How Sport Mirrors the India- Pakistan Relationship
Amb Jitendra Nath Misra

Sport is complex. As well as being skill, it is also diplomacy. Skills matter, but it is “grievance sport,” when players seek to avenge history, that counts. For example, India and Pakistan are unable to delink personal pieties from inter- state relations.1 In cricket and hockey, the rivalry is blood sport. But kabaddi, wrestling and other sports also produce skirmishes. Athletes front as ambassadors, yet they have also brawled. This essay addresses hockey.

Cultural Warriors and Strategic Equivalence

The Hindu and Islamic civilisations have co- habited for over a millennium. Even after Muslims won Pakistan, peaceful co- existence with India remains elusive. For the Pakistani state, the nation’s role models are Muslim, as conquerors or spiritual mentors.2 Indians draw into indigenous philosophies and deities. Sport became a casualty of this partition of minds.

We consider the India- Pakistan relationship in terms of wars, economic boycotts, cultural battles and so on, but ignore the role of sport. At Partition, players leaving for Pakistan formed the nucleus of its hockey team. “Niaz Khan, A.I.S. Dara, Shah Rukh, Mehmood and Aziz saw us, but I was surprised to see that our old friends were deliberately keeping a distance,”3 says Balbir Singh Sr. of the 1948 London Olympics. A putative rivalry had begun.

Looking at the relationship, Stephen Cohen, in his book The Idea of Pakistan, says Pakistanis feel separate and superior. The belief is that messianic Islam can balance a larger foe. The results of Pakistan’s pursuit of equivalence are evident in sport. It has a 86- 70 record4 in cricket, across all formats (tests, limited overs and T- 20). In hockey also it wins 82- 62.5 India has the better record in other sports. Why would not fans be excited about an equal contest?

At the 2017 Asia Cup in Dhaka, with India 3-0 up, the former Pakistani player, Hassan Sardar expressed bemusement that I could fault India’s play. I worried this Indian team might falter against stronger European teams, but Sardar’s thinking was framed in Pakistan’s dominance in his era. For me, Pakistan was no longer the point of reference in assessing India’s play, but for Sardar it was. This attitude of being at least the equal of India, if not its superior, is ingrained in Pakistani thinking.

Oddly, Indian players consider defeating Pakistan the ultimate prize, thus binding themselves to this very equivalence. Former Indian coach Roelant Oltmans had said that defeating Pakistan or winning in Asia was no longer India’s highest ambition, but this does not seem to have been gamed by Indian players. Sports psychologists and diplomats may note.

When Nations Rise and Fall So Does Their Sport

In the twentieth century, even as the West viewed India as baffling and muddled, Pakistan was considered a success. The Pakistani state had stabilised and the economy was growing while India had suffered a military defeat to China (in 1962). In 1960 Pakistan earned its first victory over India in the finals of the Rome Olympics. Between 1950 and 2000 it won the hockey contest 47- 29.6

Alliance with the West meant Pakistan’s war chest was filling, and India faced withdrawal. As the relationship soured, the hockey rivalry became part of a broader mutual animosity. In the 1980s and 1990s, with an incipient nuclear capability, Pakistan launched a sub- conventional war against India in Punjab and Jammu and Kashmir. Sport was not immune to such forward thinking. Indian players were stoned by spectators at the 1990 Lahore World Cup, and finished 10th of 12 teams. 7

In the twenty- first century, Pakistan got embroiled in internal problems, and India broke away. As Shivshankar Menon argues, the years Pakistan threw terrorism against India were the years when the Indian economy accelerated. According to the U.S Department of Agriculture, in 2019 India’s GDP stood at $ 3.02 trillion and Pakistan’s at $ 258.64 billion.8 In 2030, India’s GDP is estimated to reach $ 5.91 trillion, and Pakistan’s $ 427 billion.9 The gap will widen from 12:1 in 2019 to 14:1 in 2030.

