Cricket diplomacy: the impact of a sport on international relationships

Finally heading into summer, most of us will make it to at least one cricket game. If you end up watching the Indian cricket team, perhaps consider how the game, the competition it engenders and the fandom that follows represent India’s domestic discourse and international presence.  This is because cricket is ingrained in the Indian psyche, influencing gender and political norms, while simultaneously acting as the primary vehicle that subverts broader global norms.

Like most national sports, Indian cricket is male dominated. This means the popularised cricketing competitions, both domestic and international, are played, watched and controlled by men. The values underpinning cricketing norms are perceived to be quintessentially masculine, as coordination, fair play and loyalty are exhibited.  This affords womanhood less respect and visibility, and also means that women are less often the spectators of the sport. Cricketer sons are lauded by the family because of the discipline and financial reward the cricketing world brings. So this means the Indian female presence is twice removed: they are shut out of the competition as players, and they are the less preferred and visible spectators of the sport. Cricket both embodies and perpetuates the gender politics in India, reinforcing notions of masculinity and the meaning of success, while privileging male participation and visibility above women’s.

Cricket is a tool which unifies caste, religion and region, on the field, in the stands and on the streets. But it also highlights the distinction between each echelon in Indian society. The remnants of colonial-era classism continue to associate the ‘gentleman’s game’ with cultural superiority, affording a sense of sophistication to the upper classes who likely have economic stakes and social ties in the cricketing elite. It confers a sense of nationalistic pride that can be passively exercised, without the need for engagement in political or social discourse beyond the pitch. For the lowest ‘castes’ and classes, it begets a sense of belonging, hope and pride that the everyday rigors of poverty do not provide. It too connects the impoverished to worlds that they will structurally be shut out of, a unique moment in time where every layer in society are experiencing a common euphoria.

Cricket has evolved from a ‘colonial, anti-nationalist’ sport to the heart of India’s nationalist and moral character.  MS Golwalkar, a prominent Hindu nationalist during the independence struggle of the 20th century, promoted more indigenous games such as Kabaddi, and a rejection of the ‘gentlemen’s game’, in the name of Indian nationalism. But when India began to beat colonial rulers at their own game, it sent a message: India’s equality on the cricket pitch could parallel an equal and independent political and social status. Clubs in Bengal, Mumbai and Chennai invoked pride in the face of their colonial rulers, by beating their oppressors with limited resources. This means the game became indigenised, and continued to increase in popularity and engagement as a sense of a ‘unified national character’ burgeoned after independence. In the last six decades, it has been played, promoted and owned by Indians (men) – a stark contrast to its use as an unofficial colonial instrument for British cultural imposition. Naturally, Indian cricketing stars have come to be revered and worshipped as Gods.  When the legendary Sachin Tendulkar was accused of ball tampering in 2001 the referee, Denness, was met with the fury of the nation, where effigies of him were burned.

So this fame comes with responsibility, and the same fury, if expectations are not met. Former Indian cricket captain, Mohammad Azharuddin, was worshipped before he was implicated in the match fixing scandals of the 1990s.  The insult to the game was taken to be a slight against the Indian moral character, with his actions ‘embarrassing’ Indians. It was as if the failure to play with discipline and good character – ostensibly core cricketing values – betrayed Indian fans.

Unsurprisingly, cricket diplomacy has manifested itself in India–Pakistan relations throughout their fraught history.  Cricket can cement political realities. After the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks, the two countries stopped playing against each other on their home grounds, at the same time that diplomatic and political channels were frozen by the governments. Matches resumed in 2012, at the same time the channels were reinstated. Preceding the resumption of cricketing activities was then Indian foreign minister SM Krishna’s visit to Islamabad, where he eased visa restrictions and established economic networks to increase trade between the states. But that wasn’t the first time political tensions flared up on the field. In 1952, soon after they became independent states, the India–Pakistan test series became a regular expression of national identity and a healthy outlet for their rivalry. From 1961–1978 there were two wars between the two countries, limited communication and diplomacy and no matches between India and Pakistan on home turfs. The controversial Kargil War in 1999 prompted India to shut down cricketing connections with Pakistan once more, until the warming of bilateral relations in 2003–2004.

As there is a link between cricket and national consciousness, playing on each other’s home grounds is symbolic of each state’s willingness to welcome the other into their homeland.  It humanises the other side, so they are just cricketers, passionate fans and shared identities and histories. Cricket transcends state borders.

India’s cricketing success has subverted global norms, as traditionally only old colonial or western powers have had the financial and technological capabilities to create and control sporting institutions. But now India has shifted the status quo – they are the cricketing superpower with unmatched omnipresence and financial prowess in the form of the Indian Premier League (IPL).As a franchise worth millions and with at least 1 billion viewers the IPL has established an allure, with many international cricketing stars opting to be ‘bought and sold’ between franchises.  In fact, it has even drawn western stars away from their national teams, to play for the league during their own season. The teams attract international sponsors, and are owned by Indian media moguls and multinational corporations – figures representing India and exuding sophistication, talent and capitalistic success. The stereotypical view of India is replaced with the embodiment of the ‘cosmopolitan’ Indian.

Despite its colonial origins, cricket has come to represent gender, society and nationalism in India. Fundamental to the country’s identity, it can be a force that reinforces norms, yet at the same time one which challenges them and empowers the otherwise invisible.

Image: Roger Poole via Flickr

Aditi Razdan is a Law and Asian Studies student at ANU, drawn to the country of her ancestors and the stories of her people. She is particularly interested in issues of race, the politicisation of culture and religion and the criminalisation of coloured bodies.  She is a Sub-Editor at the East Asia Forum, Editor of Demos and has had her work published in Demos and The Kashmir Times.

Share this:


Share this:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *