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First-person reports from the stands
An India-Pakistan game is a rarity these days. With bilateral series between the two sides scrapped for the last few years, and given India's dismal World Cup performances, the clash in Dambulla was special in its own right. I decided to fly down with friends from Mumbai to watch the game, and after two flights and a four-hour drive from Colombo along the scenic highways of Sri Lanka, a lot was expected from the already over-hyped clash.
As an Indian fan since the mid-90s, I was secretly (and vehemently) hoping it would be a crushing India victory, but my prediction to the outside world was that it was going to be a Pakistan win. Dressed in India colours and armed with a huge Indian flag, I was ready to enjoy possibly the biggest moment of my cricket-watching career.
The day started with interviews. I was among the few fans who had flown down from India. News channels hounded us for sound-bytes and we felt like celebrities just for turning up!
We arrived early as we always do in India, to find the stadium empty, and the atmosphere certainly didn't look like an India-Pakistan game was about to commence. We met a family from Karachi who had decided to spend a day of their vacation watching cricket. We took pictures with them, holding the India and Pakistan flags next to each other, lamented how our teams let us down on the big occasions, and how the other's team was likely to win while secretly wishing for victory for ours.
As the game started, the crowd began to build up. There seemed to be huge India support in the grandstand but there were Pakistan flags all around the ground, with the locals also supporting them.
Shoaib Malik, playing against India for the first time since his wedding to Indian tennis star Sania Mirza, was greeted to the crease with chants of "jija-ji" (brother-in-law). Afridi was a crowd favourite. Spectators went wild whenever he stepped out onto the field or was shown on the big screen. His straight six off Harbhajan was one of the best in the Pakistan innings, and the Indian contingent heaved a huge sigh of relief when he was dismissed just before Pakistan's batting Powerplay.
One thing I'd change
The Rangiri Dambulla stadium is one of the best grounds I have ever been to. The facilities are great and you get a complete view of the ground, the mountains and the lake beyond from the third floor of grandstand, where I was seated. Even at the hottest point in the afternoon, a gentle breeze was blowing across the stadium, and it was the perfect environment in which to spend eight hours watching cricket. But the food was disappointing. There was little choice and the vegetarians in the crowd remained mostly hungry for the duration of the game.
When the band played the South Indian hit song "Podu Podu", the crowd danced so wildly that it seemed like the cricket had ceased to matter for those few minutes.
The Indian innings started in a sedate fashion and Shoaib Akhtar was targeted by the crowd for special treatment. With his run-up starting well beyond the 30-yard circle, the crowd asked him if he was all right, whether he needed glucose to continue, and suggested he shorten his run-up or take a break after each over. The heckling got bolder and louder in the latter part of the innings, when he started leaking runs, and Shoaib was visibly affected by the incessant remarks.
The brass band moved up to our section during the chase and the next few hours felt like an Indian wedding. Non-stop music, loud drums and dancing in the aisles are a part of cricket matches these days. But I have to admit that while the band was splendid, the DJs at IPL matches have spoiled us. It would have been nice to have one of them at the ground.
As things got tense towards the end of the India innings, tempers began to rise. The chanting assumed a fever pitch and supporters egged each other on to scream louder than the other team's fans.
Shot of the day
Harbhajan's six off Shoaib in the 47th over indicated he was not going to let this one slip away. While much will be said about his six to win the game, this shot told the Indian fans that victory was going to be theirs.
Marks out of 10
10. The last over of the match was a thriller. Suresh Raina was run out off the second ball. With three needed off two balls, the crack of Harbhajan's bat echoed through Dambulla. An old man, around 65 or 70, holding an Indian flag, danced like a child, with a blissful smile across his face. I don't think I'll ever forget that.
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