Cricketers lead the way for India and Pakistan
The rivalry between the cricket teams of India and Pakistan is a little like if a billion people tuned into a Red Sox – Yankees game. Add in nationalistic fervor on both sides, and things can get tense. When Pakistan beat India in 1978, the Pakistani captain declared it a victory for all Muslims against Hindus. But until recently, Pakistan had never beaten India in a World Cup match. That changed when the Pakistani team made an unexpected run all the way to the 2021 T20 World Cup semifinal. And as Pakistani fans watched social media videos of their team visiting the Namibian dressing room and sharing a birthday cake with members of the Scotland team, some started asking, “Is this the future of cricket diplomacy?”
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IBTIHAJ MUHAMMAD, HOST:
The rivalry between the cricket teams of India and Pakistan is a little like if a billion people tuned in to a Red Sox – Yankees game. But add in nationalistic fervor on both sides, and things can get a little tense. Fans can get aggressive.
NEWSCLIP WITH WOMAN SPEAKING:
It’s absolutely mad here at the Dubai International Stadium. This is the first time that Pakistan have beaten India in any World Cup, leave alone the T20 World Cup format…
IBTIHAJ: But just a few weeks ago, on October 24th, when the Pakistani men’s cricket team ended a 29-year losing streak by beating India in a World Cup match, a small moment after the match captured the hearts of viewers on both sides of the border.
NEWSCLIP WITH MAN SPEAKING:
You can see the teams shaking hands, Virat leading the way there…
IBTIHAJ: When Indian captain Virat Kohli walked over to congratulate Pakistani opening batsman Mohammad Rizwan, he ruffled Rizwan’s hair. Rizwan grinned up in pure joy as Kohli smiled back. The photo went viral.
Seeing pictures of camaraderie between Indian and Pakistani players — I think it definitely was a moment that wasn’t lost on me.
IBTIHAJ: From Foreign Policy and Doha Debates. This is The Long Game, a podcast about the power of sports to change the world. I’m your host, Ibtihaj Muhammad. Reporter Mariya Karimjee has our story.
There’s a story I’ve heard a few times — almost like a legend in Karachi, where I live and spent my childhood. It comes up whenever anyone talks about the India-Pakistan cricket rivalry. It’s about a woman, Sana Kazmi, who crossed the India-Pakistan border to watch the two countries square off in the 2011 Cricket World Cup semifinals. This cricket rivalry is one of the biggest in the world. It’s hard to describe to people who don’t watch cricket and who don’t live in the subcontinent. But when there’s a match between the two countries, it sometimes feels like everything else has come to a stop.
[SOUND OF CROWD CHEERING]
You know, everyone’s thinking about it. It’s — it’s like when you’re in a crowd, when you go to a concert, you’re part of something bigger than yourself. So this is like that on steroids. [LAUGHS]
[SOUND OF CROWD CHANTING AND CHEERING]
PAKISTANI WOMAN: And sometimes I think it must be really annoying for people who are not interested in cricket, because you can’t escape it. It’s everywhere.
MARIYA: That’s Sana. Like me, she grew up watching cricket in Pakistan.
NEWSCLIP WITH MAN SPEAKING:
Oh, I say! What about that.
MARIYA: In 2011, the Cricket World Cup was hosted by India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.
[SOUND OF BAT HITTING BALL; CROWD CHEERING]
NEWSCLIP WITH MAN SPEAKING: That could be it! That will be it!
MARIYA: In the first quarterfinal match, Pakistan beat the West Indies by 10 wickets, setting up a semifinal matchup with India.
NEWSCLIP WITH MAN SPEAKING: One of the great wins in the history of World Cup cricket!
MARIYA: Pakistani fans who watched that match saw the World Cup in their immediate future.
SANA KAZMI: As soon as we won that match, I — I remember calling up a friend and I was like, “Hey, should we go to India?” And she was like, “Should we?” You know, and it was like half a question and half, like — you know, like, “Are you crazy?”
MARIYA: But getting to Mohali, India, where the match would be playing, was anything other than straightforward.
SANA: We started, you know, looking for information, like, how does it work? Where do we get the tickets? Where’s the — the visa information? And there was nothing. There was nothing out there. Thanks to Twitter, I, you know, knew a bunch of sports journalists, so I asked them. Nobody knew anything.
