Paul Pillar

Cricket Diplomacy in South Asia

Those who do not follow closely either the game of cricket or the popular mood in South Asian countries may not fully appreciate how big a deal was the sporting event held on Wednesday at Muhali, India. The national teams of India and Pakistan met in a semifinal of the cricket world cup. The match-up was not foreordained; India had to beat perennial cricket powerhouse Australia in a quarterfinal to get to Wednesday's match. Once the pairing was set up, it became the leading public focus of attention in both India and Pakistan. Many employers had to make special preparations for the day of the match, when they knew absenteeism would be high and little work would get done.

Cricket is such a major diversion in South Asia that the match was bound to have ripple effects no matter when it was held. The potential effects are all the greater coming at a time when India and Pakistan are trying to impart some momentum to their latest, just-started round of bilateral negotiations on the territorial and security issues that divide them. The match was the first meeting between the two cricket teams in either one's home country since the deadly terrorist attacks in Mumbai in November 2008 by the Pakistan-based group Lashkar-e-Taiba.

Cricket diplomacy has previously played a role in Indian-Pakistani relations, with varying degrees of success. Hopes for a beneficial effect this time are justified on several grounds. A peaceful meeting in a sporting event is inherently a sort of goodwill gesture. It gets members of the public thinking about the adversary in terms other than the tough political issues that divide them. And in this case, it can get leaders talking with each other. Pakistani Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani accepted an invitation from India Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to watch the match together.

Among all sports, cricket is particularly well suited to aiding diplomacy. Matches are long. It's not clear what Gilani and Singh talked about, but at least they had several hours to talk—and Gilani brought a delegation of 50 officials with him. The length of a match (even in the limited-overs format used in the world cup), may also symbolize the long slog the two sides face in resolving their differences. The many ways in which a batsman can be put out in cricket may remind the two sides of the setbacks they are bound to endure as they do the slogging.

Cricket also is one of the more gentlemanly sports, without crashing, bashing, and brawls. (NHL-style ice hockey would not be well suited as a diplomatic tool.) But unlike other gentlemanly sports such as golf (and unlike table tennis, the vehicle for the “ping pong diplomacy” that played a role in U.S.-Chinese engagement in the early 1970s), it is an inherently team sport in which the two national sides directly engage each other.

India won Wednesday's match, with 260 runs to Pakistan's 231. Probably a better result from the standpoint of setting the right mood for diplomatic progress would have been a win by Pakistan, which in the larger contest between the two nations is the smaller and weaker power and the one less satisfied with the status quo. But Gilani graciously described the match as a “win for both countries,” Indian officials expressed the hope that this day of good cheer would lead to better overall relations, and people in both countries and beyond can hope for that as well.