March 29, 2011

A More Important Final Four Match

My article on the World Cup 2011 semi-final between India and Pakistan appeared on The AfPak Channel on on March 29. An excerpt is included below. The full text is available here.

"If you wanted to add to the vast fund of ill-will existing in the world at this moment," George Orwell wrote in 1945, "you could hardly do it better than by a series of football matches between Jews and Arabs, Germans and Czechs, Indians and British, Russians and Poles, and Italians and Jugoslavs, each match to be watched by a mixed audience of 100,000 spectators." Certainly, international sport has all too often amplified the worst aspects of jingoistic behavior, but this Wednesday's Cricket World Cup semifinal between India and Pakistan, ­ to be held in a suburb of Chandigarh, the capital of the Indian state of Punjab,­ promises to prove Orwell wrong, much as previous such encounters between the two teams have done. Cricket, in fact, perhaps best illustrates why the India-Pakistan relationship may be among the world's most misunderstood.


The fate of the two cricket teams has also eerily reflected the overall trajectory of each country, never more so than during the last World Cup. In 2007, both India and Pakistan crashed out in the first round after surprise losses to Bangladesh and Ireland, respectively. In India, the media slammed the country's cricket stars for being money-grubbing fame seekers, spending far too much time seeking endorsements and filming television commercials. Cricket players, it was believed, embodied the worst of self-indulgent Indian consumerism.

The Pakistani team, by contrast, was criticized at home for spending too much time in ritual prayer and proselytizing. One of its star players, Yousuf Youhana, long the only Christian on the team, had converted to Islam some time earlier, changing his name to Mohammad Yousuf in the process, and credited his religious conversion with his spectacular form entering the World Cup. Chaos and rumors also abounded when Pakistan's coach, an Englishman named Bob Woolmer, was found dead in his hotel under sinister circumstances, with allegations of murder bandied about in the press and the country's rumor mill.

Developments since 2007 only served to reinforce national narratives of rise and decline. India is now home to the Indian Premier League (IPL), the world's richest cricket league, which holds a glitzy television-friendly competition each spring. But the IPL's reputation has been tarnished by credible reports of corruption on a massive scale, even leading to the resignation of an Indian minister. Meanwhile, the fate of cricket in Pakistan took a tragic turn for the worse with an armed attack in broad daylight on the visiting Sri Lankan team's bus in Lahore in 2009, fortunately with no fatalities to players. As with other such incidents in recent years, a conspiracy theory immediately gained currency, with rumors circulating in Pakistan that the attack had been planned by Indian intelligence to deny it co-hosting rights at this year's World Cup. Although this rumor proved unfounded, the absence of a successful follow-up investigation meant that international cricket in Pakistan was interminably suspended. Pakistan has since been forced to play its home games in Britain or the UAE and the elites, who can afford to travel to London or Sharjah to watch games, have readily adapted. For the moment, it seems the average Pakistani cricket fan has been the biggest victim, denied the opportunity to watch live international cricket in a country where the sport is a national passion.