US Ambassador Kenneth Juster has been a baseball player all his life. But, having spent some months in India now, he is learning cricket. During the recent IPL season, he followed the games, and went to watch a match between Delhi Daredevils vs Chennai Super Kings at the Feroz Shah Kotla. He conducted an online poll about which IPL team to follow: CSK won the poll, and the US embassy cricket team came up with a short video on CSK’s theme song, “Whistle Podu”.
This sporting season, he is not the only one in the Capital’s diplomatic circuit to use sport to connect with each other and develop stronger bonds with India.
French Ambassador Alexandre Ziegler is hosting an event Sunday, where the marquee event of the French sport calendar, the French Open finals, will be screened. Ziegler, a keen yoga practitioner, says he is interested in cricket too and has been following the IPL. While he is amazed by the success of Chennai Super Kings, Delhi Daredevils, he says, “hasn’t had its last word”.
Chinese Ambassador Luo Zhaohui, a golfer, recently organised a table tennis tournament for diplomats. While he and Czech Ambassador Milan Hovorka played, there were teams from the embassies of South Korea, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Russia, Romania and Bulgaria. The Chinese were given a stiff competition by the Romanians and Indonesians.
Recently, diplomats of the embassies of Australia, British and New Zealand held a match with the Indian men’s blind cricket team. With diplomats, who played blindfolded, and players forming mixed teams, it was the buzz of the diplomatic circuit.
As the FIFA World Cup fever rises, the Russian embassy is holding a football tournament on Sunday for the diplomatic community, with Chinese, French, German, Iranian, Denmark and the UN teams facing off. Russian Ambassador Nikolay R Kudashev, a table tennis player, will hand out prizes for winners, as Russia hosts the World Cup back home.
The Belgian embassy, which is a leading soccer-playing nation and a contender for the FIFA World Cup, is also organising screenings of football matches for which football club Delhi Dynamos has been invited.
Talking about the importance of sports in forging ties, US Ambassador Juster says, “Sports and the values involved in teamwork and competition are universal. Sporting events can help bring friends together and build bridges between people of different countries and cultures… Cricket is the leading sport in India, and brings together Indians from all walks of life. There is no reason why it – and other sports – cannot also strengthen the ties between Indians and Americans.”
Juster fondly remembers his meeting with Sachin Tendulkar. “I had a great time playing with him during a recent visit to Mumbai. Most people know him as a sports hero, but I enjoyed getting to know him as a person. I found him to be a thoughtful and a really good guy.”
Chinese Ambassador Luo, who plays basketball as well, points out how ping-pong had played a unique role in the establishment of diplomatic ties between China and the US. “Sports is beyond national borders,” he adds. “Through sports, people get to know and bond with each other, thus building goodwill and friendship. I believe sports can play a positive role in bilateral relations between China and India. During the Wuhan Informal Summit, the two sides agreed to enhance people-to-people and cultural exchanges, including exchanges on sports… China offers a Master’s degree in yoga.”
French envoy Ziegler hopes to use sports to reach out to civil societies, particularly youth. “Sports allows us to better understand the country we live in. I confess that when I arrived in India, I knew very little about cricket and yoga. Today, I practise yoga regularly and a Yoga Day will be organised at the embassy on June 21.”
Harinder Sidhu, the Indian-origin Australian High Commissioner to India, is still excited about the first-of-its-kind inclusive cricket match with the Indian blind cricket team. She points out that India and Australia have a “long history of friendly rivalry in sport”.
Belgium embassy’s Deputy Head of Mission Stijn Mols says that by screening FIFA matches live, “we want to tell Indians that we are not just a country famous for beer and chocolates”.
Russian embassy spokesperson Vladimir Poluektov, while emphasising how proud they were to host the FIFA World Cup, said, “Ancient Greece gave us an example of ‘Olympic truce’, when even wars stopped during tournaments. Isn’t preventing conflicts and solving various issues by following fair rules one of the main goals of diplomacy?”
Juster, expansive on the similarities and differences between cricket and baseball, says Tendulkar gave him a tip. “The natural inclination of a baseball player is to try to hit line drives and fly balls. Sachin explained to me why, in cricket, one should try to hit ground balls rather than fly balls. That was a surprise to me, but it helped me understand the sport.”