Monday, April 11, 2011

Indian Cricket: As superior as its diplomacy

Daily Sun
M. Serajul Islam

April 11, 2011

India entered the World Cup as a top contender. Pakistan joined the contest as an outsider but with potentials to spring a surprise. Both countries lived up to the pre-match assessments of the cricket pundits. India went to Mohali confident and in style. Pakistan, true to form, almost lost to Canada, beat former champions Australia and entered the semi-final unpredictably but threatening an upset.

A semi-final that over a billion South Asian and many more cricket lovers around the world wanted was achieved. All attention was focused on Mohali, for the dream semi-final. Then, for whatever are the reasons, the Indians played a fast one and that came from the Indian Prime Minister Manmohon Singh. He invited President Asif Zardari to join him in the VVIP Box in Mohali and together watch the match. He declined and the invitation was passed on to Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani who accepted. Suddenly, the attention of the rest of the world, many of whom hardly understood cricket, was drawn to Mohali.

Cricket commentators were upset. Many called it an attempt to put diplomacy ahead of cricket and they did not like it. In talk shows on private Indian TV channels, even members of the public who were asked for their views, were unhappy that the politicians attempted to take away the limelight from cricket. In fact in one talk show, former Indian diplomat and former Minister Mani Shankar Aiyar was the lone participant who defended the Indian Prime Minister.

In the end, no dramatic breakthrough was achieved in India-Pakistan’s thoroughly messed up bilateral relations. In fact, the so-called cricket diplomacy had a negative impact on the meeting of the Home Secretaries of the two countries that was held just days before the meeting of the two Prime Ministers. With all attention on Mohali, who cared what the Home Secretaries discussed? In the field, India expectedly won and again expectedly went to win the World Cup, that too in style.

The Mohali match nevertheless revealed a few interesting facts for analysis of politics and relations between Pakistan and India. Although India won the match in the end easily, yet in retrospect the match could have gone either way. The Pakistanis had the game in control after the initial onslaught of Sewag was tackled. In that brief period, the Pakistanis showed its leadership qualities or the lack of it. Umar Gul, till the Mohali match, one of the tournament’s most dangerous bowlers was sent to all parts of the field by Sewag. Yet Pakistan’s Captain persisted with him. After those 20 plus runs he gave in his second over to Sewag, any other Captain would have rested him. Pakistan’s Captain Shahid Afridi did not. Again towards the end, when India had asked for the batting power play, Afridi brought back Umar Gul and let him be hit for crucial runs. Afridi failed to realize that it was not Gul’s day and he also failed to apply his mind to work out a distribution among his other bowlers to shield Umar Gul who eventually ended giving 69 runs in 9 overs where all the other bowlers who had India in a tight spot. In the end those 20 to 30 extra runs that Umar Gul conceded gave India not just the chance to get back into the game but also to win it.

Again when Pakistan batted, they failed to apply themselves. Many were out to shots they should have played in club cricket and definitely not in a World Cup Semi-Final and that too against India. Misbah ul Huq’s batting was a mystery. He plodded along; killing crucial overs as if he was playing in one of the timeless tests of ages ago and when he woke up, the asking rate was too demanding to overtake the Indian score. Misbah’s batting was not the only mystery. The mental paralysis of Pakistan’s captain and its dressing room in forgetting to take the batting power play when Misbah and Afridi were together was inexplicable. Power play when Misbah and Afridi were together could have helped Pakistan with extra runs to put psychological pressure on India that could have altered the course of the game. All through the game, Afridi was high strung whereas the team needed leadership with a cool frame of mind.

In contrast, MS Dhoni was serious, focused and calm and lived up to the name he has earned for himself as “Captain Cool.” He had a well thought out game plan for using his bowlers, on when to take the last batting power play and on setting fields in a way to entrap the Pakistani batsmen. His bowlers also had a game plan on how to bowl and capitalize on the weakness of the Pakistani batsmen. By his leadership, he was able to bring the team back a few times when the game was slipping out of Indian control. In fact, by going to bat ahead of the inform Yuvuraj Singh, he showed willingness to take responsibility and eventually his brilliant 91 not out was the final nail in Pakistan’s coffin of defeat. He did not take one false step for which he could be criticized and his team followed him like an orchestra follows its conductor.

The style of leadership displayed in the cricket match at Mohali in a way reflected the style of diplomacy of the two countries. Dr. Singh is like the Indian cricket Captain, relaxed and easy going but firm in giving anything to his adversary. The Pakistani Prime Minister was unsure and his smile was hardly spontaneous. Like Shahid Afridi, he did not appear at all confident. Shahid Afridi left little doubt in the minds of those who watched that he was not in any sense in charge with many dictating his decisions from the background. The Pakistani Prime Minister was likewise not in charge too, sent to Mohali without any thought to the decision to be there.

The attempt of the politicians to gain limelight for a world sporting event did not succeed. The media that covered the match wasted little time to the two Prime Ministers who were only fleetingly shown on live TV coverage of the event. Nevertheless, the Indians who successfully floated the idea, gained mileage by showing the rest of the world that they wanted to break the deadlock in bilateral relations, knowing full well that no such possibility was even remotely on cards. The Pakistanis played into the Indian hands and got nothing out of it except perhaps the opportunity for its Prime Minister to watch the game free! There is a qualitative difference in Indian and Pakistani style of diplomacy and at Mohali Indian diplomacy was the winner like its brilliant cricket team that won the World Cup.

There is a postscript. A news on internet revealed that the India was planning a technical knock-out against Pakistan in case it lost on the cricket ground. There were at least 3 players in the Pakistan team whose domicile was in dispute. The Opposition BJP learnt of the disputed domicile the night before the match through a leak at the Ministry of External Affairs and brought this to the notice of the External Affairs Minister. When India was floundering at 194/5, Dr. Singh was told that the ICC would offer the match to India even if it lost if a complaint was lodged on the domicile issue. The Indian PM turned down the proposition unequivocally although it had the endorsement of senior leaders of the Congress and the BJP with the latter ready to go public with it if India had lost!

The writer of a former Ambassador to Japan and a former Secretary to the Government

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