Image Credit: Luis Vazquez

Back in the early ‘70s, the world was engulfed in a Cold War. On the one hand was the US, an advocate of democracy. The other side had two equally formidable forces — the Soviet Union, vanguard of socialism, and China, the kingdom of the principles of Maoism. Those were tense times as each side had the capacity to wipe out the other.

Considerable thaw in the relations between the US and China took place in April 1971, when a team of nine American ping pong players stepped on Chinese soil for the first time in decades, playing against Chinese opponents and visiting historical places of interests as guests of their Chinese hosts. It was the legendary Mao Zedong, the founder of the People’s Republic of China, along with his premier, Zhou En Lai, who approved the invitation to its staunch foes, the Americans.

That sports interchange subsequently resulted in the first-ever visit by a US President to present day China. In 1972, President Richard Nixon’s visit to China was the first step taken that eventually led to normalisation of ties between the two superpowers. During his week-long visit, Nixon was busily engaging in dialogue with party leaders, including Chairman Mao, and was treated with deference and respect everywhere he went. He later termed the significance of the visit as “the week that changed the world”. It is an acute observation by one who understood that cooperation would be more fruitful than continued confrontation as there would be no winners in a hostile scenario.

Relations, once wary and cold, suddenly warmed up as people from both sides began to visit each other. Economic relations boomed as US multinationals signed up joint ventures with their Chinese partners. Indeed, the epoch of the Cold War with the Chinese had slowly dissipated.

Now flash forward some 40 years on to two other nuclear giants — Pakistan and India. Relations between these two countries have ebbed and flowed since their independence and the subsequent wars. Matters took a sinister path when a group of terrorists originating from Pakistan ventured into Mumbai in 2008, creating mayhem and gunning down innocent people. Some 166 people lost their lives in the frenzy of bloodletting that only served to further the discord between these two nations.

One of the first casualties of this heinous incident was the snapping of all cricketing ties between the two countries. For a laymen to understand, the game of cricket is seen as a religion and not a sport in these two countries. And no event transfixes both nations to a standstill more than a confrontation on the playing field between the teams representing the two countries. Passions run high and battle lines are drawn as players take to the field. And with the freeze in relations and the absence of such competition, many felt the game was the ultimate loser.

Following behind-the-scenes negotiations between sporting boards of both nations, an agreement was reached in July this year that would permit the Pakistani cricket team to visit and play India in a series of matches in the coming months. The decision brought relief to millions of fans from both sides, who wanted to see fair competition on the playing field. The Indian Home Minister, Sushil Shinde, in explaining the decision said: “We must have friendly relations. What once happened in the past should not mean that all the time we should repeat it. We must maintain sportsmanship and a sport like cricket is certainly welcome. It should be free from politics. Whether it is sports or cultural affairs or whether it is singing or dancing, all these activities should be restricted to those activities only.”

Pakistan’s former cricket captain and current prominent politician, Imran Khan, declared: “I welcome India’s decision to revive cricket with Pakistan. Anything which can bring both the countries to negotiations and normalcy is very good and we must appreciate that.”

And yet, there are those who do not want the spirit of normality to foster. The extremist Indian right-wing group of Shiv Sena, who have often used terror against minorities and Muslims, immediately denounced the agreement. Their chief, Balasaheb Thackeray, who recently passed away, admonished the government by questioning: “How can we so easily forget the bloodbath that happened in CST [Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, Mumbai’s principal railway station] because of Pakistani terrorists? How can we forget the wounds that Pakistan has given us?” He then exhorted his followers to use all possible means to prevent the event from taking place.

Former India captain Sunil Gavaskar was another one who criticised his country’s decision to revive the Indo-Pak bilateral cricket ties. But as one former Indian cricketer retorted: “It is surprising to hear his views about ties with Pakistan. I would have thought that a cricketer of his standing would know better than to mix cricket with politics. Besides, Gavaskar will be the first to sign that commentator’s contract for a good sum of money and discard his political position.”

It is now time for these two nations to learn from the distant past and move forward towards normalisation of relations. And what better way to do it than on the cricket field?

Tariq A. Al Maeena is a Saudi socio-political commentator. He lives in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.