NEW DELHI —
The resumption of sporting ties between India and Pakistan with a series of cricket matches marks an improvement in bilateral ties between the South Asian rivals. The two countries have taken several steps this year to rebuild ties which suffered a setback after terror strikes in India’s financial hub four years ago.
Cricket historian and author, Boria Majumdar, recalls several cricket matches between India and Pakistan when the cricket field resembled a battlefield.
“Every time India plays Pakistan, automatically the cricket match tends to degenerate into a strength of national superiority. It is not a cricket match, it is actually war minus the shooting,” Majumdar said.
But as the South Asian rivals faced off for their first bilateral cricket series in five years in Bangalore on Tuesday, there was a difference.
The cricket series marks a thaw in the tense relations between the South Asian rivals. That thaw, says cricket historian Boria Majumdar, is evident.
“I see this series being played in a decent environment. I see a sense of camaraderie between the players, players from both sides are friends of mine," noted Majumdar, "I know they like each other. It does promote people-to-people contact, it does promote enjoyment, New Year’s, festive season.”
Cricket is a passion in both countries, and they have been playing each other in international meets. But these are the first bilateral cricket matches being played since India broke off sporting contacts with its neighbor following the 2008 terror attacks in Mumbai, mounted by Pakistan-based gunmen.
The resumption of sporting ties comes amid efforts by the South Asian rivals to move ahead with a peace process interrupted by those terror strikes.
The main focus this year has been on boosting trade links. The two countries recently liberalized their visa regime to make it easier for businessmen and other visitors to get travel documents. India agreed to issue 3,000 visas to Pakistani fans to attend the cricket matches. Earlier this year, India also opened a huge customs depot along the land border in Punjab to facilitate truck traffic.
Both sides hope that improving trade and people-to-people contact will give momentum to the diplomatic process.
Pakistani High Commissioner to India, Salman Bashir, told a business meeting held in New Delhi last week that both countries should focus on improving ties.
“Working the relationship is something that is extremely important, extremely delicate," Bashir said. "The key thing is to have that clarity of a shared vision. Without that shared vision, we can easily go wrong… so the conviction that good relations is not only in the interest of our two peoples, but also the region.”
However, observers warn that it will take more than improved trade links and cricket matches to bridge the mistrust, which still remains high between the longtime rivals.
Cricket historian Boria Majumdar agrees.
“I also think that people from both countries want to see each other play. It is a very important rivalry," Majumdar said. "Having said that if people think that by playing cricket it will result in an improvement of bilateral relations and an improvement of political relations across the border, that is not going to happen. That is ascribing cricket too much of a potential, which it does not have.”
But for the time being, tens of thousands of excited cricket fans in India are waiting for the next match to be played in Ahmedabad on Friday. Pakistan has won the first match.