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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 10 December 2018

The UAE's 'home' game: India and Pakistan cricket fans get ready for latest chapter in fierce sporting rivalry

Indian and Pakistani fans say "nothing is as important" as Asia Cup cricket clash in Dubai

Pakistan fans hope to have plenty to cheer about when their side take on India in Dubai. Chris Whiteoak / The National
Pakistan fans hope to have plenty to cheer about when their side take on India in Dubai. Chris Whiteoak / The National

One of the most intense sporting rivalries on the planet is taking over the UAE - and millions of cricket lovers will be captivated by every run, catch and wicket.

India play Pakistan at Dubai International Stadium on Wednesday in a crunch Asia Cup clash that is a "home" fixture for nearly half of the UAE's multicultural population.

An estimated three-and-a-half million Indians and another one million Pakistanis live in the UAE, making this titanic battle the closest the two nations will get to competing against each other on home soil.

Pakistan have played only a handful of limited-over games in their homeland in the last decade due to safety concerns for touring teams following the 2009 attack on the Sri Lankan national cricket team, while the Asia Cup tournament itself was moved from India to the UAE as the would-be hosts were unable to secure Government permission to allow Pakistan to play on their turf.

The two teams have not played a test series since 2007 and now only meet on neutral territory due to tensions that often simmer. Wednesday's fixture will be laced with greater significance as it coincides with a visit to Abu Dhabi by Imran Khan, Pakistan's new prime minister. Mr Khan is widely recognised as one of the finest cricketers to ever play the game and led his country to a Cricket World Cup triumph against the odds in 1992.

The animosity between the two countries runs far deeper than a sporting rivalry, however, dating back to the violence that marked the partition of British India and the formation of India and Pakistan in 1947.

The Kashmir issue and insurgency has compounded the divisions.

The rivalry between the two nations has reached such levels that the Indian government issued a decree banning its cricket players from Pakistan for safety reasons.

Usman Khan of Pakistan takes the wicket of Tanwir Afzal during Pakistan's emphatic win over Hong Kong. Chris Whiteoak / The National
Usman Khan of Pakistan takes the wicket of Tanwir Afzal during Pakistan's emphatic win over Hong Kong. Chris Whiteoak / The National

India has refused to play series against Pakistan since 2008 but, because the teams have been drawn against each other in an official International Cricket Council (ICC) event, they will lock horns in Dubai.

The teams subsequently played each other in both the 2011 and 2015 Cricket World Cup competitions and Pakistan picked up an historic victory over their bitter rivals in the final of the ICC Trophy in England last year.

Fans can't wait for the next thrilling chapter of this fierce sporting contest.

Aiken Geovic Fonseca, 25, is an Indian cricket fan living in Abu Dhabi, and the big game cannot come quickly enough for him.

“This game means everything to us,” he said.

“This is a long-standing rivalry that has been there for years but I have no doubt that it will be played out in the true spirit of sportsmanship.”

Mr Fonseca said that while Wednesday’s match is a cricket game, the true importance of it lies much deeper.

“This is more than just a rivalry on the pitch.

“It goes back to when we were one and the same country. It is good to know that we are mature enough to leave the rivalry on the pitch these days though.”

He said the fact that the game is going to be hosted by Dubai makes it all the more special for the Indian expat community in the UAE.

“Being born here and being brought up here means there is even more intensity for this game for a lot of us.”

It will not be the first time that Mr Fonseca has watched India and Pakistan do battle on the cricket pitch.

“The last time I attended a game, there was a lot of hostility between the rival supporters of the two countries,” he said.

“There is a lot of good-natured singing and sledging aimed at the Pakistan fans who do the same to us.”

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Read more:

India v Pakistan in UAE - By the numbers

Explainer: India v Pakistan – all you need to know about the Asia Cup clash in Dubai

Asia Cup 2018 lowdown: teams, venues and everything else you need to know about the tournament in Dubai and Abu Dhabi

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Anuj Vankiani, 26, is another Indian cricket supporter living in Abu Dhabi.

For him, this match is as serious as rivalry gets.

“This is the only chance that India and Pakistan get to play against each other,” he said.

“Neither country is allowed to tour the other so this really is as good as it gets in terms of rivalry.”

He feels that the rivalry between the countries is good-natured but, once the game starts, that all goes out of the window.

“Yes we bleed the same blood but this is a game that nobody wants to lose.”

The fact that the countries seldom meet would make the taste of defeat all the more difficult to bear.

“If you are from India you will have friends from Pakistan and it works the same the other way round too,” he said.

Fakhar Zaman will be hoping to lead Pakistan to victory against India on Wednesday. Chris Whiteoak / The National
Fakhar Zaman will be hoping to lead Pakistan to victory against India on Wednesday. Chris Whiteoak / The National

“You want to be able to have the bragging rights to wind up your rivals. If you don’t then you will have to listen to it for a long time.”

The game will be extra special for Vankiani as it will be the first time he has attended an India and Pakistan match since the teams met in Sharjah, some 17 years ago.

“At the end of the day this is a sport but we are really going to pour our hearts out for our team.

“They are warriors representing our country and if you come from the subcontinent then nothing is as important as cricket. Nothing comes close.”

Pakistan’s fans are also getting behind their team ahead of Wednesday’s game.

Shahzad Ahmed, a Pakistani-Canadian IT consultant living in Abu Dhabi, is organising a barbecue for friends and family to come together and cheer on their home nation.

Mr Ahmed said there is so much passion from supporters when Pakistan and India play that it often gets emotional.

"There are always high hopes for the players and a lot of anger comes out if the players don’t perform as expected," he said.

"In UAE the crowd is mixed so irrespective of which team is winning, or performing well, there will be a lot of energy and fun for those watching in the crowd at the game."

Sheherzad Kaleem, is an American expat of Pakistani origin, who is also the head of production for the popular Urdu play Mian, Biwi Aur Wagah.

“The sense of competition is definitely more pronounced when it’s an India-Pakistan game. It becomes a battle of egos and national pride, but it’s all in good spirit," she said.

She said that, back home in Pakistan, the excitement is palpable.

“The experience isn’t limited to the stadium or TVs and takes over the entire country. Even if you’re not into cricket, you still become part of the cricket fever.”

Dubai-based supporters are also counting down the minutes to the game, which is taking place in their adopted home city.

Zubair Muhammad, a worker at Ravi Restaurant in Dubai, hopes to be jumping for joy after Wednesday's massive match. Leslie Pableo for The National 
Zubair Muhammad, a worker at Ravi Restaurant in Dubai, hopes to be jumping for joy after Wednesday's massive match. Leslie Pableo for The National 

“I cannot wait to see my country in action,” said Zubair Muhammad, 25.

“Cricket is the most important thing to the people of Pakistan and it is so important that we do not lose to India.”

Mr Muhammad said that his country’s hopes are in the hands of captain Sarfraz Ahmed and the rest of the Pakistani side.

Tayyab Saleem, 28, is another Pakistani national living in Dubai. Like the rest of his countrymen, he is anxious for the first ball to be bowled.

“Everyone I know is talking about it,” he said.

“We’re going to be there to cheer on Pakistan because it is so important to all of us.”

Nauman Ahmad, 23, who also lives in Dubai, said he does not usually follow cricket but the fact the game is against India has captured his imagination.

“I prefer soccer but if we beat India I will celebrate like crazy,” he said.

“These are my countrymen and India versus Pakistan is the biggest game in history.”