In 2007, the militant group Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) declared a ceasefire with the government of Sri Lanka for the duration of the Cricket World Cup. Civil wars give way to cricket matches in this part of the world. Countries forget that they have thousands to feed, refugees to settle, and floods to mop up. Families settle down on couches and villagers crowd around one TV to cheer, as legends like Sachin Tendulkar and Chris Gayle take the field. Cricket is more than a sport in South Asia. It is a part of their collective identity.

The Colonial Legacy

The East India Company and the British Crown dominated the political and economic life of the Indian subcontinent for centuries; yet, their chief export was not tea—it was cricket. The earliest record of an organized match was in March 1845 when British cricketers played against native sepoys (soldiers). The sport was officially brought to India in the beginning of the 20th century through the Bombay Quadrangle, a tournament in which elite European members of Bombay city would play against native Hindus, Muslims, and Parsis. As crowds grew, the division between the rulers and ruled cemented themselves as much in the stadium as at Gandhi’s marches.

When the Indian cricket team arrived in England in 1932, the London newspaper Evening Standard commented: “No politics, no caste, just cricket. There has never been such a team of contrasts meeting on the common footing of cricket. The 18 players speak 10 languages among them and belong to five different castes.” The maiden match attracted a crowd of 24,000, which included the King of England. Many historians believe it was a turning point in India’s struggle for independence and encouraged the development of nationhood in the colony. With the British policy of divide and rule attempting to create fission among the numerous linguistic and ethnic identities in south Asia, cricket transcended those barriers and united all against a common enemy. 

After India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh (formerly East Pakistan) won their independence in 1947, internal rivalries too were displayed through the sport. Amidst arguments about partition agreements on the sharing of water and territory, India clashed with the Pakistani team in 1952, signaling the beginning of an intense rivalry between the newly-formed neighbors. War erupted in the 1960s and 1970s, and cricket matches were suspended before diplomatic relations. When Bangladesh became independent after a bloody civil war with Pakistan, it was written off as a basket case. But the rise of Bangladesh’s cricket team has been painted by nationalists as the victory of an underdog nation which had been dismissed as a real player. It echoed the narrative of their liberation struggle in 1971 and formed part of the basis of Bangladesh’s national character.

When South Asia ridded itself of imperialism, many expected a complete expulsion of the remnants of colonialism. However, the British left a lasting legacy in cricket which has since been incorporated into these countries’ national identities.

When All Else Divides, Cricket Unites

Paras Khadka, captain of the Nepalese cricket team, said TV was his window to sport. He would watch Nepal’s neighbor, India, play against the greats in the cricketing world—Australia and England—with his father and grandfather. Like Khadka, an entire generation in Nepal grew up on a diet of cricket and dreamed about becoming professional players as well. Nepal was one of the last nations in the subcontinent to catch on, but within decades the nation has established itself in the cricketing world, hosting the 2011 ACC Twenty20 Cup and qualifying for the 2016 ICC Twenty20 World Cup qualifiers. This achievement is astounding, given that a 7.8-magnitude earthquake struck the country during training, which killed at least 9,000 people, injured 23,000 more, and levelled vast swaths of the Himalayan nation.

Pubudu Dassanayake, the national team coach, says that success on the cricket field will not solve the country’s woes, but it could relieve some of the pain. “[There] are so many good things that would happen in the country if we play another World Cup. People will have something to be happy about. As a group, we want to give that happiness back to the country, if we can,” Dassanayake said. The national team did go on to play an active role in rebuilding the country. Cricket was used as a mobilizing tool to revive the spirit of Nepal in the aftermath of the devastation. 

Sulav Bajracharya, a young Nepalese student, described a damaged park ground as an escape for his friends and family from the horrors of the earthquake. “Our house is so badly damaged that I cannot get to my room, so we come here to play cricket regularly. When we get some money, we collect it together to buy cricket equipment. Everybody gives a small amount and we divide the cost.” Cricket’s emergence as a grassroots phenomenon could be attributed in large part to the efforts of the national team to rally the country around a symbol of national pride. When young members of a rubble-filled neighborhood met with bats, cricket acted as an emotional and cultural anchor for people to hold on to as they rebuilt their community and attempted to put the disaster behind them. The Cricket Association of Nepal and its players engaged in relief distribution and initiated a campaign named #batfornepal, to raise funds locally and internationally. Exhibition games were played to raise awareness about the damage in Nepal and to raise money for reconstruction efforts. When the team played on the international stage, people wearing the red and blue colors of the team filled the broken streets with flags. “Nowadays, people don’t have anything to do,” Bajracharya said. “They just roam around here, but if the cricket comes on TV, everyone will get together and just cheer for Nepal. It [is] great." 

