As a cricket lover, I say this with a heavy heart: India and Pakistan must stop playing cricket. A religion in its own right, cricket has turned super sectarian and too toxic to go on, for everybody’s sanity. You see, an India vs Pakistan contest remains peak cricket but that peak has been poisoned by religion, the two-nation theory and the toxic anonymity of social media. We can’t reverse history or social media. What we can do is stop further vitiating the atmosphere for 20 or 50 overs of cricketing pleasure.
An India-Pakistan match is primed for misuse, as we saw in the T20 World Cup, since the two countries are invested in this 5th-generation warfare. Like it or not, that one match became more about point-scoring than about run-scoring. The sight of Pakistan’s opening batsman deciding to offer prayers on the field during the drinks break was not because of any devotional reason but a political stunt. Senior cricketer Waqar Younis just gave expression to what the average symbol-minded Pakistani felt: Rizwan offered namaz in the face of Hindus.
Pakistani cricket was infected with the Tablighi strain a long time ago. Inspired by Maulvi Tariq Jameel, a generation of Pakistani players favoured prayers over practice. Yousuf Youhanna had to become Mohammed Yusuf to survive in the team. Dinesh Kaneria didn’t survive because he only changed to Danish and did not convert.
Sports stars started sporting maulvi-style beards. Inzamam ul Haq began inviting international players to Islam. He famously or infamously attempted to convert Sri Lankan players and even gave dawah (invitation to Islam) to Brian Lara. That rabid religiosity phase is over, alhamdulillah as Inzibhai would say. Today’s Pakistani team seems to have gotten over the play-for-paradise scheme and you can see the change in the team’s fortunes. But then a Mohammad Rizwan couldn’t let go of the opportunity to show off his praying skills in front of what Waqar Younis called “Hindus”.
At Salaam Cricket, an India Today Group cricket conclave in Dubai, when Harbhajan Singh said Indians and Pakistanis were one people, widely loved fast bowler Shoaib Akhtar objected to ruling that out because Pakistanis believe in the two-nation theory. Shoaib later applauded opener Rizwan for his on-field prayer.
Pakistan’s Home Minister Sheikh Rashid went ahead and called it a victory of Islam over the kuffar and added that all the Muslims of the world, including those from India, were overjoyed at the victory. We have heard various Pakistani cricketers and responsible officials making such irresponsible comments because India and Pakistan were having a go at each other on the cricketing field. That’s not cricket.
While no Indian cricketer, past or present, or politician of standing went as far as Pakistanis did, there was enough poison on social media to kill the spirit of the game. Some bitter bigots went after Mohammed Shami for the sole reason that he was Muslim. Ably backed by Pakistanis masquerading as Indians, and in some cases not even masquerading, to exploit the growing chasm between the two major communities in India.
And when Virat Kohli came out with his statement, people went after him. Even if the outrage against Shami was a hit job, Kohli had not said anything that he should not have. He spoke about the inclusive way of Indian life and called out the bigotry of some Indians for looking at the sport through their communally jaundiced lens. But that message of love evoked such horrifying hate. Saying that Pakistanis steered the Shami operation is turning a blind eye to the increasing internal religious divide. The enemy exploited your differences because the differences exist.
If this is where we are, we are headed for trouble. And let us not have cricket add fuel to that latent fire in the hearts already full of hatred. We had not played with each other since the last World Cup. Outside the ICC-ordained playoffs, the two countries do not play each other anyway. Cricket has been doing fine in India without this poisonous play.
The reason we do not have bilateral cricketing ties is that Pakistan continues to send men and arms into Kashmir in the name of moral support. Does that stop during ICC tournaments? No. In fact, India and Pakistan played in Dubai in the backdrop of a new wave of targeted killings in the Kashmir valley. The belief that Hindus and Muslims cannot coexist is the raison d’être of Pakistan. Remove the two-nation theory and the idea of Pakistan collapses. In India’s case, it’s the opposite. We believe not only Hindus and Muslims, but people of different faiths can not only live together but prosper together.
For decades, we kept our ideologies aside and played in the true spirit of the game. But no longer. When players start praying midfield and veterans applaud, when Indian social media toxicity overflows on the timelines of our beloved players, when ideology takes the front seat, the sport ceases to be a sport. Till politics takes a backseat and religion goes back into the cave it came from, let us keep cricket out of politics, since we can’t keep politics out of it.
Cricket can survive without this clash.