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Cricket and politics

There are two teams out there. One is trying to play cricket and the other is not (Woodfull-Australian Cricket Captain 1932-33)
Cricket being a gentlemanly game was never meant to be sullied by the barbs and jabs of dirty politics. On 30th June, on the sun dappled cricket greens of Birmingham an expectant crowd gathered to watch a cricket match between two sporting nations. What they witnessed instead was an insipid display of regional politics, wherein India listlessly lost to a an English team, that made the most of the political ambitions of a cricketing nation that apparently revelled in a vicarious pleasure of watching its prickly neighbour slip out of World Cup. Bringing politics to the premier cricket championship was akin to bringing philistines on a sight -seeing tour of Jerusalem.
Cricket lost that slightly overcast June day at Birmingham, just as cricket had lost in England’s 1932-33 Ashes tour in down under. In a tour wracked with controversy the Douglas Jardine’s men accused of unfair and ungentlemanly play for trying bodyline tactics i.e targeting the body of the batsmen on the leg side to force the batsman to fend awkwardly and in the process offer a catch to a ring of leg side fielders strategically placed to pick up that catch were excoriated by all genuine cricket aficionados. The bodyline tactics was construed as a negative means to steal victory which elicited howls of protest from a charged audience who openly heckled and booed Douglas Jardine, the architect of the cricket infamy.
When the tearaway fast bowler Harold Larwood started bowling his bodyline deliveries at Donald Bradman to blunt the main Australian weapon against England the acrimony exacerbated into diplomatic spats. Australian Cricket Board sent a provocative cable to MCC ie, “Bodyline bowling assumed such proportions as to menace best interests of game, making protection of body by batsmen the main consideration, causing intensely bitter feeling between players, as well as injury. In our opinion it is unsportsmanlike. Unless stopped at once it is likely to upset friendly relations between Australia and England.” The MCC replied, “We, Marylebone Cricket Club, deplore your cable. We deprecate your opinion that there has been unsportsmanlike play. We have fullest confidence in captain, team and managers, and are convinced they would do nothing to infringe either the Laws of Cricket or the spirit of the game.”
The standoff was averted by Australian Prime Minister Joseph Lyons who conciliated Australian cricket board. The episode still evokes bitter memories of Larwood-Jardine combine’s unsportsman like conduct and the rancour generate between the two countries. The bodyline series was a case of negative tactics affecting diplomacy and politics whereas the Indo-Pak cricket controversies are a case of negative politics and diplomatic standoff affecting cricket tactics. Regional South Asian politics and animosities forced India to lose a match to England in the play off stage of the current ICC World Cup in order to block Pakistan’s entry into semis of the Championship.
One does not know what the acerbic cricket wit of John Arlott, the legendary English cricket commentator would have said on this Indian obeisance to the political gods. He in late sixties had once commented on Pakistani fast bowler Asif Masood’s bowling action, “He reminds me of Groucho Marx chasing a pretty waitress.” The sheer artistry of Indian batsmen like Rohit Sharma and Viraat Kohli that could tie an under pressure English team in knots even on a dead pitch was blunted by politics. John Arlott had once described the beauty of Clive Lloyd’s cricket shots as “strokes of a man driving the thistle tops with a walking stick.” Such charm and elegance described by a master commentator were absent from corporate cricket in the service of politics.
India unfortunately has not played politics with cricket for the first time. It has consistently tried to isolate Pakistan in the cricket world by its Machiavellian cricket politics. The long forgotten incident of attack on Sri Lankan cricket team now overtaken by the events much important than that isolated happening, was employed with such assiduity and venom to asphyxiate Pakistan cricket, that even Indian cricket pundits are amazed.
For those who follow regional politics closely however the Indian reaction was not surprising. India has persistently downplayed and spurned sincere Pakistani peace overtures ever since she has been pressed into US service as a regional gendarme. The Indian obduracy is a consequence of two main developments. One a US tilt towards India as a strategic partner in her quest to contain China and the second the control of Indian polity by rabidly communalist BJP leadership.
The Indian politicization of cricket is a metaphor for the Indian adversarial politics in South Asia vis a vis Pakistan and other smaller neighbours. South Asia has been cursed by the fate for having the largest nation with the smallest heart. Had the Indian leadership shown greater political saavy and statesmanship, the fate of the region would have been different. India instead of inspiring confidence in the smaller nations through political concessions has always inspired fear. As a result the sub-continent has failed to realize its true economic potential. What India could have gained through regional connectivity and trade has been sacrificed at the altar of confrontational politics to propitiate the sensibilities of a distant power offering India in the inimitable words of Bruce Reidel a “Deadly Embrace.”
Though ICC nowadays is being dominated by Indian representatives, still that domination should not allow India to extend the regional politics into the global cricket arena. Anti- Pakistan animus dictated by confrontational politics at home compels Indian Cricket representatives in India and at ICC Headquarters to promote exclusionary policies in an age where cricket’s future survival as international sports requires inclusiveness. The puerile acts like wearing Army caps in third ODI at Ranchi against Australia on 9th March 2019 betoken a defiance of ICC rules that should not go uncensored.
Compared to India Pakistan has always resorted to use of cricket as a peace bridge. The conveying of Pakistan’s resolve to ensure peace and to defend itself pulled both countries back from a potential war like situation in 1987through cricket diplomacy. When would India learn that the path to peace and prosperity of South Asia goes through a regional entente cordiale is a moot point worth debating by both politicians and cricket enthusiasts of the two cricket loving neighbours.



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