x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

'Harmless fun' is at heart of the matter for India-Pakistan cricket fans

The rivalry between two nations’ supporters is intense, but Dileep Premachandran finds, barring few scuffles, it is all well-taken.

Fans at Edgbaston jostled for space to see their favourite players in action. Darren Staples/ Reuters
Fans at Edgbaston jostled for space to see their favourite players in action. Darren Staples/ Reuters

During the 2011 World Cup, Chirag Makwana, whose roots are in the western Indian state of Gujarat, took six weeks off from a government job in London to follow India's campaign.

He called it "living the dream", and on April 2, 2011, it was realised. Two years on, with only three players remaining from the XI that won the final, he was at Edgbaston to watch India take on Pakistan in the Champions Trophy.

There was nothing at stake, with India already guaranteed top spot in the group and a Cardiff semi-final on June 20. Try telling Chirag that this was a nothing game, though, and he laughs at you.

"Of course it matters," he says. "It's India-Pakistan. There's a friend's wedding I was invited to today. I had to say no because I'd booked my ticket for this as soon as they went on sale last November."

This may be a fierce rivalry, but by and large it has also been a good-natured one. You cannot imagine River Plate and Boca Juniors football fans sitting in the same stand during a Superclasico in Buenos Aires. At Edgbaston, the fans walked to the ground alongside each other, the Tendulkar replica shirt shoulder to shoulder with the Afridi one.

In the Eric Hollies Stand, the Indian tricolour was waved next to the Pakistani crescent-and-star.

"The atmosphere's just brilliant," said Chirag.

"Watching the World Cup in India was quite different. There, you knew 99 per cent of the crowd was on your side. Here, we're scattered across several stands, and Pakistan are just as well supported. There's been a lot of banter back and forth, but it's all harmless fun, really."

At times, though, it did get a bit unruly, with some Pakistani fans seated near the front ejected after abusing Virat Kohli, fielding on the boundary at the time.

A couple of scuffles also broke out during the lengthy rain delay, but the police intervened to make sure that the experience was not ruined for the vast majority.

For most Pakistan fans, with no prospect of further progress in the competition, the emphasis was on looking ahead.

An extreme element wanted the team to be thrashed so that what they viewed as repeated selection foibles would not be overlooked. Others craved a consolation win against the old foe.

As the batting subsided in pitiful fashion once again, the anger was palpable. "The batting is useless," said one supporter.

"They haven't even crossed 200 this tournament. If they're going to bat like this, it would've been better with [Shahid] Afridi in the team. At least he has an odd day where he fires."

With the loud horns, jester caps and face paint, the 22,832 that made their way in ensured there was nothing muted about the atmosphere, but as the match wore on, it was the Indian voices that were increasingly heard.

The Pakistani fans that had jumped up and down as though on pogo sticks when Kamran Akmal and Mohammad Hafeez added 28 in three overs were stationary when Shikhar Dhawan and Rohit Sharma found the gaps with relative ease.

Chirag and a group of 50 had left London early to make it to Birmingham, England's Second City, for the 10.30am start, but by 5pm it was apparent that they would have a victory and many smiles to take back with them on the return journey.

For Pakistani fans who had come similar distances from Yorkshire, in the north, as well as areas in the south, there was only dismay at the downturn in fortunes of a side that triumphed 2-1 in India just six months ago.

"I'd liked to have seen some of the other bowlers given a chance in this match," said one, even as Indian fans supported the impending win with chants of "Who are you? Who are you?"

"Yes, it's Pakistan against India and, yes, you want to win regardless of it being a dead rubber, but these are the matches where you gain experience for the future. The current bowlers have a proven track record, but giving a chance to new guns wouldn't have harmed the side today."

Two incidents best illustrated Pakistan's plight.

Early in the chase, Junaid Khan, who had tormented India's top order in December-January, had Dhawan get an inside-edge one on to the pad. After a stifled appeal, Junaid's stared down to the batsman, but Dhawan ignored him and walked towards square leg.

The next ball, slightly fuller, was thrashed through the off side for four. Junaid smiled.

In Junaid's next over, an airy waft from Dhawan saw the ball sneak under the bat and through to the wicketkeeper. This time, as Dhawan grinned, Junaid had a word or two. The next delivery was laced through cover for four.

It was that sort of day - a potential clash of the titans reduced to one-way traffic.

Dileep Premachandran is editor-in-chief for Wisden India.

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