I was there.
I was at the Dubai International Stadium on Sunday, to witness the most comprehensive rout of an Indian cricket team that I had ever personally seen in more than half a century of watching cricket live. (I heard the 42 all out of 1974 on the radio, and saw the 36 all out of 2020 on TV, but this was live, and boy, did it sting.)
India's Winning Streak Against Pakistan Checked
The friends I was with seemed unanimously convinced of the prospects of India maintaining its unrivalled record of having won every World Cup encounter between the two countries. I was not quite as sanguine, conscious as I was that such an unbeaten record is not indefinitely unsustainable, all the more so since Pakistan’s overall performance against India in white-ball cricket featured far more victories than defeats.
On paper India were undoubtedly the stronger side, but that was also true when we lost to Bangladesh at the 2007 World Cup and were knocked out of that tournament. In cricket, Pakistan had a reputation for maddening inconsistency; they were known as a team capable of the most stunning triumphs and the most abject surrenders, without any clue as to which was the more likely on any given day. And the T-20 format, because of its brevity, lends itself to surprises.
In the event, we got clobbered. Captain Virat Kohli, as usual, lost the toss, and Pakistan’s bowlers got first use of the wicket, as well as denying India its favoured choice of chasing a target rather than setting one. We stuttered and gasped and choked our way to 152/7, and then Pakistan rubbed in the humiliation with a commanding performance where they overhauled us with all their wickets intact and thirteen balls to spare.
Not Just Captains, Indian & Pakistani Fans Showed Sportsmanship
And yet the abiding image from the ground was of India’s losing captain, Virat Kohli, with his arm around the Pakistani batting hero, Mohammed Rizwan, the two of them grinning broadly. It was as if they had both won.
And in a way, they had.
The crowd and the atmosphere at the stadium throughout the match had been terrific. There was no sign of any rancour, unpleasantness or malice throughout the match, because in the UAE, Indians and Pakistanis live and work side-by-side and know each other socially as well.
As we streamed out of the stadium some Pakistani fans started chanting “mauka, mauka” but the Indians waved their tricolour good-naturedly at them. Both were grinning.
The mood took me back to the June 2019 India versus Pakistan Cricket World Cup One-Day match at Old Trafford, Manchester. Behind me in the stands then was a young honeymooning couple from Canada, the man of Indian descent, the woman of Pakistani origin; they held the flags of each other’s countries and equably cheered their favourites on.
Despite their unusual personal circumstances, they were not untypical of the spirit of the crowd there, or here.
Tortured History of India and Pakistan Affects Everything
Given the tortured history of the two countries, one could be forgiven for expecting far more palpable tension between their supporters. After all, India and Pakistan had fought four wars that had taken hundreds of lives each.
Terrorist attacks from Pakistan, and Islamic militancy spawned by that nation, had claimed the lives of hundreds more. And firing across the Line of Control that separated the two countries’ armies in Jammu and Kashmir, allied to targeted assassinations conducted by terrorists, still takes a near-daily human toll.
We have not played a bilateral series with each other since the 26/11 terrorist attacks in Mumbai in 2008. There were loud calls in India to boycott the match against Pakistan, with many politicians joining the chants of “how can we play against them when they are sending terrorists across the border to kill us?”
Fortunately, calmer heads had prevailed, and the match was on, but one could be forgiven for thinking that both sets of people would harbour bitter hatred for each other.
Healing Capabilities of Cricket
But this would be to underestimate the power and the healing capabilities of cricket. When England hosted a cricket World Cup in 1999, India and Pakistan had faced each other in a crucial fixture on the very day when, in the snowy wastes of Kargil, in Kashmir, a raging battle claimed the lives of six Pakistani soldiers and three Indian Army officers.
Yet, the match had gone on, and India – under a Muslim captain – had won yet again, without any incident in the stands to mar its triumph. As I struggled to push my way past the throngs in Dubai on Sunday night, I ended up giving a couple of hundred selfies, of which a good one-third were to Pakistani fans.
Cricket can do that. As a global game, it features people of different ethnicities, colours, religions and creeds striving towards the same goals. Like all international sport, it embodies the United Nations values of co-existence transcending political differences; but unlike other games, cricket is dedicated to the notion of ‘‘playing by the rules’’.
