Davis Cup: Can India’s visit to Pakistan mark a thaw in sporting ties?
It looks a one-off case but the last Cup team to cross the border was six decades back
The word ‘historic’ may be one of the well worn cliches in the world of sport – but the India vs Pakistan Davis Cup tie, which got underway on the grasscourts of a heavily fortified Pakistan Sports Complex in Islamabad on Saturday, is truly one. It has been after six decades, 1964 to be precise, that a Indian squad has set foot there – though it seems more of an exception than rule.
Back in the day, India’s Davis Cup heroes: Akhtar Ali, Premjit Lall and Shiv Prakash Mishra routed the hosts 4-0 in Lahore. The 2024 trip, which is primarily taking place after International Tennis Federation (ITF) refused to play ball to India’s request to shift the tie to a neutral venue, has Akhtar’s son Zeeshan Ali as the non-playing captain.
Can it then be a case of ‘tennis diplomacy’ ushering in a window of opportunity for cricket and hockey, where the rivalry between the neighbours is stuff of sporting folklore? Rather unlikely, as the Indian government has given the clearance for the visit possibly as a one-off case as the other option would have been to treat the tie as ‘forfeited’ by India. ITF, the world governing body of tennis, certainly works on different dynamics from the International Cricket Council (ICC), where India’s words are a law into itself.
The experience of the Indian tennis contingent in Islamabad, going by media reports, is that they have been floored by the reception while there are layers of security around the Indian contingent. Players’ movement is restricted to the hotel and courts, with no leeway for them to venture out for even a meal.
Speaking to Times of India, leading singles player Yuki Bhambri said: “The security has been top notch. The downside to that has been we’ve been restricted to the hotel and the tennis court but we understand that, and we’re happy that we’ve been provided with this security. We’ve had a lot of practice sessions here to keep us busy. And the Pakistan federation has done a wonderful job in terms of hospitality.’’
Ever since the terror attack on the Sri Lankan team bus on their way to Gaddafi Stadium in Lahore in 2009, Pakistan had to endure an isolation of almost a decade as an international cricketing destination. The Pakistan Super League (PSL), which slowly paved the way for teams to shake off their apprehension, saw teams like Australia, England, New Zealand and even the Lankans going back there – though India’s last visit there was way back in 2005.
The bilateral cricketing relations between India and Pakistan also took a beating with India consistently refusing to go there citing security concerns. Pakistan, on their part, have crossed the border only for ICC’s multi-nation events like the T20 World Cup (2016) and last year’s World Cup, while it has virtually become a norm for the Asia Cups to take place in neutral venues like the UAE and Sri Lanka.
The embargo over touring Pakistan spilled into other disciplines like tennis as well. In 2019, India were drawn to play Pakistan away as well but that Asia/Oceania Group I tie was shifted to a neutral venue (Kazakhstan) due to security concerns. This time, the ITF did not accept All India Tennis Association’s (AITA) request, compelling India to either travel or forfeit the tie.
It's a depleted India team which has gone there with their regulars Sumit Nagal, Mukund Sasikumar pulling out of the tie alongwith doubles world No. 1 Rohan Bopanna. Incidentally, Bopanna had once famously teamed up with Pakistan’s Aisam Qureshi on the Tour for doubles and the international media hyped up the pair as India-Pak Express.
It's difficult to see an upset result as India, who enjoy a 7-0 head-to-head record, have raked up a 2-0 lead after winning both singles on opening day. However, if this visit can serve as a baby step to remove the apprehension and bring about a thaw in the sporting relations, it will be the biggest net gain!