ICC Cricket World Cup 2011 / Features
India v Pakistan, semi-final, World Cup 2011, Mohali
Every fan an actor on the biggest stage
Nagraj Gollapudi sat in the stands along with Wahab Riaz's family and thousands of Indian and Pakistani fans. The journalist inside him found it difficult to remain neutral in the charged-up atmosphere
Nagraj Gollapudi at the PCA Stadium
March 30, 2011
I asked Annie, sister of Wahab Riaz, why she and the rest of the family were not sitting in the VIP enclosures granted to the players' near and dear ones. Annie, shaking her head, said they wanted to feel the emotions of the people and immerse themselves into the big occasion that was an India versus Pakistan match. She said there was no way she and her family would sit anywhere else than with the crowd. It is a unique experience. Only few events in team sport - probably 'The Old Firm' (Rangers v Celtic) - attract such fervour where the political tensions and the fractured history between two neighbours stoke up the fires when they meet on the field of play. "We wanted to sit in the crowds to experience the atmosphere," Annie said.
And it was some atmosphere. The journalist inside me found it hard to stay neutral, to sit on my seat and not stand up and dance, to be part of the Mexican wave, to chant slogans, cheer, jeer, dance, clap. It was impossible to sit and stay quiet. Even if I tried to, the fans around me would shout, stare, whistle, scream in my ears and make sure I was distracted. It was hard being a neutral when the rest around me were gunning for Pakistan's downfall.
At 2 pm, when Shahid Afridi called the toss wrong the crowd came up with a spirited cheer. When Sachin Tendulkar walked out in the company of Virender Sehwag to open the Indian innings it grew a few more notches. When Sehwag slapped Umar Gul for a powerful cover drive the noise reached a crescendo. Mohali was rocking and Lahore, supposedly closer to Chandigarh than New Delhi is, could have heard the noise. Back in Mohali, Afridi had swung his hands like the pendulum in the old wall clock before pacing a few steps up and down the pitch while MS Dhoni told Ravi Shastri that there was no pressure playing in front of a full house at home. Afridi said the semi-final was his biggest match as captain.
"Is it a big game", I asked a couple of Pakistani fans. One of them, holding aloft the Pakistan flag, simply said "we just want to enjoy." Minutes later an Indian gentleman walked up to the same fan, and politely shook hands and exchanged courtesies. "All the best brother," the Indian man said very formally. When the time came for the team's national anthems, every Indian stood up and sang proudly. According to Sharda Ugra, ESPNcricinfo's senior editor, who has seen every India match this World Cup, this was the first time the whole stadium was singing the national anthem so loudly. The captains, who need to behave as ambassadors for their countries, can be diplomatic but the fan is always stirred by the rivalry, which is registered in his subconscious. And he uses events like today to make sure he is heard. In a bizarre way it does instill belief in the players.
Today when India seemed to have floundered after getting off to a bright start and seemed to be losing the plot once Dhoni played a wrong shot, the fans sitting around me started singing religious chants intensely. Men, women, boys, girls all gathered force to give momentum to the prayer. In that moment, these people seemed less like cricket fans and more like belonging to some cult. It was not blind, this fervour. The fans do believe that they can uplift the tempo of the match and they would do anything possible to help their team. A good example was when superstitions took over instinctively when the Pakistan wickets failed to fall at the desired rate. Many clairvoyant fans kept predicting the outcome on the next delivery and kept failing but did not give up. "Sit down, sit down, wickets are falling," said a fan speaking with a South Indian accent. The rest of the fans obliged. Everyone urged others to join the wave of emotion and support. It was contagious.
A group of Indian teenage girls squeaked "Jitega bhai jitega Pakistan jitega (Pakistan will win)." As soon as they started chanting in support of Pakistan, the Indians around them rolled their eyes. But the girls had not yet delivered the punch line. "India ne joke mara. Ha ha ha (India played a joke)," the girls chuckled their way and drew a good clap. The Pakistani fan corner was not quiet either. When the Indian middle order lost its way after the fall of Gautam Gambhir, Virat Kohli and Yuvraj Singh the Pakistanis unveiled a banner that read: "Munnis & Sheelas are back in the pavilion," after two famous Bollywood numbers. There was a lot of eye-balling from the Indians of the miniscule Pakistan fans' contingent, which was like a drop to the ocean of the Indian tri-colour. Most of the Pakistan fans were either top functionaries in the PCB or in a corporate sponsor of the Pakistan board. They were not used to listening to people but today they were heckled.
Riaz, who bowled spectacularly to pick his maiden ODI five-for, returned from the field briefly during the change of innings carrying a few bottles of water meant for his family sitting in the stands. Seven members of his family including his parents, sister, younger brother and a niece had travelled by road to reach Chandigarh close to midnight on Tuesday. Annie, trying hard to keep her daughter in check in the crowded stands, said that her brother, before leaving for the World Cup, had said that the one thing he would like to do if Pakistan met India was to erase the bad memories of the only time he had played them in the past. Few years ago in Dhaka, in a tri-series, Riaz was belted for 86 off 9.2 overs before being removed midway into his final over after he bowled consecutive beamers. "He just said that he was not under any pressure at all and would do his best," Annie said.
Everybody wanted to be a hero. "Chak de India (Go India)", a middle-aged, rotund Pakistan fan, who had been waving his flag and dancing all day, screamed looking in the direction of the Indian fans. Instantly he drew big cheers. A fan recorded himself for posterity, citing that he was part of "such a high voltage match. It is a crazy atmosphere," he screamed into the phone as he pirouetted on one leg to catch a 360 degree angle of the stadium. On days like these every fan becomes an actor. The cricket arena becomes a world stage.
Outside in the streets after India's victory fans blew horns, sat atop roofs and bonnets of their four-wheelers screaming "Indiaaaa, Indiaaaa". Fireworks lit up the sky as groups of people gathered around various town squares to dance to the popular bhangra music. An ice-cream vendor even gave a discount of five rupees.
Yet in the end one image remained. A five-year-old toddler sat in the front row to my right. Throughout the match he had stayed quiet. A cute face, he only smiled whenever there was a wicket or a four. Each time either of the two contestants scored a point over the other, this kid would raise the flag of that country. For him, both teams were the winners.
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