There is only one sensible solution to the festering stalemate swamping India-Pakistan cricket: make the game so utterly boring that no one cares. We have a precedent. Hockey.
Once upon a time, long, long ago the subcontinent would be in thrall when India competed with Pakistan for an Olympic or Asian hockey gold. All passion got punctured when the two began to scramble for last place, instead of first. Right now, when debate about cricket is back in first gear and social media is bristling with comments that can only be described as anti-social, India and Pakistan play hockey and not a whisper is heard. Mention cricket, and there is turbulence.
The problem, then, is not sport but response. Kill interest, and controversy dies. The trouble is that India and Pakistan have cricket teams that refuse to be boring. Both are good enough to defeat any other side in the world on their day. Naturally, neither nation performs with any consistency; that would be foreign to the subcontinent’s temperament. Our fatal charm is that we are unpredictable. That breeds tension. Tension is not good for national nerves.
Think about the practical difficulties that hamper an India-Pak Test series, and weep. You can wrap up a hockey game, including time out for bad behaviour by a couple of Pakistani players, in about two hours. A cricket Test can linger for five days. If the series was in India our groundsmen would of course do their bit to maintain public order and get matches over in less than three days, but even 18 playing hours can add up to an eternity when India play Pakistan.
The management of emotions amid the peaceful citizenry may, in fact, be the least of these problems. Pakistan cannot play in Pakistan because no one can guarantee security. Its “home ground” has now been outsourced to sweltering UAE. But do you think the terrorists who make cricket impossible in Pakistan will go on holiday if India play Pakistan anywhere? What do we do if there is an attack, not just at the venue of the game but anywhere else? Do we call everything off as media ratchets up hysteria and governments are accused of appeasement? There was talk recently of a series being played in England. After Paris, I wonder how much appetite MCC and MI6 [the British security agency] might have for taking this parade to Lord’s.
There is little one would want more than a triumphant India-Pakistan series. But if cricket cannot be a celebration, is it worth the risk? Sport is about joy, or it is about nothing. Sport is not a substitute for war.
Look in any corner, and you will discover an unsuspected problem lurking, waiting to pounce. I am reminded, for instance, of the television advertising that preceded the last T20 World Cup in Bangladesh. One of the more disruptive realities of modern cricket is the hype manufactured to draw in viewers and pump up revenue. Many advertisements shown on Indian television before that tournament were provocative, offensive, tasteless, jingoist. They generated enough animosity to make innumerable spectators hostile to India. The damage still reverberates. BCCI, the alleged guardian of Indian cricket, did not care then and is unlikely to care in the future. All BCCI cares about is the tinkle of silver and thud of gold.
Turn towards that historically contentious subject, umpiring. India is still Luddite about technology, on the grounds that if an error has to be made let it be human. This, one gathers, is part of former captain M.S. Dhoni’s legacy. Why can’t the brainiacs who run our cricket get a simple thing straight? People will forgive a machine but not a man. You cannot bribe a machine. The fetid odour of corruption infects the air above cash-loaded cricket and the betting tamasha that follows in its wake. This is certainly not to allege that umpires are dishonest. Far from it. They are under intense scrutiny themselves, all the time. But suspicion and gossip are not interested in facts. If and when we do play Pakistan, it must only be after we have joined the rest of the world in referring doubt to a camera.
I love cricket, even when it gets boring. It is the only serious reason, along with English Premier League football, for buying a television set. There is little one would want more than a triumphant India-Pakistan series. But if cricket cannot be a celebration, is it worth the risk? Sport is about joy, or it is about nothing. Sport is not a substitute for war. It is a performance art of sublime beauty, theatre at its finest, played at the highest level by men and women of great talent, some of them touched by the magic of genius. There is rivalry in sport, and may it long continue, for it lifts the quality of drama. But no sensible sportsperson permits rivalry to descend into the pit of enmity. That is degradation of the basic principles of sport. If we cannot enjoy what we are witnessing, then it is not sport.
Should India play Pakistan this winter? My sincere sympathies lie with those who have to answer that question.