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Cricket Diplomacy in the 21st Century

International cricket in Barbados

International cricket in Barbados. Photo: flickr/phik

Cricket, as they say, is a funny old game.    Few sports can claim to inspire, in equal measure, its extensive and fanatical support — as the second-most popular sport in the world– and the blank incomprehension and derision of the uninitiated.  In India and Pakistan, the emotional lives of a billion people seem implicated in every flash of the willow on leather.  In the US, the game is often confused with (or willfully misunderstood as) croquet.

Discovering cricket when he moved to England, the Spanish football manager Rafa Benitez summed up a dismissive  attitude towards the game, describing it as one of the few occasions in life where a man can tell his wife he’s popping off to a sporting event, and return five days later with his marriage intact.  But, for the nations that know it and play it, cricket can be serious business.  As a matter of fact, ‘cricket diplomacy’ has a long history and an intriguing future.

This year’s World Cup semifinal between India and Pakistan (held in Mohali, India) revived interest in what is cricket’s most fractious bilateral relationship.  In 1987, the presence of Pakistani General Zia Ul-Haq at a match in India is thought to have eased tensions emanating from the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and, in 2005, General Musharaff saw a cricket match as “a historic chance [for the two countries] to end their dispute over Kashmir.”    This time around, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh  merely invited his Pakistani counterpart, Yousuf Reza Gilani, to the match — but, as a result, the new atmosphere of reconciliation regarding the 2008 Mumbai  attacks is being called the ‘Mohali Spirit.’

The recent movie Fire in Babylon — about the dominant West Indian sides of the 1980s and early 1990s — drives home the post-colonial subtext for virtually every cricketing nation of contests against England.   The narrative picks up where the Marxist historian CLR James left off in his sociological classic, Beyond a Boundary.

While the movie Invictus highlights the impact of the 1994 Rugby World Cup on post-apartheid South Africa, it was cricket — and the exile of the South African team (traditionally among the best in the world) from international competition  —  that was perhaps more instrumental in bringing that dark chapter to an end.  And as highlighted in an ISN Insight earlier this summer, India’s cricketing ties to South Africa could give it a leg up over China in the new “scramble for Africa.”

But China, of course, has also been getting in on the act. Cricket is still a growing sport in China, but after the 2007 World Cup in the Caribbean (in which China did not compete), it was suggested that China might have been the real winner.  Of the eight venues constructed or refurbished for the tournament, Beijing assisted in the construction of five, providing more than 1000 workers and more than $140 million —  using the occasion, in the words of Daniel Erikson and Paul Wander, to “seal a series of geo-strategic alliances” with Caribbean nations.   Not only was this an effort by the Chinese to counter the influence of Taiwan in the region, but the $4 billion invested by China between 2005 and 2007 amounted to a larger presence than that of the US itself.

Cricket may seem an unlikely theater for geo-political rivalry or great power politics, but, in the 20th century, it proved a significant one.  With the much-advertised arrival of a ‘Post-American World,”  — and one or two fanatical cricketing nations (India, South Africa) among the rising ‘rest’ —  one wonders if it could have a bigger impact in the 21st.