NEW DELHI: Former foreign minister Sushma Swaraj received a rather unusual request when she visited the Maldives in March—would India help build a cricket stadium in the atoll nation? The request was made during a discussion on cooperation in youth affairs and sports. India indicated it would, sensing an opportunity to use its soft power to draw the strategically situated archipelago deeper into its orbit, away from the embrace of strategic rival China, through an undeniable people connect.

India will build the stadium, which is likely to come up at Hulhumale, an island south of North Male atoll, through a line of credit extended by New Delhi, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said on Saturday on his first bilateral visit to the Maldives.

India will also train young Maldivian men and women in cricket. The Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) has been quick off the mark, despatching a team in May to assess the support needed by Maldives.

“A team from the BCCI visited the Maldives earlier in May for training Maldivian cricketers, organizing coaching programmes and supply of kits," India’s foreign secretary Vijay Gokhale said last week ahead of Modi’s first overseas trip after taking office for a second straight term on 30 May.

The Maldives national cricket team made its T20 international debut in January following an International Cricket Council (ICC) decision, according to news reports. The Cricket Board of Maldives, which governs the game in the island nation, became a member of the Asian Cricket Council and an affiliate of the ICC in 1998.

Ties between India and the Maldives have warmed considerably after the election of Ibrahim Mohamed Solih as the president in September. New Delhi’s equation with Solih’s predecessor Abdullah Yameen was far from cordial given Yameen’s crackdown on political parties and his attempts to align Male with Beijing much to New Delhi’s discomfiture. Yameen was considered to be helping China build its profile in the Indian Ocean region, long considered India’s backyard.

“If you look at the map, India is the Maldives’ closest neighbour. India has always been the first responder in any crisis that Maldives faced. Naturally, India was concerned that the Yameen government was insensitive to Indian interests and was getting close to China in all spheres," said a person familiar with the developments. With the Solih government coming in, New Delhi has moved in quickly to help it with budgetary assistance as well as lines of credit and grants to implement projects to help ordinary Maldivians, said the person mentioned above said. “Cricket provides a perfect medium to connect directly with the people of Maldives," the person said.

Solih was enthused by India’s role in nurturing Afghanistan’s cricket team, which is playing in the ICC World Cup in England and Wales, a second person familiar with the matter said.

Afghan cricket players such as spin bowler Rashid Khan and batsman and off-break bowler Mohammed Nabi have made their mark playing in the Indian Premier League and are household names in India. The Afghan team also made its debut in Test cricket against India in Bangalore last year. This came after the BCCI signed an agreement with the Afghanistan Cricket Board in 2015 that allowed Afghan players to practice at the Shahid Vijay Singh Pathik Sports Complex in Noida in the National Capital Region.

Solih, a cricket fan himself, was in Bengaluru in April to watch a T20 match between the Royal Challengers Bangalore (RCB) and Chennai Super Kings (CSK). Television clips of the time showed RCB and CSK captains, Virat Kohli and Mahendra Singh Dhoni, walking onto the field to gift team jerseys to a visibly delighted Solih.

New Delhi is now working on Solih’s request to run some coaching programmes in India for young Maldivian cricketers, one of the two people mentioned above said. Some are already undergoing training in India.

“They would also like us to do some training programmes in the Maldives, not only for players but also for coaches, scorers, umpires and match referees," foreign secretary Gokhale said.

India extending help to Maldives in cricket comes even as Pakistan has been trying to reach out to the people of Maldives by distributing cricket kits and jerseys, according to news reports. That President Solih requested India for help in this matter, “is a matter of satisfaction for India," said the second person mentioned above.

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