On the pitch, India’s T20 cricket captain Virat Kohli and his Pakistani counterpart Babar Azam hugged and shared a laugh soon after Pakistan beat India comprehensively at the T20 cricket World Cup. The same camaraderie was on display among other players of both the teams as well. In the stadium’s stands, Indian and Pakistani fans, waving and displaying their country’s flags, posed for photographs amid banter and boisterous celebrations of the occasion.
But off the pitch, the sporting spirit was marred by the immature comments of Pakistan interior minister Sheikh Rasheed, who described his country’s win as a victory for Islam, and the online abuse of Indian fast bowler Mohammad Shami for a clearly bad day in office. Both were despicable in equal measure, the first stemming from a congenital Indophobia and the latter from an increasing atmosphere of faith-based intolerance in India. Rasheed was rightly panned for his comments, with social media users joking if India’s victories in the past were a defeat for Islam. He did not seem to get support even within his own country, underlining the overwhelming sentiment that sports and politics should remain segregated, whatever be the fractious nature of Indo-Pak relationship. The abuse of Shami, which was purely on account of his religious denomination, is another indication of the fractured nature of Indian polity.
These incidents run counter to the attempts the world over to use sports as a unifier of nations and communities. Recognising the power of sports, countries have leveraged it to break diplomatic ice, the most famous being China’s ping-pong diplomacy during the Cold War. In 1995, Nelson Mandela went to a rugby match, attended mainly by white South Africans, soon after he took over as the country’s first black President in order to send a message of racial unity. Currently, every football league in Europe runs a campaign against racial abuse called ‘No to racism’. The likes of Rasheed and the haters who abused Shami must know that sport is above xenophobia, religious divide and political borders.