Is Pakistan’s quest for equivalence sustainable? Following internal re- organization in Jammu and Kashmir in 2019, Pakistan expressed outrage and sought sanctions against India, but the international response was muted. Translate this to the changing balance in hockey, and we see that, in the twenty- first century India has narrowed the record to 33- 35, and actually wins 19- 810 in the last decade.

Pantomime Warriors in a Toxic Century

The decades after the Kashmir insurgency have embittered relations so much that sport faces ambushes. Obscene celebrations by Pakistani players after defeating India in the 2014 Champions Trophy derailed ties. India refuses to play Pakistan in any but FIH-sponsored tournaments, anywhere. Pakistani players were not invited for Hockey India League auctions after 2014. India pulled out of the 2017 Sultan of Johor Cup at Johor Bahru because Pakistan was playing.11 Pakistan has no incentive to cut sporting ties.

The outrage in India following the Uri terrorist attack in 2016 was blamed on Pakistan. P. R. Sreejesh was to frame India’s victory over Pakistan in the 2016 Asian Champions Trophy as “a Diwali gift to the Indian soldiers."12 At the London World League Semi Finals 2017, Indian players and support staff wore black armbands to mourn soldiers killed in terrorist attacks. Pakistan’s team management complained, but was ignored. It is as if Indian players were saying to their Pakistani counterparts: “You inflict terrorism against us, we’ll do this to you.”

Swings of Love and Hate

Yet, zealotry can also transform into conciliation. “These kinds of matches will help get the attention of the public towards the game and get a conversation started about hockey,”13 said the same Sreejesh after dedicating victory to Indian soldiers. Islahuddin Siddique claims that G. Vijayanathan, a Malaysian umpire of Indian origin, unfairly awarded a goal to India in the finals of the 1975 World Cup.14 Yet, he had also asked rival Ashok Kumar to sing a Hindi film song in that very game.15 Sardar had praised Indian hospitality the day after Pakistan had pulverized India 7- 1 in the 1982 Asian Games finals. But, in 2018, the same Sardar held Indian umpires responsible for Pakistan’s defeat to Japan in the 2018 Asian Games hockey semi finals. 16

Humans truce up hostilities after tiring of fights. “Off the pitch we are all good friends and we know each other well having played many times and played in various leagues all over the world,”17 asserts Mohammed Irfan. “We want to concentrate on sports and the situation at [the] LoC (line of control in Kashmir) is not for us to deal with,” 18 states Coach Tahir Zaman. But consider the scuffles at an India- Pakistan hockey game in Busselton, Australia, in 2011. Being the ambassador does not resolve the underlying tension. We see the paradox of two co- existing truths.

India’s improvement in hockey is the result of better science and its growing influence. In the 1970s Pakistan was transformed from a “development state” to a “security state.”19 From 9 per cent of the GDP in the 1970s, development expenditure declined to 3.5 per cent in the first decade of the twenty first century, and 1.8 per cent in 2018- 2019. Expenditure on education has precipitously declined to 0.17 per cent of the GDP in 2019- 2020.20 With shifting priorities, how would the government boost sport? 21 Financial difficulties prevented Pakistan from accepting a wildcard for the 2016 Men’s Champions Trophy.22


India, in some respects, is no longer the under- achiever (think of spacefaring). Pakistan, even with its many accomplishments, has become much that is wrong in a state. Indians are now cutting through the Pakistani psychological stranglehold of the 1950s and 1960s. This explains the bluster of Indian athletes. Waqar Younis said after Pakistan’s loss to India in the 2019 cricket World Cup: “we had good sides in the 1990s, but now I think this India team intimidates Pakistan.”23

The world of sport is not accustomed to such “war- peace- war” scenarios. Fans far off can be forgiven for the insomnia they experience switching on television to watch India- Pakistan games. This is the joy of sport. If two nations from another corner of the planet slug it out, and then make up, as if nothing had happened, spectators are entertained. Athletes do not sufficiently appreciate what this rivalry means to fans. Taking it for granted might loosen pressure, but pressure is what spectators want.