MARIYA: Sana needed two things: a visa to get into India and a ticket to go to the match. She created a hashtag #GetTheGirlsToMohali, asking Twitter for help.
SANA: A bunch of like, you know, celebrity-type Twitter celebrities — kind of with large followings — saw it or liked it or retweeted it.
MARIYA: To get the Indian visa as Pakistani citizens, they needed to submit a utility bill of someone in India who would vouch for them.
SANA: So there was an Indian journalist from BBC who just like, scanned and gave us her documents. Like, “You can use them.” Like, she didn’t know us from Adam, she had just followed our campaign.
MARIYA: Sana and her friends cobbled together three tickets through the kindness of internet strangers, then flew to Islamabad to apply for their visas. The night before the match, they heard back from the Indian High Commission. They’d been approved. They boarded a bus to Wagah, the one point between India and Pakistan that you can cross the border via land. The girls were going to Mohali.
When Pakistan and India first started playing cricket against each other in 1952, just five years after partition, it was much easier to cross the border and watch matches. But relations between the two countries soon soured over Kashmir. And by 1965, they’d gone to war. When Pakistan and India next faced off on the cricket pitch 17 years later, the wartime tensions had seeped into the sport. When Pakistan beat India in 1978, the Pakistani captain declared it a victory for all Muslims against Hindus.
The idea of another cricket team representing your enemy, it is a strong one, and it is a pervasive one. I don’t think it’s a healthy one.
MARIYA: That’s Rahul Bhattacharya. He’s an Indian cricket journalist. When relations between the two countries normalized, cricket thrived. Through the 1980s and 1990s, Pakistan and India played each other at neutral venues. In early 1999, during a stable time, India invited the Pakistani cricket team to tour the country. In 2004, Pakistan reciprocated. The Indian team flew into Lahore.
RAHUL BHATTACHARYA: And the sort of, the welcome that the Indian — not just the players, but all those who traveled from India — got from the Pakistanis on that tour was just beyond overwhelming. Nobody thought it would be quite like this, you know?
MARIYA: Rahul came to Pakistan with the Indian team for this 2004 tour.
RAHUL: I remember the cab driver had told me his — that his air conditioner was not working. And later in the conversation, as he found out I am from India, he sort of switched on immediately. [LAUGHS] So it was working all the while, but I was given the special treatment only because I was from India.
MARIYA: Rahul was so bowled over by the hospitality that he and other Indians were shown during their time in Pakistan that he wrote a book called Pundits from Pakistan about how the tour went well beyond cricket. It helped normalize relations between the countries and created a sense of goodwill between fans of the sport on both sides of the border.
The 2004 tour came during a moment of real friendship and peace between the two countries. The first match in Pakistan was in Karachi at the National Stadium. Rahul was there, and he watched Inzamam-ul-Haq, one of Pakistan’s greatest batsmen, hit a century. That means he scored 100 runs. But still he fell short of the target. India won the match, but the Pakistani fans broke out in extended applause.
[SOUND OF CROWD APPLAUDING]
RAHUL: I remember the atmosphere. You know, there was all this banging of empty mineral water bottles to get a sort of rhythm going, and that continued all the way until the end. And then there was a moment of silence when the final catch was taken. And after that, this sort of sea of applause, a very, very thrilling and moving moment. [SOUND OF CROWD CHEERING AND APPLAUDING] And you can imagine, being in the middle of a stadium in front of such a large audience and being applauded is — in itself — such a rousing thing.
MARIYA: The moment was transformative.
RAHUL: Imagine that you’re in the middle of these people who are your designated enemies, your so-called enemies, and them giving you this kind of welcome appreciation. It shows the — the kind of feelings that sport and cricket can harness. And that’s a statement. It’s a statement of sort of — it’s beautiful and enlightened and civilized statement. And it’s all — it’s kind of thrilling in its magnanimity.
MARIYA: For Rahul, the tour presented a kind of possibility for cricket, and for Pakistan and India. If, in relatively stable times, the teams could pop over and play matches like this, perhaps that would go a long way towards establishing rapport between the two countries.
