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Letter from India: Terrorist Attack Undermines Cricket Diplomacy

New America Media, News report, Mark Schurmann Posted: Mar 10, 2009

MUMBAI, India A crowd of young men gathered outside the window of a small Christian shrine devoted to Our Lady of Perpetual Sorrow in South Mumbai.

It isnt Christian piety that that kept them sitting in the afternoon sun. Its the small TV set inside and the cricket game between India and New Zealand, the one India lost by a single run to everyones disappointment.

Its difficult to overestimate the importance of cricket in South Asia.

It is a game that can actually unify fractured postcolonial states, particularly when they compete with each other, explained Meenakshi Ganguly of Human Rights Watch in Mumbai.

In India, it is often said that it is movies and cricket that are the biggest unifying factors in a nation of multiple languages, ethnicities and religions, Ganguly said.

Not only India but throughout neighboring Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka as well. That cricket can cut across sectarian and political lines in a region so rife with them makes the attack on the Sri Lankan National cricket team in Lahore last week so unfortunate.

Theories abound in the aftermath of the attacks. Was it the LeT (Lashkar e Toiba) suspected of carrying out the Mumbai attacks? Was it the Taliban or Al Qaeda? Were the LTTE (Tamil Tigers) involved as a reprisal against Sri Lankan forces? Was Pakistan complicit? Were they working together?

One thing is certain; there will be consequences for international cricket in the immediate future, as cricket-playing countries question the security of venues throughout South Asia.

There has been talk of canceling Indias second season of the Indian Professional League (IPL), a popular and lucrative destination for cricket players from around the world. IPL Commissioner Lalit Modi said the second season will go on though with heightened security measures. Some international cricket stars may balk at playing under those conditions.

English cricket captain Kevin Pietersen, the highest paid international player recruited by the IPL, recently stated he may withdraw from playing this season out of concerns for personal safety.

The International Cricket Commission (the sports governing body) has discussed delaying the Cricket World Cup slated for India, Bangladesh and Pakistan in 2011 and there are rumors that the ICC will ban all international play in Pakistana move that will isolate Pakistan even further from its neighbors and the international community.

Though dealing with severe internal problems--indeed, some analysts believe the nation is on the brink of collapse--the attack on cricket is an emotional blow to Pakistanis who may have seen the sport as the countrys only bedrock of normalcy.

In an editorial published the day after the attacks, The Guardian stated, Pakistan had lost its last great link to the outside world. A link that had survived military dictators, a nuclear standoff and decades of conflict with India.

Despite its similarities to baseball, cricket is a difficult game for Americans to understand. With traditions rooted in English etiquette --the most glaring being its leisurely pace and breaks for teatime--the sport has an aristocratic feel to it thats antithetical to Americas democratic sensibilities.

But South Asians seem to have taken the game, a lasting legacy of their colonial past, and reinvented it much the same way Brazilians did with soccer.

Millions of children play cricket in dusty bus depots and alleyways throughout India. They use rocks for wickets (sticks placed upright behind a batsman that a bowler looks to knock down) and discarded lumber for bats and anything resembling a ball that can bounce. They play without shoes in congested traffic in crowded cities like Mumbai and Delhi.

Theyve come up with imaginative ways to reinterpret the game for the less than ideal conditions of green fields in English country clubs. Some became great international players.

In fact, Indian cricketer Sachin Tendulkar--Mumbai born and raised--is considered to be the worlds finest cricket player and recently joined basketballs Michael Jordan and soccers David Beckham in having a wax bust displayed at Madame Tussauds in London.

Crickets most important games are played predominantly between commonwealth countries in Europe, Africa, Asia and the Caribbean. The rivalries are electric. When India defeated England recently, the country was jubilant, forgetting for a moment the trauma of the 26/11 attacks in Mumbai.

Before the attack, India canceled a scheduled series of games in Pakistan out of security concerns, a decision that now seems prescient.

With its population and zeal for the game, South Asia is arguably the center of the cricket universe, making it the most watched sport in the world. Yet with heightened security measures a certainty, and lingering unrest in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and parts of India playing in the region will become much more difficult, if at all feasible.

Playing in Pakistan seems completely out of the question. Terrorist attacks have now jeopardized cricket diplomacy. Thats regrettable, according to Meenakshi Ganguly. During a previous peace attempt, visas were granted to attend cricket matches, he said. This is when ordinary Indians and Pakistanis, long reared to hate and suspect each other, found deep affection and similarities. [Their] differences crumbled more effectively than at any candle vigils along the border.

Related Articles:

Post Attacks, Leopold's a Crowded Mumbai Favorite

Letter from India: Peace Breaking Out in Kashmir

Beyond Pacquaio-De La Hoya, Two Peoples Long-lost Ties

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