George Orwell wrote, in the context of international football, that ‘sport is an unfailing cause of ill-will'. The same may now be true of International cricket. When India plays Pakistan on 4 June, it will - as always- be a strained, tense affair with people focused more on the scoreboard than the game.
In the 1930s and 40s, a premier cricket tournament in Mumbai (then Bombay) was the Pentangular. This tournament had five teams based on race and religion. The tournament was criticised as provocative and divisive leading to their cancellation in 1946. There has been a lot of commentary that they were manifestations of a ‘divide and rule ‘ policy. But it is also worth understanding if this was also for commercial reasons – whether the promoters were incentivised for drawing larger crowds and using identity was an easy way to get people to watch the game.
Till more recently, India-Pakistan Internationals had their rare ennobling moments: The Pakistan crowd cheering for the visiting Indians in 2003-04 and the Chennai crowd cheering for the visiting Pakistan team in 1999. These remain as vivid images. But these are exceptions.
We seem to have transitioned, especially after 2014, into a social media-driven frenzy. International cricket — not just India-Pakistan — seems to feed on this rage. The acrimony of the last Australian tour of India was relentless. Players have always indulged in sharp practices but the superior camera technology to capture this and the presence of social media to amplify issues have changed the game.
Leagues like the IPL and Big Bash League seem much more inclusive than international cricket. The same Steve Smith, who was pilloried during the India–Australia series was feted by Pune fans a few days later. The South African legend AB De Villiers has gained so much appreciation for his 360 degree batting, with no attention paid whatsoever to his South African birth. This is purely because of the inclusive nature of the IPL.
In the IPL, its ABD the batsman who is watched and not ABD, the South African. Sport that directs the fans' attention on the game and not on “who’s winning” is healthier. India has similarly gained an appreciation for the incandescent talent that is Ben Stokes only after the IPL. This is also a feature of first class cricket — you can focus entirely on the quality of play.
The ICC Champions Trophy is named correctly because it is a private event staged for television ratings — the winner is the champion. However if the teams involved including England, Australia, India and Pakistan go under their ‘true’ names – the ECB XI, the Cricket Australia XI, the BCCI XI and the PCB XI — it would not be great for television ratings. What surprises me is how in international sport private clubs are allowed to use national assets example, names, symbols, anthems etc with impunity.
Are Internationals a different version of the Pentangulars — manipulating sentiment for viewership for a group of private clubs?
When India play Pakistan in the Champions Trophy, I am in the very small minority of people from the subcontinent who will have their television set switched off.
In a world where a Telugu dub can be the number one Hindi film, and a dub of Hindi film Dangal a top Chinese film, cricket will need to think more creatively and inclusively about its future formats.