RAHUL: Just the idea that India and Pakistan could tour each other, and there are people who could go over to one another’s countries and watch these matches, and people could engage in that manner, and this being normal — a part of something that can happen every couple of years, as it happens with other teams — it seems to be, now, in retrospect, a wonderfully mature thing. A state of affairs, you know? [CHUCKLES] Where people are — on both sides of the border — are behaving like adults.
MARIYA: But Rahul says those who say that cricket is a tool of diplomacy have got it a bit backwards.
RAHUL: Cricket was always part of a greater engagement between the countries. You know? India and Pakistan will not just be able to — it’s not for the Indian Cricket Board to call the Pakistan Cricket Board and say, “OK, let’s play a few matches next week,” or next month, or whatever it is. When you have channels of communications open between the government, when you’re sort of actively seeking to promote a trade and a cultural exchange between the two countries, a cricket tour comes almost like a showpiece event in this. It’s when the governments are in the mood to speak to one another, when it will even be open to the idea of considering a cricket tour.
MARIYA: Just four years after Rahul visited Pakistan, tensions with India hit a boiling point once again. In November of 2008, a terrorist organization from Pakistan carried out a coordinated series of attacks in Mumbai over the course of four days. Almost 200 people died.
[SOUND OF PEOPLE SINGING]
NEWSCLIP WITH AMERICAN WOMAN SPEAKING:
A nation of many faiths lights candles and offers prayers for the dead in Mumbai…
[SOUND OF MAN DELIVERING A PRAYER IN HINDI]
MARIYA: Relations between India and Pakistan turned frosty yet again. India implied that Pakistan’s intelligence services had aided and abetted the attack. Pakistan denied this.
NEWSCLIP WITH BRITISH MAN SPEAKING:
Gunmen on the streets of Lahore. A brazen and deadly attack on a high-profile target…
MARIYA: Less than a year later, the Sri Lankan team came to Pakistan for a tour. While in Lahore on their way to the stadium, the Sri Lankan team was attacked. International cricket in Pakistan came to a grinding stop. As relations with India continued to sour, matches between the two countries were few and far between, disappointing scores of fans across the world.
So, when Pakistan was matched up against India in the semifinal of the 2011 Cricket World Cup, Sana — that lifelong Pakistani cricket fan — knew the match would be a big deal. At Wagah, she and her friends moved through the line of other Pakistanis trying to get to India. It seemed everyone else was there for cricket, so they crossed over without much fanfare.
SANA: Overall, people — and this is, I think, more so on the Indian side — were just amused to see us, because we were all in, like, our white and green and flags and hats and, you know, like, just being kind of, like, obnoxious fans. And they were just all laughing.
MARIYA: But they still had to get to the stadium five hours away. And they also had to pick up their tickets.
SANA: We see these two Pakistani uncles — in, like, Pakistan team jerseys — emerge from that same gate. And they had their sunglasses on, and you know, they were walking with a lot of confidence and no anxiety. And there was a guy who was carrying their suitcases behind them. So they seemed like they were all set. And I told my friends, “Guys, why don’t we just go with them? Like, they’re going to the same place.”
MARIYA: Sana and her friends hitched a ride with those men, worrying about how to tell them they still needed to pick up their tickets. But they quickly found out the men they were with had extra.
SANA: The way we found out was they were calling their friends in Chandigarh — they had friends there — and trying to convince them to come to the match.
MARIYA: But Sana and her friends had a better idea.
SANA: It was, like, a five-hour drive? I think, like, three and a half to four hours of that was just us trying to convince them to, you know, give us their tickets.
IBTIHAJ: You’re listening to The Long Game, from Foreign Policy and Doha Debates. I’m your host, Ibtihaj Muhammad.
[SYNTHESIZER MUSIC FADES OUT]
IBTIHAJ: And now we return to our story of India, Pakistan, and cricket diplomacy.
MARIYA: Sana and her friends got the tickets and arrived at the stadium a little after the match started. Then they watched as Pakistan slowly lost to India.
