Tokenism as a policy has the advantage of making a point without the pressure of having to follow through with it. The Board of Control for Cricket in India, run by a Committee of Administrators who have discovered that the less they do, the more power they wield over a longer period, had to make a point in the aftermath of the Pulwama massacre.
It had four choices. Withdraw from the World Cup. Ensure Pakistan withdraw. Convince the other teams to withdraw. Refuse to play the preliminary match against Pakistan, and hope they wouldn’t have to meet them later. The first was plain silly, for why should India punish themselves? The second and third were unworkable. That left the fourth. But the BCCI was not willing to take a call so many weeks before the June 16 match. Its remit was to appear tough and concerned without rocking the World Cup boat too much.
In recent years, the BCCI’s approach could be summed up thus: speak softly, and carry a big cheque. Sometimes it didn’t speak softly, but the big cheque was usually effective.
Its letter to the International Cricket Council made no mention of Pakistan. Like experienced politicians, the BCCI acted one way to please its home constituency as it were, while simultaneously telling the international body not to worry too much about boycotts.
Sporting boycotts are not unusual. The Olympics have been boycotted by both the US and the then Soviet Union for political reasons. Did it change policy significantly? Doubtful. But the sporting isolation of South Africa is acknowledged to have played a role in the dismantling of apartheid.
Only the terminally naive believe that sport and politics do not mix. Sport is often politics by other means, as the Olympics have shown, as have World Cups in other sports.
Still, the decision not to play Pakistan is not the BCCI’s to make, nor the CoA’s. It is the Government of India’s. At the 2003 World Cup, England boycotted their match against Zimbabwe protesting against Robert Mugabe’s rule there; “player safety” was cited. It helped Zimbabwe advance to the Super Six — two points ahead of England!
The argument being made by some former players that India should boycott the Pakistan match since they have beaten them at every World Cup makes little sense. If anything, that is a call for playing Pakistan based on past record! Former skipper Sourav Ganguly has suggested that we should stop focusing so much on the two points against Pakistan and concentrate instead on winning the World Cup. But what if the two are related?
India have refused to play Pakistan in bilateral series, and banned their players from the IPL. Attempts to get the two countries to play at a neutral venue have also been rejected by India. At the last World Cup in England 20 years ago, the neighbours played a match in Manchester while the Kargil war was on. Three soldiers from India and six from Pakistan were killed on the day.
In its letter to the ICC, the BCCI has urged the cricketing community “to sever ties with countries from which terrorism emanates.” It is a noble sentiment but of little practical value. Depending on the definition and reach of “terrorism”, it will affect more countries than Pakistan. But that is an issue that need not detain us here.
Is there a principle involved in all this? In 1974, India reached the final of the Davis Cup for the first time, but withdrew since they had to meet South Africa. That was a principled stand against apartheid. If India are to take a stand against Pakistan and its export of terror, they should not play in any tournament which involves Pakistan. The solution is not that simple, however. Isolating Pakistan might end their cricket, but it is doubtful if it will end their terrorism.
If India pull out of the league tie and then run into Pakistan in the semifinals or final, will the government have the strength of conviction to withdraw from these matches too, and allow the neighbours to win the World Cup by default? Even if it is not publicised, a decision will have to be taken before the team leaves for England.
At an India-Pakistan match, players become diplomats overnight, insisting that it is only about the cricket while knowing that this isn’t so. This has been cricket’s burden — to stand for something beyond itself. Politicians haven’t been able to solve the issues involved. It is unfair to expect sportsmen to do so by proxy.
In the ideal world, India would play Pakistan at the World Cup, just like the US played Iran at the 1998 football World Cup when they had no diplomatic relations. There are justifications for both playing and not playing, but what makes cricketing sense might not be desirable politically and vice versa. A hundred days is a long time in sports however, and an even longer time in politics.