Cricket is beloved by both Indians and Pakistanis, with Indian Premier League (IPL) and Pakistan Super League (PSL) players holding celebrity status and generating national followings. Media coverage of this year’s World Cup highlighted the geopolitical importance of cricket to India and Pakistan: a stand-in for competition. However, given the significance of cricket in both countries, opening the IPL to Pakistani players could play a unique role in mollifying the relationship between India and Pakistan. Improved relations will surely result in advancements to PSL’s own infrastructure and security problems while both India and Pakistan, and their respective cricket tournaments, will gain financially.
The IPL is renowned as the world’s most elite cricket tournament. It’s prestige easily attracts players from around the world. Despite this appetite for foreign players, the IPL does not recruit players from neighboring rival, Pakistan. Although the IPL’s inaugural 2008 season included Pakistani players, it has since failed to include Pakistani nationals due to “political tensions between the two countries.” The impetus of this unofficial ban was the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks by Pakistan-based terror group, Lashkar-e-Taiba. More recently, both India and Pakistan have banned the airing of the other’s cricket tournament in the aftermath of the February 2019 Pulwama terror attack.
Pakistan’s PSL suffers from a number of problems, including unfilled seats, delayed games, unprofessional umpiring, and lacking media coverage. Most tellingly is Pakistan’s security problem: during a 2009 Test Match, Sri Lanka’s cricket team was ambushed in a terror attack. Despite security improvements – and the subsequent increase in foreign players – many foreigners refuse to play in Pakistan. In fact, the United Arab Emirates hosts most of the PSL’s matches to ensure foreigners will feel safe while participating. This is set to change, however, as Pakistan’s Cricket Board (PCB) plans to hold all 2020 games in Pakistan.
As one of the few venues capable of transcending linguistic, religious, and ethnic lines, sport has a unique ability to thaw frosty relations between countries like India and Pakistan. Historical examples abound: the unified marching of North and South Korea’s Olympic teams during the most recent Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang; Nelson Mandela’s sporting of the Springboks jersey after their 1995 Rugby World Cup victory; and China’s ping-pong diplomacy and the resulting reopening of relations with the United States during the 1970s.
Yet we don’t need to reach too far back in history to find India and Pakistan’s very own example of sports diplomacy: The Indo-Pak Express. Comprised of India’s Rohan Bopanna and Pakistan’s Aisam-ul Haq Quereshi, The Indo-Pak Express is a tennis doubles team known to draw large support from both sides of the border. At the height of their career, they made it to the 2010 U.S. Open Finals where expatriates from both countries attended and each country’s ambassador to the United Nations sat side by side.
With the Indo-Pak Express as a blueprint, the IPL should reconsider its ban on Pakistani players and seize the opportunity to influence diplomatic relations for the better. This change within the IPL would enhance India’s soft power. Similar to the bilateral decision to open the Kartarpur Corridor, the free flow of cricket players will foster bilateral collaboration while allowing India to portray itself as a reconciliatory nation. India can further enhance this image by facilitating better relations between Pakistan and the rest of the “Big Three”: Australia and England. On a less altruistic level, however, including Pakistani players can increase revenue for the tournament, considering the likely increased viewership from Pakistan.
Like India, Pakistan’s self-image and soft power will improve by participating in a league with better media coverage, revenue, and infrastructure. For example, Indians may reevaluate whether Pakistanis are the “enemy” if they consistently see Pakistanis and Indians playing alongside each other. When Pakistanis return to Pakistan for PSL tournaments, international fans, especially Indians, may be more likely to tune into the PSL matches to watch their new favorite player(s); this will help generate revenue for the PSL, which should improve the league’s infrastructure. More importantly, Pakistani players will have to opportunity to rewrite Pakistan’s security narrative. With enhanced success and media coverage, as well as subsequent improvements to infrastructure, international audiences will be less likely to view Pakistan as a poor and terrorist-ridden country, and instead judge it suitable to host both international cricket matches and players. Furthermore, a stronger bilateral relationship will surely yield economic benefits for both India and Pakistan. As it currently stands, India and Pakistan are losing around $35 billion in unrealized trade opportunities.
The time is ripe for cricket to play a crucial role in the thawing of frosty relations: famous cricketer, Imran Khan, is Pakistan’s prime minister, India’s tennis team is set to play in Pakistan for the first time in 55 years, and the PCB Managing Director forecasts an improvement in bilateral cricket ties. All these developments point to the realistic role sports, and more specifically cricket, can play in influencing diplomacy.