India-Pakistan, cricket and politics

India-Pakistan, cricket and politics

The two countries last played a bilateral series over five years ago. Imran Khan is keen on resuming play, but cricket between the subcontinental rivals has always followed a trajectory defined by politics.

Imran Khan wants India and Pakistan bilateral cricket
Javed Miandad, Salim Malik and Tauseef Ahmed heckle umpire V K Ramaswamy during Pakistan’s tour of 1987 (Express Archive)

Imran Khan is keen on India and Pakistan resuming bilateral cricket, and he had taken this up with Prime Minister Narendra Modi on his visit to India in December 2015. India’s condition for playing again is that Pakistan must stop cross-border terror. Except in tournaments organised by the International Cricket Council (ICC), cricket’s global governing body, the Asian giants haven’t played each other since Pakistan toured India for ODIs and T20s in December 2012-January 2013. The game has, in fact, been hostage to politics since the mid 1960s.

The early years

A year before Independence and Partition, the cricket team of undivided India travelled from Karachi to England for three Tests. The team was led by Iftikhar Ali Khan, the Nawab of Pataudi, and had a swashbuckling allrounder, Abdul Hafeez Kardar. In 1952-53, when Pakistan came to India for their first-ever Test series, Kardar was captain, and India was led by Lala Amarnath. From then until 1961, when cricket ties froze for the first time, the countries played three five-Test series.

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The entry of politics

In 1955, when an team led by Vinoo Mankad was touring, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Muhammad Ali Bogra said in London: “It must be a matter of the utmost concern to the conscience of the free world that after seven long years the four million inhabitants of Kashmir should still (be) denied the right of self-determination.” Despite that provocation though, the tour was a great success. In his A Corner of a Foreign Field: The Indian History of a British Sport, historian Ramachandra Guha wrote how the Maharajkumar of Vizianagaram (Vizzy), speaking for the Indian cricket board, had said: “Where politicians had failed, we (cricketers) succeeded by coming nearer to each other.” Vizzy proposed that India and Pakistan play each other every alternate year on the Ashes model, for an urn containing soil from the two countries. A Pakistani fan named Syed Khan Bahadur wrote to the editor of a publication suggesting the two countries play for a “Gandhi-Jinnah Trophy”. On the field, Polly Umrigar, Vijay Manjrekar and Pankaj Roy shone with the bat for India, and G S Ramchand and Subhash Gupte with the ball.

Imran Khan wants India and Pakistan bilateral cricket
Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee asked the Indian side of 2004 to win ‘both matches and hearts’ in Pakistan. (Express Archive)

War interruption


After Pakistan toured India in 1960-61, India were supposed to go for a return tour in 1964. But by then, political relations between the two countries had deteriorated significantly. Pakistan had been planning Operation Gibraltar, which involved infiltrating forces into Jammu and Kashmir to start a rebellion against India. Skirmishes began in April 1965, and war in August. The Tashkent peace agreement was signed on January 10, 1966, but persisting tensions ensured that no cricket was played between the two countries for the next few years. War broke out again in 1971, and this time the hostilities ended in the humiliating defeat and dismemberment of Pakistan.

Resumption aborted

In 1975, the cricket boards started discussions on reviving bilateral cricket. In 1976, during the Emergency, the boards met again to discuss the possibility of a full series in 1977. But Gen Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq’s coup d’état of July 1977 hurled Pakistan into turmoil.

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Goodwill and cricket

Morarji Desai, who became Prime Minister in 1977, decided to extend an olive branch to Zia and, as Bishan Singh Bedi wrote some years ago, “it was us cricketers he chose to send to Pakistan on a goodwill tour”. Bedi was captain of the side that travelled for three Tests and three ODIs in October-November 1978, ending a 17-year freeze. It was not pleasant, Bedi wrote: “We had never experienced anything like that… There were social ‘do’s’ just about every evening, but did we ever see a charming feminine face? Our lads quickly became disillusioned… And on the cricket field we were destined to be even more disillusioned.”

Pakistan won the Tests 2-0 and the ODIs 2-1 after Bedi conceded the third game to protest shortpitched bowling by the home side (the so-called Sahiwal fiasco). Five Pakistanis — Mushtaq Mohammad, Asif Iqbal, Majid Khan, Zaheer Abbas and Imran Khan — had joined Kerry Packer’s World Series Cricket, but Zia’s government ordered the board to lift its ban on them so a full-strength side could be fielded against India.

