Cricket, Politics and Terror

Tuesday, 3. March 2009     0 comment(s)

The news of the terrorist attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team’s bus in Lahore, Pakistan, perhaps needs some context for audiences in non-Cricket playing countries.

Cricket is often said to be the second most popular sport in the world after football, both by participation and spectator numbers. England may be cricket’s historical home, but in many ways its spiritual home is now the Indian sub-continent where it remains one of the few shared loves between the approximately 1.5 billion people of Pakistan, India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. It is hard to underestimate the importance of cricket to the sub-continent; as a social, cultural, sporting and business phenomenon. Indicative of this was the recent auction of players for the new Indian Premier League (IPL), where England team members Andrew Flintoff and Kevin Pietersen were both bought for USD 1.55 million each by teams from Chennai and Bangalore respectively. Overall at the auction of players, held in Goa, 17 cricketers from around the world were purchased by Indian teams at a cost of USD 13.59 million.

Hence, the choice of targeting the Sri Lankan national team is highly symbolic – clearly an attempt by the terrorists to show that Pakistan is not a normal country, and that President Asif Ali Zardari’s government is not in control. Security concerns over cricketing tours of Pakistan by the test playing nations, the top national teams from the cricketing countries, have long been a reality. Over recent years they have become political footballs in the UK, being kicked back and forth between the cricket authorities and the government. Australia – the top team in the world – pulled out of Pakistan tour last spring. Similarly, India was meant to tour Pakistan at the end of last year but cancelled after the Mumbai attacks, and the International Cricket Council has cancelled a tournament scheduled for this year in Pakistan due to security concerns. Pakistan is being isolated on this most important sporting and cultural level.

India has faced numerous terrorist attacks in recent years from Jihadi groups with probable links to factions within Pakistani intelligence, but these gained limited attention in the world’s media. The Mumbai attacks can be seen as an attempt to change this: the targeting of international hotels and westerners in the India’s commercial heart was guaranteed to grab global headlines. Now the attacks on the Sri Lankan cricketers do the same. A symbolic and important part of the attempts to build a better relationship between nuclear armed India and Pakistan has been the reestablishment of cricketing links. Geopolitics and sport are not separate issues. Many white South Africans argue that the sporting boycott in 1980s of their country was central to the crumbling of internal support for Apartheid in the cricket and rugby obsessed nation. A sporting isolation of Pakistan, however, will have no such positive effects.

An update: anyone interested in the politics of Pakistani cricket should read Shariq's excellent post on Pickled Politics.

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