Religion and politics

“You wouldn’t normally associate cricket with Catholics,” he said after a training session at the Aga Khan ground this week. “It’s more a protestant sport in Northern Ireland. There were always British army troops based in Northern Ireland and Strabane and, perhaps, they would’ve brought it with them. But it’s always had an affection with the locals and it’s been played by all traditions in Strabane.”

That’s what Peter Gillespie, the Ireland allrounder, told me in Nairobi in February. So it was interesting to read this post from an Ireland blogger about his country beating Pakistan and what ramifications it might have.

To a Pakistani, Ireland beating their national team must be a bit like San Marino beating Brazil in soccer. Our national soccer coach was nearly flayed alive (metaphorically) by soccer pundits for nearly drawing against San Marino a few months ago, so I can only imagine what the depth of feeling was in Pakistan when the result came through. That said, our soccer team manager is still alive.. The death of Bob Woolmer in some way underlies the personal emotional turmoil involved when a good team struggles at the top grade.

For Ireland, to have such a success in such an unexpected sport can only be a good thing. It’s quite likely we have a wealth of cricketing talent in the country, as one of our more popular games – hurling – demands very similar skills to cricket. Also, we are beginning to see an easing of the unwritten laws that divided many sports into “Protestant” and “Catholic” games. Such a de-politicisation of sport is very welcome.

“Cricket helped me see the world,” Gillespie said, “but it also helped me see a new outlook – especially growing through a lot of turmoil in Northern Ireland and our town. Cricket was a get-out clause. I was able to get to know all types of different people, backgrounds and religions and it helped me broaden my outlook in general.”

Can cricket, or sport, really depoliticise communities or countries? Recent history has shown cricket, more than most other sports, acts as a victim of politics (last World Cup; Eng/Zim). When has it been the damp cloth, dousing political hot fires? Sorry for the metaphor.

Pakistan and India are a case in point: very nearly at war with one another off the pitch, and definitely in battle when they play cricket. Anyway, just some thoughts. Up the Irish, and all that.

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