, boarded a chartered flight for Lahore. A short hop, but a momentous journey -- the start of their first full cricket tour of Pakistan since 1989.

This is world sport's fiercest local derby. It arouses the greatest passions among the greatest number of people, and is over-stuffed with political, cultural and religious connotations. Its absence has been the hole in the heart of the world game, as well as a standing reminder of the near state-of-war prevailing between the south Asian neighbours. Its resumption is a welcome by-product of the current tenuous thaw.

There are dangers here as well as opportunities. Cricket, like other mass spectator sports, is a magnet for meanings, a malleable metaphor. And in the past, cricket between India and Pakistan has served as both a symbol of south Asian harmony and a prime example of what George Orwell called "war minus the shooting".

Focus on ‘the enemy’

Sport is everywhere a major carrier of national identity, but cricket between India and Pakistan tends to promote a specific type of national identity, one defined - and sharpened - by its focus on "the enemy". In addition, this type of nationalism often targets an "enemy within". (In India, the cricket rivalry has been used as a Tebbit-style national loyalty test against Indian Muslims.)

In recent years, the winner-takes-all ethic promoted by neo-liberalism seems to have inflated the values attached to victory and defeat on the field of play.

The pressure on the players to succeed will be enormous. In both countries a special stigma is attached to failure against the sub-continental rival, while success is doubly rewarded.

In the eyes of the more ardent cricket nationalists, the inescapable vagaries of luck and form are always suspect. On either side of the border, there's a tendency to respond to defeat with allegations of betrayal.

Pre-tour anxieties have focused on the security question. Reluctantly, the Pakistanis have agreed to play only one-day matches instead of five-day tests at Karachi and Peshawar - two of the country's major venues - in deference to Indian fears that a prolonged stay in either city would be unsafe. But the reality is that any number of unpredictable incidents could transform the temper of the series.

When Pakistan played in Calcutta in 1999, a disputed run-out call precipitated a crowd disturbance; the spectators were cleared and the game was resumed before TV cameras in an empty stadium.

Unfolding at many levels

The series will unfold on many levels simultaneously: within the grounds but also on television, in workplaces and in the streets. How it unfolds on these various levels will tell us something about the societies in which it unfolds.

Since 1989, the face of India has been transformed. Neo-liberal policies have led to an influx of multinational corporations and the emergence of a TV-saturated consumer class.

Meanwhile, rightwing Hindu chauvinism - intolerantly nationalistic and anti-Muslim - has established itself at the centre of power and is the ideology of choice among the elite.

Just how this "shining India", as the Vajpayee government dubs it, will cope with either victory or defeat in Pakistan will be interesting to see.

Across the border, the last 15 years have witnessed repeated crises and apparently cyclical transitions - out of and back into military rule, out of and back into favour with the US.

General Musharraf's position remains precarious and is now deeply tied to the India-Pakistan peace process.

He has a huge vested interest in this series unfolding without disruption. Others, on both sides of the border, will have different interests.

The series promises to be a huge moneyspinner, and broadcasters, sponsors and advertisers have been jostling for a piece of the action. While the corporations have pledged themselves to the cause of peace, the reality remains that the easiest way for them to maximise the return on their investment in the cricket is to infuse it with extraneous emotional significance.

Tasteless hype

They'll be tempted to hype the series as the ultimate confrontation. A few years back the Star/ESPN channel (owned by Murdoch and Disney) promoted an India-Pakistan match-up in Australia as "qayamat" - apocalypse. It was tasteless and reckless.

Nonetheless, it is true that the intensity (and profitability) of this unique sporting rivalry derives as much from the common cricket culture that unites the two countries as from the history that divides them. And the series should be, at least in part, a celebration of that common culture, that enthusiasm for the game which can be found in parks and alleyways, bazaars and colleges on both sides of the border.

As one of an international army of committed neutrals, I'll be following the series as avidly as the most die-hard national partisan.

Unburdened by the stress and anxiety of nationalist zeal, I suspect I may enjoy the cricket even more. In the end, though, the only victory worth celebrating will be the kind that both sides share equally.

The Guardian

(Mike Marqusee is the author of ‘Anyone But England’)

First Published: Mar 12, 2004 01:27 IST