There’s a reason that Sana’s story was mentioned to me so many times. For starters, there’s a real magic in it. Three young Pakistani women traveling together to India, which, here, is often seen as enemy territory. There’s also the fact there’s really no easy, quick way to travel between the two countries, especially when tensions between them are so high. But the real magic — to me, anyway — was what happened after the match. Pakistan lost, and it became so apparent that Pakistan was not going to win that the teeny-tiny section of Pakistani fans at the stadium started leaving early. Sana and her friends didn’t leave early. And once India had won, the stadium unsurprisingly broke out in celebration. Sana realized that she was in hostile territory.
SANA: It was really crowded. And so many Indians — so many Indian fans — came up to us for just a chat and they were like, you know, “Thank you so much for coming to our country,” and, you know, “You guys played really well.” And you know, some of them, like, wanted to take pictures with us. And I remember one girl came and said, “You guys deserved to win. You did better.” We were like, “No, we didn’t!” [LAUGHS]
I just went for the cricket, like I said. But the response — not just in terms of while I was there, but in the interactions that I had with Indians both before and after going there — that really made me want to just engage more.
MARIYA: Sana returned to India the following year; again, to watch a cricket match between Pakistan and India — the last time the two countries would play each other outside of a tournament.
SANA: But this time I stayed for 10 days, you know, because I wanted to see it beyond the cricket. And it was so much fun. I, you know, I love the chaat there and all the vegetarian food and the shopping, and just — just so many things.
MARIYA: In the decades since Sana’s last trip to India, there have been fewer and fewer matches between India and Pakistan. And for the youngest generation of Pakistani and Indian cricket fans, the rivalry between India and Pakistan doesn’t feel the same as it once did.
As a follower and fan of Pakistan cricket, much of the focus that I’ve had hasn’t been on India-Pakistan, just because of the really sordid state of affairs that’s left almost no cricket between us.
MARIYA: That’s Uzair Sattar, a 22 year old cricket fan. In his lifetime, he only remembers watching about eight India-Pakistan matches. Like me, Uzair is a Pakistani who got his love of the game from his father.
UZAIR SATTAR: My dad’s why I started watching cricket. He’s been a fan all his life, and his favorite story about India-Pakistan, that he’s told me, was in the 80s. Imran Khan is bowling to Sunil Gavaskar. He describes, like, a specific ball that Imran Khan bowled — or, like, pitched — almost, like, on the wide line, and then sort of just cut back in to bowl and Gavaskar didn’t even offer a shot. He has, like, these very specific moments that he remembers with great, great fondness about India and Pakistan that I think have remained with him even today.
MARIYA: Hearing these stories, Uzair started feeling that perhaps he’d gotten the shorter end of the stick.
UZAIR: I would personally much rather have been a cricket fan in the 80s or in the 90s, when things were more focused on the sport as opposed to, sort of, everything else that goes around it.
MARIYA: When I first spoke to Uzair in early October, there was no reason to believe this narrative would change. The T20 World Cup was fast approaching.
NEWSCLIP WITH MAN SPEAKING:
In a massive, global embarrassment for Pakistan…
MARIYA: A month before the tournament, New Zealand’s team flew to Pakistan, after 18 years, to play a cricket tour. But on the day of the first match, New Zealand cited a specific, credible security threat and left the country.
NEWSCLIP WITH MAN SPEAKING: The decision to pull out of the first one day in Rawalpindi came just minutes before the toss.
MARIYA: England, which was due to play two matches against Pakistan in mid-October, followed suit, canceling their tour. This meant the Pakistan team was not able to practice in the way they’d hoped, and served a massive blow for international cricket returning to the country.
On the 24th of October, Pakistan and India played each other in the T20 World Cup.
NEWSCLIP WITH MAN SPEAKING: The tournament may have started today, but all eyes are fixated on tomorrow’s big game. The most anticipated clash in the calendar year…
MARIYA: In Karachi, where I live, it felt like everyone was planning their weekend around cricket. Chai dhabas all over the city projected the match onto the walls of their buildings. Karachi government officials put up giant screens in the city. The feeling of excitement and anticipation was everywhere. From the very first ball, Pakistani fans felt as though they were watching something incredible.
UZAIR: And then, at the start of the third over, you know, Shaheen Shah Afridi bowls probably one of the best balls of his career. He’s bowling fast; it hits the middle of the wicket on middle stump, straightens up like an arrow, and just faintly clips the top bail. The bail trickles down in a very, sort of, cinematic way. And, you know, Pakistan is all celebrating. And so those first three overs, I think, put us on top.
