Barely four months after almost going to war, Pakistan and India are set to renew their rivalry on Sunday, this time on a cricket field.
A few months ago, this fixture was in doubt. In February, a suicide attack in India-administered Kashmir killed 42 paramilitary troops with the Pakistan-based group Jaish-e-Muhammad (JeM) claiming responsibility.
“Since the 2008 Mumbai attacks, an influential chunk of the Indian security establishment believes that isolating Pakistan, including through cricket, and rallying the rest of the world to the cause will bring about a change in Pakistan’s policies.
An India-Pakistan clash is normally the most-watched and anticipated match of a cricket World Cup. Such is the hype and potential of the game, the International Cricket Council (ICC) admitted three years ago to fixing the draws of tournaments in order to have both sides in the same group.
Almost 800,000 people applied for tickets, which were sold out within 48 hours of their release, and more than a billion people are expected to tune in for the match, according to the ICC.
Pakistan have lost all six matches they have played against India in the World Cup. But as Virat Kohli, India’s captain, played down the hype, claiming the team was going to approach it as just another match, he claimed fans’ sentiments were something he could not control.
“I can’t tell the fans to think in a particular manner,” said Kohli on the eve of the match.
“We [players] can’t get emotional or over-excited with any occasion. Obviously, the player’s mindset is different from the fan’s and you can’t mix these two. From fan’s point of view, looking at the atmosphere and frenzy around the game, I wouldn’t say it is easy to think like a player but for the players, it’s very, very crucial to be absolutely professional.”
A month after the Pulwama attack, India’s players took the decision to pay tribute to those who lost their lives by sporting army camouflage caps in a match against Australia.
The ICC refused to sanction the Indian team, claiming the team had sought permission to use the caps as part of a “fundraising drive and in memory of the fallen soldiers who have died”.
India’s wicketkeeper MS Dhoni was also told by the ICC to remove a military insignia from his gloves during the World Cup.
“It [the episode] tells you a lot about the political climate in India, especially with respect to Pakistan,” said Mir.
“It is symptomatic of the hardening of national identity in recent years, and the fact that overt displays of patriotism have a special currency.”
There has also been an angry response from Indian supporters after a Pakistani mobile network provider aired an advertisement featuring a man that resembled the Indian pilot who was captured earlier this year.
“Due to the politicisation of cricket, it has become an emotional sport in both countries. We have to first depoliticise the sport and then educate our masses to take sport as a sport and not as a war between the two nuclear rivals,” said Zahid Ahmed, a research fellow at the Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalization.
“There is also a need to educate the players to just be players and not become soldiers of their countries. The two recent incidents [army caps and Dhoni’s gloves] may encourage a negative trend among players of other countries. Ultimately this may lead to more politicisation of cricket which is doing more damage to the sport than any good.”
But while Pakistan’s coach Mickey Arthur backed the huge role cricket can play in normalising the environment and political tension, he reminded his players to focus on the on-field matters, ensuring that the cricket performance is not diminished by the political situation across both borders.
“Cricket is a unifying vehicle. People get behind their countries and show a lot of passion and emotion,” said Arthur.
“It’s a wonderful opportunity for both countries to showcase their talents. The game will be played in a very, very good spirit. It really doesn’t get bigger or more exciting than that. I’m telling our players in the dressing room – you could be a hero. Your careers are going to be defined by a moment in the game.”
The predicted rain on Sunday, however, may have the final say on proceedings but the training session on Saturday showed a relaxed set of players from both sides, a stark contrast to the situation that prevailed for weeks earlier this year and on social media in the lead-up to the match.
The match begins at 10:30am local time (09:30 GMT) at Old Trafford.
SOURCE: AL JAZEERA NEWS
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