“Hokum!” George Orwell would scoff at the idea of sports as a tool of diplomacy. “At the international level sport frankly mimic warfare,” he wrote in his celebrated 1945 essay ‘The sporting spirit’. At the international level, “even a leisurely game like cricket, demanding grace rather than strength, can cause much ill-will.” He was at the time referring to the infamous 1932-33 Bodyline series between England and Australia, when the English team tried to bounce out Don Bradman and company by bowling into their bodies, delivery after short-pitched delivery. But Orwell could as well have been speaking about modern-day India-Pakistan cricket rivalry.
Traditionally, Indian and Pakistani teams have been at loggerheads, each trying to demolish the other in every match they occasionally play against each other. Who can forget the Aamir Sohail-Venkatesh Prasad run-in at the 1996 World Cup? Or the simmering atmosphere of the first post-Kargil India-Pak match in Manchester in 1999? Or Sachin Tendulkar cutting Shoaib Akhtar for a six at the 2003 World Cup? Yet the most recent World Cup clash between the two was a bit of an exception.
Even as Indo-Pak ties remain strained, the two teams were rather civil to each other when they met in the round-robin stage of the 2019 World Cup. The ever-irascible Indian captain Virat Kohli seemed determined to control his emotions. On the tournament’s eve, Babar Azam, the best Pakistani batsman, had expressed his desire to emulate the international success of Kohli, his cricketing idol. In the match itself, when Kohli thought he had nicked a ball (he hadn’t), he walked off, a rarity in modern-day cricket. It was far from a ‘war’ that the Twitterati were expecting.
The US and China famously began their rapprochement in 1971 by playing Ping-Pong. The two Koreas march together in the Olympics as a mark of amity. In cricket, India hosts all of Afghanistan’s home games, which has done more to buttress India-Afghan ties than decades of the more traditional diplomacy. Likewise, when Sandeep Lamichhane appears in the IPL, our knee-jerk anti-Indianism takes a backseat, as we cannot help but ponder the many similarities between Nepalis and Indians.
The ace leg-spinner has done a lot to break the stereotype of Nepalis as ‘chowkidars’ in India. There could as such be few better goodwill ambassadors of Nepal to India. It’s easy to latch onto prejudices from afar. Friendship requires more interactions to flourish. Anecdotally, one of the first American sportspersons to visit China in 1971 was shocked at how much the Chinese resembled the Americans: “The people are just like us. They are real, they’re genuine, they got feeling!”
Of course, sports can both unite and divide. Some sports fans are so rabidly xenophobic that they have to demean players from other cultures. African footballers playing in the Nepali football league are subjected to awful racial chants. The treatment of any Indian football or cricket team visiting Nepal is no different. Yet when we see a Nepali player like Lamichhane easily mingle and bond with Indian players, our perception of the Indians changes, and vice-versa. As in cricket, so in life.