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Sportcal’s Theme Focus articles provide concise analysis into news stories that illustrate the key themes affecting the sports industry. Drawing on our Thematic Intelligence, they provide insights into the issues driving change across global sports.

The story

On August 6, Pakistan announced it will send a team to India for the Cricket World Cup in October and November, ending months of uncertainty mired in geopolitical tension.  

“Pakistan has consistently maintained that sports should not be mixed with politics,” said a Pakistan foreign office statement, referring to India’s refusal to send its team to Pakistan for the Asia Cup, which starts on August 31.  

But in India and Pakistan, cricket is inextricably tied to politics – and a long history of conflict. Keen to keep India (and its 1.1 billion avid cricket watchers) on board, the Asian Cricket Council (ACC) responded by naming Sri Lanka as a co-host and “neutral venue” for India’s Asia Cup matches. 

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By GlobalData

What it means 

“Cricket is a pressure game – and when it comes to an India-Pakistan match the pressure is doubled.” 

Those were the words of Imran Khan, a cricketing icon who captained Pakistan to World Cup victory in 1992 – and who was ousted as prime minister and sentenced to three years imprisonment on August 5. Khan’s repeated suggestions of peace talks with India were refused by Narendra Modi, the Indian prime minister, who accused Pakistan of being a “sponsor” of cross-border terrorism. 

When Indo-Pakistani tensions rise, cricket provides an outlet for the neighbors to play out their mutual enmity without resorting to arms. Commercial, historical, and geopolitical factors indicate pressure on the upcoming face-offs will be similarly extreme.   

Three of the five most-watched cricket matches in history have featured India and Pakistan’s rivalry. As by far the most popular sport in these heavily populated, cricket-obsessed countries, showdowns between India and Pakistan consistently attract even higher viewership numbers than the Australia-England Ashes series.  

“Any clash between the two nations drives significant commercial opportunities for those wishing to associate themselves,” says Conrad Wiacek, head of analysis at GlobalData Sport. “From a broadcast point of view, India versus Pakistan is always must-see TV in both nations, as well as in communities from those nations around the world. Media rights for any tournaments with the possibility of an India-Pakistan clash is always a key piece of inventory, while sponsors will pay millions in the hopes of reaching a massive TV audience – 225 million people watched the last Asia Cup match in 2022.” 

India’s refusal to cross the border for the Asia Cup reflects a one-sided slant to the pair’s relations.  

From lead broadcaster Star Media to sports marketing company TCM, Indian sponsors dominate this year’s Asia Cup, according to GlobalData’s Asia-Pacific Sport Sponsorship Landscape report.  

True, in terms of prestige, prize money, and sponsorship deals it is a far less alluring competition than the Cricket World Cup.  

But, as Wiacek notes, “India’s decision not to travel to Pakistan for the upcoming Asia Cup is baffling, especially with Pakistan already confirming attendance at the upcoming ICC World Cup due to take place in India later this year. The financial implications of this to both broadcasters and sponsors will be significant, but India will be banking on the World Cup later in the year as a means of gaining most of that revenue back.” 

The background 

India has always maintained the narrative that Pakistan is the aggressor, quick to point to the 2009 bus attacks on the Sri Lankan cricket team during a test match in Lahore.   

The two nations have only faced each other in World Cups and neutral venues since 2013. Their rivalry transcends cricket – it is one of the most intense, jingoistic, and politically charged rivalries in any sport, with hostilities built on decades-old accusations of state-sponsored terrorism and sovereignty over the disputed territory of Kashmir.  

In 2019, India launched strikes in Pakistani territory following a militant attack on Indian troops in Kashmir. After the attacks, the two countries had come "close" to a nuclear war, former US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo claimed in his recent memoir.  

While a renewed border truce agreed in 2021 has kept things under control, a shared love for cricket has not helped the two countries put aside their differences.  

Modern-day Indian and Pakistani cricketers are not blind to their role and platform in symbolizing cross-country unity. Indian star Virat Kohli has regularly been pictured greeting Pakistani players warmly.  

Indeed, while Imran Khan has also previously said: “The future of Indo-Pak cricket will depend on how the peace process goes,” cricket itself could also play a role in the future of Indo-Pakistani peace. Such is the popularity of the sport in the two nations, it could yet become a unifying factor to help calm their geopolitical rivalry.

Image: Quinn Rooney/Getty Images