Sportsmanship matters, even to the crowds. Strict adherence to the Laws of cricket includes honouring the spirit of those laws, so that, for instance, the mildest show of dissent against an umpiring decision is severely sanctioned. The phrase ‘‘it’s not cricket’’ has come to be used whenever any conduct is palpably unfair, or — to recall a deplorably sexist but irreplaceable word — ‘‘ungentlemanly’.’
With all of these elements, cricket can arguably be a valuable force for the promotion of the values and principles of peace and co-existence between any two countries, India and Pakistan not excepted.
The 'Good' Era of India-Pak Cricket
To take just the last two decades: Pakistan’s thrilling victory (by 12 runs) in the 1998-99 Chennai Test was generously applauded by the Indian spectators, who gave the visitors a standing ovation as they ran a victory lap around the stadium.
This blossoming bonhomie was cut short by the war over Kargil in Kashmir in mid-1999, and then subsequently by the assault on India’s Parliament by Pakistani terrorists in December 2001. However, after three years of bristling hostility verging on renewed war, and less than five years after the bloody clash of arms in Kargil — not to mention the decades of mutual tension that had marked their relationship — the two countries seemed genuinely on the verge of real and lasting amity when India embarked on a cricketing peace offensive with its 2003-4 tour of Pakistan.
The Government of Pakistan did something it had refused to do after 1955, and allowed thousands of Indians to cross the border on “cricket visas”. Indian fans were greeted effusively by ordinary Pakistanis; to be an Indian in Lahore or Karachi those days was to be offered free rides, discounted meals and purchases, and overwhelming hospitality. It was said, not entirely in jest, that large numbers of Pakistanis were going about pretending to be Indians in order to avail of these benefits for themselves.
Indeed, the positive effects of the televising and reporting of India’s cricket tour of Pakistan in 2004 helped dissolve hostility and tension by revealing to both populations, in real time, real people and real emotions (especially those displayed by young spectators of both nationalities painting their faces in the colours of both national flags). The ghosts of Kargil seemed to have been buried by the cricket tour of 2003-04.
India-Pak Hostilities Shouldn't Turn Cricket into Proxy War
The brief flowering was yet again short-lived, brutally stopped in its tracks by the terrorist attacks on Mumbai in November 2008 by killers sent from Pakistan – recruited, trained, equipped, financed and directed from across the border. Cricket between us since then only happens in international ICC tournaments like this one.
And yet the tendency to see India-Pakistan matches as warfare by proxy is unfortunate.
Cricket is a sport; as I have long argued, a cricket team and its players may represent a country – they do not symbolise it.
To ask cricket, or for that matter any other sport or cultural tradition, to bear a larger burden than other national endeavours is palpably unfair.
This match revealed once again that cricket can serve as a reminder of all that Indians and Pakistanis have in common — language, cuisine, music, clothes, tastes in entertainment, and most markers of culture, including sporting passions.
T-20 Match in Dubai Should Serve As a Reminder
Cricket underscores the common cultural mosaic that brings us together – one that transcends geopolitical differences. This cultural foundation both predates and precedes our political antipathy. It is what connects our diasporas and why they find each other’s company comforting in strange lands when they first emigrate – visibly so in Dubai, which today can be considered the best city of Undivided India.
Cricket confirms that there is more that unites us than divides us. But though it can be an instrument for diplomacy, cricket is not an alternative to it. We live in an environment where even suggesting that a Pakistani victory deserves congratulation would be treated by some as 'toxic' or decried as anti-national by the ranting TV anchors.
The hatred directed at Mohammed Shami on social media for his expensive bowling, and the charge that as a Muslim he had played badly to facilitate a Pakistani win, is a contemptible reflection of the toxicity of communal polarisation in India these days. It must be condemned.
Yet, Dubai on Sunday confirmed that healthy sporting competition can be part of a healthy overall relationship; cricket matches between the two countries, followed with good-natured partisanship rather than religiously-inspired passion, could still be the centrepiece of a new era of good relations – when geopolitics makes them possible. Till then, sportsmanship is all we have.
(Dr Shashi Tharoor is a third-term MP for Thiruvananthapuram and award-winning author of 22 books, most recently ‘The Battle of Belonging’(Aleph). He tweets @ShashiTharoor. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)