04/05/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

It's Not Cricket -- It's War

Sports and war have always been companions. During the American Civil War when there was a lull in the battle, men from the Blue and the Gray would challenge each other to a game of baseball. They brought their bats and the balls with them to war. (Gloves would not be used until much later in the nineteenth century.) When the call to battle sounded and it was time to fight, the players would become soldiers and try to kill each other, which they did with great proficiency. Greek city-states would pause their wars on the peninsula during the ancient Olympics, and then resume them shortly thereafter. I thought of these bits of sport history when I heard about the dastardly attack by gunmen on the Sri Lankan national cricket team in Lahore, Pakistan. I guess in this dangerous world when a national team travels, it needs to pack its automatic pistols.

Americans may not fully understand the importance of the game of cricket to its enthusiasts and how this attack will have lasting international repercussions. Cricket is the third most popular spectator sport in the world after soccer and basketball. An important match can bring a whole country to a standstill, much like the Super Bowl. Each July, for example, Bermuda declares a two-day national holiday so that the all-stars from one side of the island can play the picked eleven from the other side. Cricket is one of the rituals of adhesion that holds Bermuda together, and Cup Match is a multi-racial festival of harmony. Sport can and does soothe social, political, and economic divisions.

Cricket is almost exclusively played in the countries of the former British Empire. It is a complex and befuddling game but ultimately a very satisfying sport to participants and spectators alike. To American eyes, cricket is tedious, confusing, and very British. Players are decked out in dress whites, some adorned in floppy hats, and only the wicket keeper wears gloves on his hands despite the use of a rock-hard ball that can be driven mightily by the batsman. However, Americans would recognize the devotion of cricket fans as both familiar and commendable.

Transnational pacification is more difficult to accomplish even with such a popular sport. Nation states and social units need not be perpetual adversaries, but history teaches that longstanding conflicts are not uncommon. When two countries have a historic rivalry based on ideology, religion, or territorial ambitions, it is difficult to find a bond that overcomes a tradition of hostility. Remarkably, sport may play a harmonic role in these situations as well. Cricket, at least for a while, provided a bridge between Pakistan and India. If countries are genuine and continuing sporting rivals, it is possible they can no longer be mortal enemies.

Sport can bring out the best, but also the worst in mankind. Because it is played on such a visible stage, the men and women who demonstrate their athletic skills for our enjoyment are at risk. Not that long ago, for example, Monica Seles, one of the great modern women tennis players, was attacked on the court by a knife wielding assailant in Hamburg, Germany.

The worst combination of war and sport occurred, of course, during the 1972 Munich Olympics when the Palestinian hoodlums of Black September took the Israeli wrestling team hostage leading to their eventual murder at the Munich airport. That blasphemy was repeated this week in Pakistan. Although no team members were killed, six Pakistani policemen and one civilian died in the melee. Immediately after the assault, the cricket players were driven to the pitch where the match was to resume that day and helicoptered to safety. Few national cricket teams will chance a visit to Pakistan in the near future. Unlike the Civil War baseball players and the ancient Olympic sprinters, there is no immunity for those who would represent their country in sports play when there is a group of fanatics willing to give up their lives in exchange for public attention to their cause.