World Cup Sparks Criticism of “Cricket Diplomacy”

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Author: Lauren Siverly

Many sets of eyes were glued to television sets across India on April 2 as their national cricket team brought home the World Cup. The victory came after two and a half months of intense competition between 14 countries around the globe. The final match, played in Mumbai, granted India’s first World Cup championship in 28 years against perennial favorite Sri Lanka.

Cricket is wildly popular in England and its former colonies. But for some, it is much more than just a sport. A recent phenomenon known as cricket diplomacy is sweeping the world. The concept is echoed in other world sports competitions like the World Cup of soccer and the Olympics. The idea is that if two hostile countries can come together over something as trivial as a game, it can facilitate diplomatic relations and ease tensions between them.

One semifinal of the tournament pitted India against Pakistan, two countries with relations that are traditionally very fractured. The tension was only exacerbated with the 2008 bombings in Mumbai, thought to be committed by Pakistani nationals. The county’s Prime Minister, Syed Yousaf Raza Gilani, watched Wednesday’s game with his Indian counterpart Manmohan Singh. The match was preceded by comprehensive diplomatic conversations between the leaders and their advisers.

The countries agreed to set-up a hotline between them to better advise one another of terrorist threats. Tensions between Pakistan and India were eased by cricket once before. In 2004, both countries relieved stringent visa restrictions on each other in order for fans to travel and cheer on their teams during cricket tours. However, critics of “cricket diplomacy” argue that sports only increase nationalist sentiments as each population fervently supports their home team.

In an interview with NPR, Prof. Mukul Kesavan from Jamia Milia Islamia University explained, “Cricket matches . . . tend to sort of compress and magnify this rivalry within a sporting context.”

Additionally, any sort of cordiality experienced within the sporting arena is considered trivial to some and is inconsequential in terms of real results in diplomacy.

Still, sports can play a major part in impacting something greater than a game, as seen most recently in South Africa. Near the end of the Apartheid, the international community placed numerous boycotts on sporting events in the country in an effort to end the decades-old system of legal racial discrimination. This included a ban from the 1964 Summer Olympics and an expulsion from the International Olympic Committee in 1970.

Following the end of Apartheid, South Africa hosted the 1995 Rugby World Cup, upon which the movie Invictus was based. In South Africa, the competition brought together the nation and stripped away its racial divides.

Perhaps this sort of sports idealism is unrealistic in the struggle between India and Pakistan. Even before they were separate entities, the two constantly clashed. Still, there may be no better place and no better time for the countries to put aside their differences and make real progress in diplomatic relations.

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