What might the future look like? India and Pakistan are playing more hockey games than in the past (up from 93 in all of the 20th century, to 82 between 2000- 2020). 24 Yet, there is politically- induced interruption, and resultant loss of interest. In neutral venues the media builds expectation to boost revenues, and spectators remain loyal. But fans not born in India or Pakistan do not understand the cultural context of the rivalry.

Contrast this with the England- Australia Ashes rivalry, an uninterrupted tradition since 1882. England and Australia are not neighbours, but one another’s cultural hinterland. So, a mystique has grown around this rivalry. Between India and Pakistan, disruptions and Pakistan’s decline have taken a toll. History does not valorise the weak.

  1. See Jitendra Nath Misra, “The Partition Notebooks: A Review Essay,” Nação e Defesa (Nation and Defence), 150 (2018), 174.
  2. See Jitendra Nath Misra, “Paradoxical Pakistan,” World Policy Journal, 22 (2) (Summer 2005): 96.
  3. Boria Majumdar, “1948: When the rulers were conquered,” Economic Times in ET Commentary, July 20, 2016,
  4. Wikipedia, “India- Pakistan cricket rivalry,”
  5. Akbar Wahidi and B.G. Joshi, “India vs. Pakistan: Indo- Pak Tournament- wise Record,”, The figures were last updated on October 20, 2019.
  6. B.G. Joshi, “Indo-Pak Year-wise Win-Loss Record,”
  7. Pakistan has a 22- 14 record in the 1980s, and 13- 9 in the 1990s. See B.G. Joshi, “Indo-Pak Year-wise Win-Loss Record,”
  8. United States Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service, International Macroeconomic Data Set, “Real GDP (2010 dollars) Projections,” January 3, 2020, The figures are based on estimated figures from the World Bank, IMF, HIS Global Insight, Oxford Economic Forecasting and United States Department of Agriculture, combined.
  9. Ibid.
  10. B.G Joshi, “Indo-Pak Year-wise Win-Loss Record,”,
  11. This was revealed to the author by Dato’ Haji Abd. Rahim Md. Ariff, a Malaysian hockey official, at the 2017 Sultan Azlan Shah tournament at Ipoh in 2017.
  12. “Indian Hockey Team Captain PR Sreejesh Dedicates ACT Triumph to Uri Attack Martyrs,”, November 1, 2016.
  13. International Hockey Federation, News,“Pakistan v India: A great sporting rivalry,” December 6, 2017,
  14. See his autobiography “Dash Through My Life,” and the chapter “The Goal That Wasn’t.”
  15. Sandip Sikdar, “With song on lips, India’s 1975 Hockey World Cup hero Ashok Kumar scored a winner,” Hindustan Times, December 10, 2018,
  16. UNI, “Asian Games hockey: Pakistan lose to Japan, blame Indian officials for defeat,” The New Indian Express, August 31, 2018, Updated on August 31, 2018, See also “Green-shirts must now focus on the bronze medal: PHF,”, September 1, 2018,
  17. International Hockey Federation, News,“Pakistan v India: A great sporting rivalry,” December 6, 2017,
  18. Mohammad Yaqoob, “India’s control at FIH, delay in NOC for Jr World Cup worry PHF,” Dawn, November 16, 2016,
  19. Tilak Devasher, “Escaping the Kashmir trap,” The Indian Express, September 5, 2019, 15.
  20. Ibid.
  21. Pakistani player Hassan Sardar told the author at the Asia Cup 2017 in Dhaka that Pakistan has artificial pitches in single digits only.
  22. Leandro Negre, the former FIH president, said this in conversation with the author on December 19, 2016.
  23. “Pakistan scared of Kohli’s India, laments Waqar Younis,” The News, June 18, 2019,
  24. B.G Joshi, “Indo-Pak Year-wise Win-Loss Record,”,

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>

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