The Chances 'Cricket Diplomacy' Will Succeed in India

The prime ministers of India and Pakistan are watching today's semi-final match together

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The cricket World Cup semi-final match currently underway between India and Pakistan in the northern Indian city of Mohali is expected to attract over a billion television viewers. But while many are glued to the score, others are focusing on the larger geopolitical significance of the event. India and Pakistan may be archrivals in sports and world affairs, but some believe the high-stakes contest could, paradoxically enough, ease tensions between the two countries.

The match represents the first time that the Indian and Pakistani cricket teams are squaring off on each other's soil since the 2008 Mumbai attacks by Pakistanti-based militants, which strained already bitter relations between the two countries. Pakistanis have crossed the border into India to attend today's match and Pakistani Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani has accepted Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's surprise invitation to watch the match together in Singh's VIP box, with a dinner to follow (in the photo above, the two leaders wave to spectators before play begins).

The contest comes as India and Pakistan--who've fought three wars since they were partitioned and granted independence from Britain in 1947--try to restart peace talks in New Delhi. And indeed, Singh's invitation does appear to have enhanced good will on both sides, The New York Times points out. This week, Pakistan announced the early release of an Indian prisoner and agreed to permit Indian officials to travel to Pakistan and investigate the Mumbai attacks.

But there are also reasons to be skeptical of Singh's so-called "cricket diplomacy." Gilani, according to the Times, is considered less powerful than Pakistani military chief Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, and Singh's government is embroiled in corruption scandals that critics say the prime minister is trying to paper over through his cricket summit. Detractors in India also claim that cricket diplomacy trivializes and potentially jeopardizes the embryonic bilateral peace process underway, according to Nilova Roy Chaudhury at the Indian portal Rediff. Business Insider's Dashiell Bennett worries that if the game devolves into complaints about "bad officiating or allegations of cheating," relations between the two countries could actually sour.

The BBC's Soutik Biswas adds that cricket diplomacy between India and Pakistan has a "checkered history."

Former Pakistani president Zia-ul-Haq's "cricket for peace initiative" in 1987 helped diffuse military operations on the border but didn't keep tensions from erupting in the disputed territory of Kashmir two years later. Singh discussed Kashmir with former Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf in 2005, but these peace overtures collapsed over Mumbai three years later. "Let the cricketers play an exciting game," Biswas concludes. And "let the politicians talk, because silence pays no dividends in this stormy relationship."

The Wall Street Journal's Tom Wright presents a mock transcript of what that talk might be like:

Mr. Singh: Welcome to India.

Mr. Gilani: Thanks. It's an honor to be here. I'm so sorry about your corruption scandals.

Mr. Singh: And I am so sorry about your militants. Oh, yes, and the sectarian killings. And that CIA gentleman ...


Mr. Gilani: Well, anyway, we're here to celebrate sport.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.