Asif’s Pakistanis played six Tests in India in 1979-80, a series that Sunil Gavaskar’s men won 2-0. In 1982-83, Imran blew Gavaskar’s team away, picking up 40 wickets in the six-Test series that Pakistan won 3-0. Pakistan also won the four-match ODI series 3-1. In September-October 1983, Zaheer Abbas led Pakistan to India, drawing all three Tests, but losing the ODI series 0-2 to Kapil Dev’s side.

Imran Khan wants India and Pakistan bilateral cricket
Morarji Desai and Gen Zia-ul-Haq, who used cricket for ‘goodwill’ after the 1970s freeze (Express Archive)

A series cut short

On October 31, 1984, India were batting in an ODI in Sialkot, when the deputy commissioner, Ismail Qureshi, received information that Indira Gandhi had been shot dead. The official was told that the game should be abandoned immediately. “I sat there…, thinking, ‘This cannot be implemented’!” Qureshi was quoted as saying by Cricinfo’s The Cricket Monthly. “India was playing Pakistan, 25,000 people in the stands were cheering every ball. How could I step in and tell everyone to pack up and go home in the middle of the innings? I decided it was beyond what I could handle, so for the moment I let the match go on.” After India had batted out their 40 overs, Qureshi broke the news to captain Gavaskar and manager Raj Singh Dungarpur. India returned immediately, abandoning the rest of the tour. When the crowd was informed why the game was being called off, “people started clapping (and then) melted away, peacefully, out of the stadium”, Qureshi was quoted as saying. “Indira Gandhi was deeply unpopular in Pakistan, but this was a reaction I could never have predicted.”

In January-March 1987, Imran led a team to India for five Tests and six ODIs, which Pakistan won 1-0 and 5-1 respectively. Zia showed up during the series, met with Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, and watched a match in Jaipur. In November-December 1989, India played four Tests and four ODIs in Pakistan, drawing the Test series 0-0, and losing the ODIs 0-2 with no result in two games.

Kashmir and Kargil

Through the 90s, as the Kashmir insurgency raged, India and Pakistan mostly played each other in neutral venues like Sharjah and in tournaments like the World Cup. The countries hosted the 1996 World Cup, along with Sri Lanka. In September-October 1997, Sachin Tendulkar led India to Pakistan for three ODIs, which Pakistan won 2-1. In January-February 1999, Pakistan toured India for the Asian Test Championship and a triangular ODI series.

On June 8, 1999, as the Kargil War raged, India and Pakistan played a World Cup match in Old Trafford. But Kargil ensured there would be no bilateral cricket between India and Pakistan for the next five years. When the teams faced each other at Centurion in the 2003 World Cup, it wasn’t “just another match”. Lata Mangeshkar sent a message to Sourav Ganguly, urging him to lead India to victory. Tournament director Ali Bacher requested both teams to send out a “friendship” message to avoid untoward incidents in the stands. Match referee Mike Procter had a chat with the captains, telling them it was “a huge opportunity to perform, and also a great responsibility”. India won, riding on Tendulkar’s scintillating 75-ball 98. He called home after the match and his wife Anjali took to the phone near the window so that he could hear the firecrackers outside.

‘Dil bhi jeetiye’

Bilateral cricket resumed in 2004, mainly because of the efforts of Jagmohan Dalmiya and his PCB counterpart Shahryar Khan. Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee gave the go-ahead months before he demitted office, sending the side off to Pakistan with the message, “Khel bhi jeetiye, dil bhi jeetiye (win matches, and win hearts, too). Bilateral cricket relations were relatively normal for the next few years. India visited Pakistan in June-July 2008 for the Asia Cup. And then 26/11 happened. Almost five years later, in 2012-13, India hosted Pakistan for a short limited-overs series, but the two countries haven’t played any bilateral cricket since.

Current position


A couple of years ago, when he was helming the BCCI, BJP MP Anurag Thakur had tweeted: “Dawood (Ibrahim) in Karachi. NSA wants to meet separatists here. Are you really serious about peace and you expect we’ll play cricket with you?” Over the last year, the BCCI has approached the government several times to know its stand on India-Pakistan bilateral cricket, but the replies have always been negative. Because of Pakistan’s participation, this year’s Asia Cup has had to be shifted from India to the UAE. The Pakistan board, meanwhile, has taken the bilateral cricket issue to the ICC dispute resolution panel, demanding a $60-million compensation from the BCCI for not honouring the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) that required the two countries to play five bilateral series between 2015 and 2023. The matter will be heard in October.