Virat Kohli’s epic effort and Test cricket’s mesmeric pull when it is played out like a game of chess is not the theme of this column. There will be time and space to evaluate the Birmingham Test which is turning out to be like a snake and ladders game.
For the moment let us focus on a more touchy subject which the emergence of Imran Khan as Pakistan’s Prime Minister has thrown up. And that is the resumption of India- Pakistan cricket ties. Imran’s popularity transcends the deep-rooted suspicion and trauma that led to India’s partition and the creation of Pakistan, literally over the dead bodies of millions.
The respect he commands among his own fraternity, especially in India, was obvious from the effusive reaction of players to his electoral victory. From Gundappa Vishwanath to Kapil Dev, there was unanimous consent that Imran was an upright, honest cricketer and they all wished him well. His elevation to Pakistan’s top post is giving rise to speculations whether cricket will again be used as a vehicle for peace. Though Imran is perceived as a stooge of the Pakistani Army, his post-election utterances have a tone of reconciliation embedded in them.
If his election rhetoric was anti-India, his first gesture towards India as head of state is one of reaching out. This is reflected in his guest list that includes cricket legends like Kapil Dev and Sunil Gavaskar. If one goes by media reports not only cricketers but even film stars, prominent among them being Amir Khan, have been invited. This is an indication that Imran is making a statement of intent through reaching out to India’s sporting and cultural icons. Visualise the picture of some of the top Indian cricketers and film stars were seen at the swearing-in ceremony of Pakistan’s Prime Minister.
It will be a powerful image that could soften some of the bitterness and bile that the two nations throw at each other with sickening regularity. Through an extension of this cultural outreach, it is logical to assume that there will be an attempt to resume cricketing ties between the two nations. When Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Australia, he was accompanied by Kapil Dev and VVS Laxman. It was a symbolic gesture to win over the cricket crazy Australian fans. It is unlikely that we would now see Modi sitting side by side with the likes of Kapil, Gavaskar and Amir, at the swearing-in ceremony of Imran. But if this seemingly impossible event was to take place, what a powerful signal it would be that the winds of change are blowing in the air.
There is no better way to mend old fences than to let the two nations play cricket with each other. When in 2004, the then Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee brokered peace through cricket, Imran was among those who approved of and applauded the move. Imran is on record saying that he had never imagined a day would come when Pakistani fans would cheer for the Indians, that too in their own stadiums. The 2004 tour showed the power of human contact that could overcome a bitter historical legacy between the two nations and its political manipulation by the ruling regimes. However, the complexity of the relationship is so fragile in nature, that peace never lasts and cricket becomes its first victim. We are today back to those days where we don’t play in each other’s territories and avoid cultural interactions. If Imran’s emergence can lead to a change of heart, it would be a feat to cheer about.