[SOUND OF CROWD CHEERING AND SHOUTING “PAKISTAN!”]
MARIYA: Pakistan won — the first time they beat India in a World Cup game — surprising everyone, especially diehard Pakistani fans who knew their team was the underdog. And it was right after that match that the viral photo was taken of Kohli ruffling Rizwan’s hair.
Pakistan went on to win every game of the group stage. They headed into the semifinals undefeated. Then, after a valiant attempt to beat Australia, fell short of the mark. But for every fan I spoke to, including Uzair, the loss didn’t feel as devastating.
UZAIR: We were two good days away from being the champions and winning — and winning the trophy. That didn’t happen, so it’s obviously disappointing, but it doesn’t feel as heartbreaking as, you know, previous tournament exits might have been.
MARIYA: Part of that was because Pakistan’s team is comparatively young and is brimming with talent. But part of that was also because, in addition to winning their matches, Pakistani cricket players were also winning the hearts of everyone around them.
PAKISTANI CRICKET PLAYER: Hi, guys!
NAMIBIAN CRICKET PLAYER: Hi!…
MARIYA: After soundly beating Namibia, for example, the Pakistan cricket team visited the Namibian dressing room to congratulate the players.
[SOUND OF CRICKET PLAYERS LAUGHING]
UZAIR: It was a step taken completely in line with what sports should do to sort of bring people together.
[SOUND OF CRICKET PLAYERS CHATTING AND HIGH-FIVING]
MARIYA: After their win against Scotland, Scotland’s Twitter account posted a video of Pakistan and Scotland sharing a birthday cake for one of the Pakistani players.
UZAIR: These 11 cricket players and the coaching staff and the broader team have done more for, like, the soft power of Pakistan than any initiative that I’ve seen in recent years. And it’s so sort of second nature, and so natural, because we’re doing it through a sport that we love and play and it’s a part of who we are as a people now. And so, the potential that cricket has to be, you know, a conduit to sort of changing hearts and minds about, quote unquote, Pakistan’s image, I think exists.
MARIYA: During the World Cup, international teams like Australia — who haven’t been to Pakistan in decades — announced upcoming tours. New Zealand, too, expressed interest in returning to Pakistan. And the International Cricket Council announced that Pakistan would host the 2025 Champions Trophy. Fans believe that it wasn’t just the way the team played that sealed these deals.
UZAIR: I’d say Pakistan cricket represents the soul of the country in a really good way at the moment, because ultimately, players are a product of their society. And so, right now, I think what we’re seeing with this Pakistan cricket team is probably the best version of Pakistan that I’ve seen in a while. The way the spirit of cricket really permeated throughout the tournament as a whole speaks to the fact that cricket isn’t just a game, it’s sometimes much more than the sum of its parts.
MARIYA: But for me — a Pakistani fan in Karachi watching this tournament and all that was at stake — what struck me was that it was still play. It was still fun. And maybe that is the secret for cricketers acting as ambassadors for their country.
IBTIHAJ: That’s it for this episode of The Long Game. I’m your host, Ibtihaj Muhammad. The Long Game is a co-production of Foreign Policy and Doha Debates. This episode was produced by Mariya Karimjee and Karen Given, with help from Dan Ephron, Rob Sachs, Japhet Weeks, Amjad Atallah and Jigar Mehta. Make sure to follow us on Apple or your favorite podcast app, and please leave us a review. To learn more, subscribe to Foreign Policy, a global magazine of news and ideas, or visit Doha Debates, a production of Qatar Foundation.
Next week on the podcast: Last spring before their World Cup qualifying matches, athletes from Norway, Germany, Netherlands, and Denmark staged protests against Qatar, host of the 2022 World Cup. At issue was their treatment of migrant workers.
MAN #1: It’s a life of perpetual toil, really, in pretty harsh conditions for very little pay.
MAN #2: We’ve seen that the World Cup has added a level of scrutiny, has really shone the spotlight on Qatar. That scrutiny has accelerated the changes that were anticipated — already anticipated as part of the reforms.
IBTIHAJ: That’s next time on The Long Game.