Diplomacy Through Cricket? It's All In How You Spin It
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
Pakistan and Afghanistan are neighbors with some difficult issues to work out. For one, what happens in the aftermath of the U.S. drawdown from Afghanistan? And each country accuses the other of harboring militants on either side of their long border. Well, over the weekend, the leaders of the two countries met, but it wasn't your usual diplomatic encounter. NPR's Philip Reeves sent us this letter from Pakistan.
PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: They call it cricket diplomacy. If you're not getting along with your neighbors, invite them over for a game. See whether you can sort things out with a bat and ball instead of missiles and bullets. Pakistan and Afghanistan have been bickering for years, but a new president, Ashraf Ghani, is now in charge in Kabul. This weekend, Ghani made his first state visit to Pakistan.
What better way to open a fresh chapter in the relationship than a friendly cricket match?
REEVES: Do not believe people who tell you that cricket is a gentleman's game. The sport is awash with ferocious rivalries and brazen skulduggery. However, this match between the so-called A-teams of Afghanistan and Pakistan is a little different.
REEVES: It's being played beneath a cloudless sky before a small crowd of invited guests. You could almost imagine what real peace in this region might feel like...
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Laughter).
REEVES: ...So long as you ignore the multitude of armed security forces and the military helicopters scouring the hills overlooking the cricket ground. Pakistan is far, far better at cricket than Afghanistan. It has one of the world's top national teams. This hasn't stopped the Pakistanis from including five star players in its 11-man team for this friendly game. The spectators are, therefore, taken aback when this starts happening.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Oh, my God.
REEVES: That was a Afghan batter hitting a top Pakistani bowler for six runs. That's like a home run in baseball. Soon, it happens again...
REEVES: ...And again.
REEVES: When South Asians talk about cricket diplomacy, I find it hard to suppress a wry smile. Old foes India and Pakistan have tried it repeatedly, yet they're getting on worse now than they have in years. Pakistan and Afghanistan are going to need to play a lot of cricket if they're to sort out their differences. Both accuse the other of harboring Islamist militants, carrying out cross-border attacks. The Pakistanis think the Afghans are far too friendly with India. The Afghans think the Pakistanis are far too friendly with the Taliban's Mullah Omar.
Watching the game together, Afghanistan's president, Ghani, and Pakistan's prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, look pretty relaxed. After years of mistrust, their nations genuinely seem to be hitting the reboot button.
REEVES: The Afghan spectators are certainly happy. Their team wins by 54 runs.
REEVES: But remember, this is diplomatic cricket. Najam Sethi is Pakistan's nominee for the governing board of international cricket.
NAJAM SETHI: I think it's good for them to lose.
REEVES: Oh, is that it?
REEVES: Is that it? (Laughter).
SETHI: Especially if this is politics.
REEVES: You're being polite.
REEVES: As they say in cricket, it's all about how you spin it. Philip Reeves, NPR News, Islamabad. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.