The controversy around the Indian cricket team wearing military caps on the field to pay homage to its troops has reignited a decades-old debate over the mixing of politics with sports.
India‘s national side came under scrutiny for “militarising” the game after its players wore army camouflage caps during a match against Australia in the eastern Indian city of Ranchi.
The gesture, earlier this month, was in solidarity with the Indian paramilitary police officers killed in a suicide attack by a Pakistan-based group in the disputed Kashmir region and to raise donations for the National Defence Fund.
But analysts and sports diplomacy experts questioned the Indian cricket team’s move, saying it did “no favours to either national security nor sport”.
“It’s fine to raise money for the troops as long as the fundraising happens off the field,” Mukul Kesavan, an Indian writer and historian, told Al Jazeera.
Pakistan, which came to the brink of war with India in the aftermath of the February bombing in the Pulwama district of Indian-administered Kashmir this year, criticised the Indian team for “politicising” the sport.
“We believe that cricket and sports should not be used for politics and we have said this very clearly,” the Pakistan Cricket Board chairman, Ehsan Mani, said while revealing that he had lodged a formal protest in a letter to the International Cricket Council (ICC).
“Their [India] credibility in the cricketing world has gone down very badly.”
“It’s just not Cricket”, I hope ICC ll take action for politicising Gentleman’s game … if Indian Cricket team ll not be stopped, Pak Cricket team should wear black bands to remind The World about Indian atrocities in Kashmir… I urge #PCB to lodge formal protest pic.twitter.com/GoCHM9aQqm
— Ch Fawad Hussain (@fawadchaudhry) March 8, 2019
An ICC spokesperson told Al Jazeera that the Indian cricket board – the BCCI – asked for prior approval to wear the olive-and-black caps “as part of a fundraising drive and in memory of soldiers, which was granted”.
“Given the fact that it happened in the aftermath of the India-Pakistan border skirmishing, it just seems pointed in a way that has no business on a cricket field,” said Kesavan.
J Simon Rofe, Global Diplomacy programme director at the University of London, said funds can be raised “without having an overt visual dimension”.
He referred to the annual ‘Pink Test’ supporting breast cancer and the World Cricket Tsunami Appeal match held in Melbourne in 2005.
“There are ways of expressing support for a good cause without it having overt military, let alone political connotations,” Rofe, author of Sport and Diplomacy: Games within Games, told Al Jazeera.
Cricket and diplomacy nexus
Athletes, including cricketers, have used sport to make political and personal statements in the past.
According to ICC’s code of conduct, players and team officials are not permitted to convey political, religious or racial messages through clothing or equipment.
The ICC would have the final say in determining whether any such message is approved, the world body said.
In 2014, English cricketer Moeen Ali was banned from wearing “Free Gaza” and “Save Palestine” wristbands during a series against India.
Pakistan-born South African bowler Imran Tahir was sanctioned for revealing a T-shirt featuring the portrait of Pakistani singer-turned-preacher Junaid Jamshed, who died in a plane crash in 2016.
“You have two examples from the past already, where both Tahir and Ali were sanctioned for something similar,” PCB’s Mani said, urging the ICC to take strong action against the Indian cricket board.
But according to Rofe, “the BCCI is a significant diplomatic player and that’s really what’s at stake here”.
“The agenda of the BCCI is significant to the ICC and the fact that you’ve got the Indian Premier League coming up with a lot of the world’s best players, the nexus of cricket and diplomacy is in India,” he said.
Boycotts and sanctions over political differences are common in international sport, especially at the highest level.
The United States boycotted the 1980 Moscow Olympics in protest of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
South Africa, during the Apartheid era, was subjected to a variety of sporting sanctions by major international governing bodies for its institutionalised racial segregation.
Athletes from Arab countries, which do not have diplomatic ties with Israel, often refuse to compete against Israeli opponents.
India, in an attempt to isolate Pakistan in the cricketing world in the wake of the Pulwama attack, urged the ICC to sever ties with countries from which “terrorism emanates”, a plea that was rejected by the ICC.
Pakistan and India are scheduled to play at the cricket World Cup in June in England, but there are growing calls within India to pull out.
Dear Pakistanis u are desirous to put on military style caps/shirts during PSL Final. Pak Armed Forces humbly acknowledge your love & support. Sports are beyond politics & we believe that our bondage is beyond such gestures alone. Enjoy the game in CityOfLights.#PakistanZindabad
— Maj Gen Asif Ghafoor (@OfficialDGISPR) March 14, 2019
“There’s always going to be politics in international sport … because people do feel strongly about the right to assert what they think is a political virtue, in the context of a sporting encounter,” added Kesavan.
Rofe echoed the argument, saying the idea that “sport and politics don’t mix is a myth”.
“Sport provides both the spectators and the athletes with a platform and some will take advantage of that for very good reasons and some will take advantage of it for covert or indeed, hostile reasons.”