Nationalism & Cricket - Rain Stops Play

Nationalism never came easy to me, except when it came to cricket, and even then it wasn’t even proper nationalism, more attachment to a flag and a team. With cricket there was no question where my loyalties sat as they sat on the sofa with my family. A Pakistan match often brought us together in one room, a room that saw Wasim and Waqar turn in to Shoaib, and Lali (don’t ask) turn into Jamal. It is no secret that India and Pakistan is among sport’s greatest rivalries and it’s the only one I still get caught up in.

There is no hiding behind why the rivalry exists. Partition, war, rhetoric, Kashmir… the list goes on. Though those serious matters aren’t to be ignored, it is indeed some relief to me at least, that on the ground the most we have to worry about is aggression that manifests itself through a fast bowler’s stare, or the odd insult thrown around. In fact, those on-field clashes probably make the games what they are, and aren’t confined to matches between the two but have been part of cricket for a long time. They just carry a special flavour with us. In most if not all games, players will shake hands and go about their business, and in many cases applaud the opposition, or even a particular player. Normal, as Virat Kohli put it after acknowledging the hype created around the contest.

Any fan of either team will be able to attest to the sometimes hilarious insults written as comments under YouTube videos titled something like “INDIA DEMOLISHES PAKISTAN BOWLING” or “SHOAIB AKHTAR DESTROYS TENDULKAR”. You really have to step back and applaud the creativity some zealous patriots use online. Coupled with this you’ll get the would-be peace maker who writes something along the lines of “Why are we fighting? It is a game we are brothers”. (This comment will usually get quite a few likes). It all seems like fun and games and on some level it is – but looked at in entirety, you can really get a palpable sense of dislike at best, and hatred at worst in these comments. In the same way that I question the racist who comments on a piece in the guardian, wondering why or how someone would have the energy to write something hateful, I question the aforementioned attitudes in the same way. The answer to those questions perhaps lies in what Riz Ahmed recently wrote about in his essay for The Good Immigrant – the concept of a national myth. Both of these countries have created stories and propaganda about the other (as well as Bangladesh). Whether there is any tributary of truth leading to rivers of conjecture is another conversation, but what I do know is politics is the same everywhere – a messy house, whether it has a well-constructed façade or not. This isn’t to forgive oppression in Kashmir, or any of the other very real and pressing issues between these two countries, but to shine a light on some of the ridiculousness that results from perpetuating a myth in this way. From terrorist pigeons, to banning sportsmen, banning films, and banning actors – this list also goes on. The comments on YouTube might make me laugh, but knowing what the construction of a national myth can do here in England, it’s a worrying prospect seeing that play out somewhere else, albeit with different dynamics.

It is the same ‘’my country right or wrong’’ that could blind an Indian to what Kashmiri civilians are going through, and continually blind a Pakistani to what happened in Bangladesh in 1971.  

Yasiin Bey once said in an interview for a documentary on Mumia Abu Jamal that this idea of ‘’my country right or wrong’’ made sense when it came to sports – but that’s about it. In sport, it’s okay to carry on rooting for your team when they lose but this blind support can have dangerous consequences if extrapolated to geopolitics. In light of recent heightened tensions between the two countries the ugliness of over-zealous nationalism has come to the fore with a succession of tit-for-tat remarks, bans and alarmist news reports. The media as ever, is to blame as well as politicians. The citizens of those two countries deserve much better than outrageous headlines, drum beats for war and incessant suspicions about the other. If that sounds familiar it’s because it goes for the media in the West too. We all deserve better. Pundits, journalists and the commentariat here are just as guilty, but go about their misdeeds in different ways.

There have been countless times these cricketing encounters have brought joy, nerves and heartbreak to our homes and one of the reasons I think I still hold on to caring about this rivalry (and Pakistani cricket) is to me, these memories are mostly attached to the togetherness of family as opposed to an idea of blind nationalism. As well as that it was the one Pakistani ‘thing’ I was never really ashamed of as a child. I liked that I had a team, that I knew, and that we all cared about at the same time. It was the time I felt most connected to my homeland, and until somewhat recently the time I felt most connected to my father. This was a feeling that never really entered me when it came to English football. I remember watching a world cup game between England and Brazil - this was in primary school, surrounded by English kids. I saw Ronaldinho craft a free-kick over the head of David Seaman and caught myself not feeling distraught like everyone else. That was some epiphany. I may or may not have feigned disappointment to fit in – the rest of the memory escapes me.

My own nostalgic connection to the rivalry aside, it is a travesty that these two teams are deprived of each other in their home countries. Those contests reinstated could galvanise so many talented children, improve local economies and make for some incredible YouTube comments. Pakistan and India love cricket like England loves football. It’s a shame that the rain of politics and hysteria has stopped play.