'At the India-Pakistan clash, the behind-closed-doors start of the 2021 season felt miles away'
ESPNcricinfo's (off-duty) correspondent from England recounts watching Pakistan ace the chase on a heady Sunday night in Dubai
"If you don't want it on I can turn it down," Muhammad, my Uber driver, says as we pull away from Sharjah. India have lost three wickets in the Powerplay and he's listening to a broadcast on the radio which flickers between English and Urdu.
I tell him not to worry, I want to listen too. I check who he's supporting. "Pakistan, of course," he confirms. "It's very hard for me to work tonight because I'm not in the stadium."
I've spent the first half of Super Sunday - Subcontinent Sunday - watching Bangladesh vs Sri Lanka but by this time, there's only one game on anyone's mind. My colleague is covering India vs Pakistan so I don't have accreditation to get in but there's a ticket waiting for me in the top drawer of the front desk at ICC Academy thanks to a sheer fluke from a contact. (Alex, thank you.)
But there's one problem: I was covering the afternoon game and Bangladesh's loose bowling has rendered my 750 words on Mushfiqur Rahim's innings futile. That means every sports journalist's worst nightmare: a re-write, not only with the pressure of a deadline but in the knowledge that 30 miles up the road, Shaheen Shah Afridi had the new ball in his hand and my seat was empty.
Muhammad and I listened as Virat Kohli and Rishabh Pant led India's rebuild - a five-minute ad break means we miss Pant's consecutive sixes off Hasan Ali - and I'm glued to ESPNcricinfo's ball-by-ball commentary in the back seat. I get hold of my ticket, no questions asked, and walk past hundreds of fans outside desperately trying to experience the action without one, with 20 or more huddled around a single iPhone streaming the game. After handing over my backpack - containing my laptop, accreditation and all my worldly possession - to a man in a porta cabin for safekeeping, I'm in.
The first things I notice are the colours and the noise. I was in the press box, up in the gods, during England's thrashing of West Indies the previous night when the stands were largely empty; despite the best efforts of the DJs and Adil Rashid, for the most part it felt flat. Not tonight: it seems as though every fan is wearing either blue or green and nobody is risking the rest of the stand not knowing about it. My 2021 season started with a behind-closed-doors County Championship match at Lord's - this feels, quite literally, thousands of miles away.
It is hard to gauge the split between India and Pakistan fans in Block 141 because everything that happens in the first over of the chase draws a huge cheer. Bhuvaneshwar Kumar nips the first ball away from Mohammad Rizwan's outside edge: celebration. Varun Chakravarthy runs round to make a sprawling boundary stop: celebration. Confirmation on the big screen that Varun's left hand was touching the rope after all: celebration.
While there are disadvantages to my angle at extra cover or backward square leg in the second row of the lower tier - compared to the view from most press boxes, behind the bowler's arm - there are reminders about players' skill and athleticism: Suryakumar Yadav races 20 metres to his left to cut off a boundary in the sort of stop that has become so routine it scarcely warrants a mention, but his acceleration and dedication are remarkable; Rizwan's power as he lashes at Mohammed Shami's slower ball is unthinkable for such a diminutive man; Jasprit Bumrah's action remains hypnotising.
And gradually, it becomes apparent exactly what is going to happen. Babar Azam and Rizwan start slowly, as they tend to, but when Babar swings Ravindra Jadeja over midwicket, slashes at Varun and thumps Bumrah's half-volley over extra cover, the rate is in control and the dew is setting in. Varun disappears for two sixes in an over and each run is being cheered louder and louder, each "Zindabad!" chanted with more conviction.
Perhaps the abiding memory will be of a moment in Shami's final over, the 18th. His first ball slips out as a full toss and is dispatched for six, but when he is running in to bowl, Rizwan pulls away. There are people moving behind the big screen. As it turns out, they are India fans looking for the nearest exit to beat the traffic home.
As Babar scampers home for the winning second run, I get my phone out to capture the moment. Fans in replica shirts are jumping up and down in celebration beside themselves at the win. One man in his fifties, dressed in a kameez shalwar, is video calling his family or friends, and takes a deep breath of relief, soaking in what Pakistan have achieved.
The man in the row behind me, wearing an India shirt from the mid-2010s, taps me on the shoulder. "They're only celebrating like this because they're not used to beating us," he says with a wry smile. He's right, of course, but who would begrudge them?
Matt Roller is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @mroller98