After Sri Lankan independence, successive governments embraced socialism, nationalism, and racism against ethnic minorities. By 1996, the country had a full-blown civil war raging and an economy in massive debt, with a cricket Test team that had been battered for decades. When that team lifted the World Cup trophy that year, they became heroes, and cricket became currency. Amidst the Sinhalese nationalism of the country, minority populations have long nursed socio-political and linguistic grievances with the state. But the presence of Tamil cricketers like Murali and Angelo Matthews has served to cement their ties with the state and feel more part of the collective Sri Lankan identity. 

After the civil war had ravaged the country, the deep relationship between cricket and politics was seen in public attitudes during the 2011 World Cup. Members of the Tamil diaspora were still criticizing the Sri Lankan government for their neglect of minorities and for withdrawing from the ceasefire with the LTTE, but cricket became a unifying platform. On social networking sites, such as Facebook, and through official propaganda, supporting the Sri Lankan cricket team against India in the finals fostered a sense of unity in the country following a highly divisive ethnic conflict.

 Shockingly, Sri Lanka's national side even found support inside the LTTE movement, which had members who were willing to give lives in pursuit of a separate state for Tamils. Mahela Jayawardene was thoroughly impressed by the enthusiasm for the nation's cricket among LTTE soldiers: “Some of the others were coming up and speaking to us about our cricket - they knew our averages and what we've done in various places. They gave us advice on who we should pick for our next tour to England”. Jayawardene, with cricketing legends Muttiah Muralitharan and Kumar Sangakkara, have since been among the greatest promoters of cricket as means of reconciliation. Jayawardene's charity, the Mahela Foundation, has funded cricket equipment and facilities for schools in the war-ravaged north.

Cricket and Diplomacy

Fan of the Indian cricket team (Photo by Ekabhishek, CC-BY-2.0, accessed via Wikimedia Commons)

In 2014, spectators at a cricket match in Lucknow, India, watched as policemen hauled away a group of boys on charges of sedition. The reason they were accused of “anti-state activities” was that they were Indians cheering for the Pakistani team. Cricket may not be a blood sport, but the India v. Pakistan cricket match is a war. 

The history of India-Pakistan relations did not inspire confidence in rebuilding relations through non-political means. However, the era of “cricket diplomacy” signaled a change in approach by these two governments. The first instance of this phenomenon was during the Soviet invasion in Afghanistan, when Pakistan funded the Afghan forces, and India was annoyed by Soviet pressure for an alliance. Pakistan’s leader, General Zia-Ul-Haq, visited India to attend a test match in Jaipur, and the resulting diplomatic dialogue cooled relations. Pakistani President Musharraf rekindled this positive dynamic in cricket-politics when he visited India for a match in 2005. While the corresponding dialogue on Kashmir had no tangible results, the fact that he had been convinced to come to the negotiating table was a win for cricket and the country.

Despite the noticeable accomplishments of “cricket diplomacy,” Indo-Pakistani relations took a turn for the worse when Pakistani ties were discovered in the Mumbai terror attacks. Today, relations are characterized by regular border clashes in the Kashmir region. Consequently, the frenzy surrounding the India-Pakistan game borders on jingoism and hostility. Cheering for the opposing team in a war is thus liable to be classified an act of sedition, according to the Indian government. The two countries erupted after India lost to Pakistan in the finals of the Champions Trophy earlier this year—one celebrating, the other fuming. Angry demonstrations broke out with Indians breaking TV sets and burning images of their team. Social media was used to circulate memes with ominous threats: “We’ll get you back on the battlefield.”

South Asia fought long and hard to rid itself of the British, but the colonizers left an inheritance which is still used by postcolonial governments to arouse nationalist sentiments and conduct policy: cricket. In South Asia, cricket and politics will forever be interwoven. Nuclear talks have been settled and wars have been fought alongside the sound of the ball hitting the boundary. Cricket diplomacy is perhaps the most effective form of communication in South Asia right now. However, with the rise of jingoism in the subcontinent, it is uncertain whether cricket will be a force of unity or division. Sports has always been looked upon as a way to heal wounds and nurture relationships. The interlocking rings of the Olympics rings symbolize the coming together of all nations. President Nixon used “ping-pong diplomacy” to initiate relations with America’s historic enemy, China. Cricket must be used in a similar manner to bring together the people of a country. Rather than fostering mass nationalism, it is necessary that cricketing ties create an environment for compromise and togetherness.