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By Suresh Menon
It is not unusual for governments to nudge sport in the direction they want it to go or use it for their own partisan ends. It was Nelson Mandela who gave the green signal for South Africa’s re-entry into international cricket after a two-decade ban for the country’s apartheid policy. That magnificent manipulator Ali Bacher then proceeded to ensure that the right teams endorsed the move early on.
The exclusion ended with a tour of India for a one-day series. India had been one of the loudest voices against apartheid and such acceptance was important. Bacher, the managing director of the cricket board, followed that with a one-Test tour of the West Indies, a country that had banned generations of cricketers for playing in South Africa.
When the Prime Ministers of India and Pakistan shook hands and smiled for the cameras during the World Cup semifinal, it was seen as a triumph of good sense over irascibility. India’s foreign secretary Nirupama Rao spoke of ‘cricket politics’ and its effect on the neighbouring countries. Perhaps buoyed by India’s win, she said later that the government welcomed more sporting contacts between the two countries.
Which is fine, because tolerance, as T S Eliot pointed out, is the responsibility of those with the wider vision. If playing cricket matches is a step towards solving the outstanding political issues – and that is debatable, but let us accept the premise here for the sake of argument – then it cannot be faulted. Politicians have made much of people-to-people contacts, and Pakistanis who crossed the border to watch the match in Ahmedabad have returned with a lifetime’s stories of warmth and hospitality. Indians who visit Pakistan have similar stories too.
But the cricket boards must learn to make haste slowly. The rush to fit in a series this year when India already have a packed calendar is ill-advised, especially since the exercise is in danger of being reduced to a meaningless gesture. This is apparent from the talks about playing at a neutral venue. That will only convert it from a political move into a purely commercial one since people-to-people implies a visit across the border. To play in Dubai or Abu Dhabi or any neutral venue would defeat the purpose.
The temptation to see this as a money-making opportunity is clearly strong but it is one which must be resisted. In the ideal world, a short series in India will be followed by a short series in Pakistan. The latter is important to Pakistan which have become the pariahs of world cricket, with no country willing to tour so long as it remains unsafe. The Sri Lankan team’s bus which was attacked by terrorists a couple of years ago has become the symbol of the violent, lawless land, and we must ask ourselves if the time is right to expose our players there.
Not surprisingly, the Pakistan Cricket Board, not the cleanest sporting organisation in the world, is keen to push things along ostensibly in the name of good relations, and only incidentally for the millions that will accrue into bank accounts. The Indian board, if it can be guaranteed security for the players (and who can make such an offer?), is happy to play along for much the same reason.
But both the government and the cricket boards need to look at the bigger picture. In an overall philosophical sense, resuming cricketing contacts is the way to go. But we must get the timing right, and ensure that political conditions are met.
The rallying cry by anti-apartheid groups in South Africa was ‘No normal sport in an abnormal society.’ It is useful to remember that.