Pakistan, who are you playing the World Cup for?

Pakistan, who are you playing the World Cup for?

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It’s 1996. Sri Lanka are playing India in the semifinal of the ICC Cricket World Cup in Calcutta. The Indian team must chase 252 runs, only they’ve lost eight wickets before scoring less than even half the target. Things look grim. So grim that the 110,000-strong audience begins to boo the team, and chuck plastic bottles and fruit at the players. The fervor is intense, menacing – enough to lead the cricketers to abandon play and walk off the grounds. By the time the referees had ruled Sri Lanka as the default victors, some seats at the stadium had been set on fire. 

Sport is a spectacle. Its grandiosity is built by the people who watch it. When it comes to cricket, we don’t speak in the thousands, but in the billions. Bring a fabled rivalry like India and Pakistan into the mix, and you have the most-watched sporting event in the world, perhaps in history. The match on Saturday between the two countries may just hold that record. 

The World Cup hosts knew this, explaining the glitzy pre-match ceremony – that looked a lot like an opening ceremony. No such pomp or fuss was made before the very first match of the tournament between New Zealand and England, as would be traditional.

Who is the Pakistan team even playing for, if its most die-hard supporters are being excluded?

- Rimmel Mohydin

What transpired in Ahmedabad betrayed India’s intentions, assuming there was any attempt at being subtle in the first place. The country’s considerable might, measured by its population, reach and financial clout was on full display. All of that is par for the course. Sport has long been favored as an accelerator for soft power. Where it gets murky is how it was, by design, calculated to underscore Pakistan’s insignificance.

Even though the Narendra Modi Stadium has 130,000 seats, virtually no Pakistanis sat in them for the simple fact that none of them were allowed to. The players themselves were issued visas at the eleventh hour, the timing causing them to miss out on a training camp in Dubai. About 50 accredited journalists from Pakistan scrambled to make arrangements to fly to India (with no direct flights) on the eve of the match. A visa is essentially permission to enter a country, and a last-minute invitation makes it clear how reluctantly that permission was granted.

The government of India may not have a formal embargo on Pakistanis being issued visas, but it isn’t clear what the difference would be should they have had one. It makes sense to not codify such a policy, because it spares them from dealing with complaints and appeals. And so, every match that Pakistan plays in the World Cup will be in the absence of any support from their own from the bleachers. 

Make no mistake, the audience at Saturday’s match was deeply partisan. The amorphic mass of blue was loud and unignorable. They booed Pakistani captain Babar Azam for losing the toss. They heckled wicket keeper Mohammad Rizwan as he made his way back to the pavilion after being dismissed. There were deafening cheers when the Pakistan team suffered a loss, and dead silence when they had one of their few wins. In a chilling video, Indian fans are heard chanting that they want to “erase Babar’s name.”

Not a single Pakistani song was played and if a Pakistani flag was flown, it didn’t make it on air. The ICC commentators spoke repeatedly of the energy of the crowd and never once noted the lack of Pakistani fans or why, in yet another example of the reluctance to call out India. As Pakistani coach Mickey Arthur bluntly stated, the match was a BCCI event, not an ICC match.

The question arises if Pakistan should have followed through on its threats – levied as retaliation for India refusing to play matches on Pakistani soil during the Asia Cup earlier this year — to boycott the World Cup. Who is the Pakistan team even playing for, if its most die-hard supporters are being excluded? No other pairing comes close to the kind of revenue, viewership or attention of an India-Pakistan contest. Pakistan had that ace up its sleeve, and it underplayed it. The acceptance of excluding their fandom, the humiliation of their players, agreeing to play the match in a city with entrenched Islamophobia, Pakistan wrote its own insignificance into its national narrative.

A boycott would not have remedied the balance of power. After all, it’s unlikely that India walking off the grounds in 1996 did much to overturn the outcome of the match. The ICC has been too vigorously folded into India’s control, and now has too much to lose from crossing its cash cow. But it would have caused a dent in ticket sales, and where sportsmanship fails, perhaps an appeal to economic sensibilities could work – and isn’t that the point of all these games that we play?

Rimmel Mohydin is a human rights and advocacy expert. She tweets @Rimmel_Mohydin.

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