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KARACHI: Pakistani all-rounder and former skipper Shahid Khan Afridi says there is “no chance” of cricketing ties being revived with India as long as Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is in power.
Strained relations between the two nations and a decades-long dispute over the Himalayan valley of Kashmir have laid the foundations for one of the most intense sporting rivalries in the world.
Ties have been especially strained in the past year after Modi’s government stripped Kashmir’s autonomy, which both nations rule in part but claim in full.
Pakistan and India have not played a bilateral Test series since 2008 when already brittle ties were shattered by the Mumbai terror attacks.
“The government of Pakistan is always ready, but with the present regime (in India) there are no such chances of resuming cricket relations, or of a Pakistan-India series,” Afridi told Arab News in a wide-ranging interview at his home in Karachi this week.
“With Modi in power, I don’t see it’s going to happen.”
Cricket is especially popular in both India and Pakistan, and emotions run high whenever the two sides play each other, usually in packed stadiums resounding with nationalist slogans.
In the past New Delhi and Islamabad used cricket matches to try to make progress on issues that have dogged relations, especially the fate of the Kashmir region.
In 1987, then-Pakistan President Gen. Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq visited India to watch a cricket match, but the event was also used to defuse a crisis over troop build-ups on one of the world’s most militarised borders, and the Pakistani leader met Indian prime minister of the day, Rajiv Gandhi.
In 2005, Pakistan’s then-military ruler Pervez Musharraf visited India for a cricket match, but the trip also became a summit with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, and the two leaders agreed to open up the Kashmir border.
Afridi agreed that sports could play an important role in improving relations between the two countries, especially since cricket was like a “religion” for the people of India and Pakistan. “So, I think that sports are a thing which can help improve ties,” he said.
Commenting on the 2020 Indian Premier League, which was initially scheduled to begin in March in India, but is being held in the United Arab Emirates due to the coronavirus pandemic, Afridi said Pakistani players were missing a “big opportunity” by not being part of the tournament.
“I know that IPL is a big brand in the world of cricket and it is an excellent opportunity for Babar Azam or any other Pakistani players to go there, play under pressure and share dressing rooms,” the Pakistani cricketer said. “So, in my opinion, Pakistani players are missing a big opportunity.”
Asked if he stood by an earlier statement that he was more loved in India than in his homeland, Afridi said: “If their love is true, no one can take it away, no matter whose government it is.
“No doubt, the way I have enjoyed cricket in India, I have always appreciated the love and respect I receive from the people of India. And now when I speak on social media, I get many messages from India and reply to many people. I believe that my overall experience in India has been excellent.”
Speaking about the government of Prime Minister Imran Khan, Afridi said the Pakistan prime minister had been an exemplary cricketer who led the country to World Cup victory in 1992, but one should not expect him to change decades of problems in a few years.
“It’s time to fulfil the promises he made before the elections,” Afridi said. “This is a great opportunity; the army is with you, judiciary is there. All are on one page.”
Khan has a favorable “ground and pitch” to achieve success, Afridi said, adding that the PM needed a stronger team to help him win.
“Imran Khan will have to play with a strong team; he will have to take honest and clean people along with him,” he said. “The people who we see around Imran should work for this country, so the time doesn’t arrive when Imran is all alone.”
Speaking about punishing culprits in the recent case of a woman who was attacked and raped on a major highway in front of her children, Afridi said: “Don’t hang them publicly. But do hang them and set an example — and do it immediately.”
The 40-year-old cricketer is also known for his philanthropic work across Pakistan, and has formerly worked with UNICEF and several national organizations.
He said his parents were his “inspiration” for starting charity work and setting up the Shahid Afridi Foundation, which provides education, health care, access to water and sports rehabilitation in Pakistan’s underprivileged communities.
Afridi has established hospitals in his hometown of Tirah in Khyber district as well as Kohat. His foundation has distributed rations to 40,000 families across Pakistan and offers free education to deserving students in 14 schools across the country. It also gives scholarships to 10 students from the tribal areas each year.
Afridi has launched 200 water projects in the tribal districts and the arid Tharparkar region in Sindh, and also helped repatriate over 250 Pakistanis who were stranded in the Middle East due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“We will have to educate these children,” he said, referring to Pakistan’s tribal areas. “I hope cricket academies will reach these areas.”
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