When India-Pakistan Anthems Played On Ahmedabad Cricket Pitch And The Game Showed The Way

Senior Indian journalist Jyoti Malhotra recalls the experience of watching Pakistan play against India in the Narendra Modi Stadium in Ahmedabad with some 120,000 fans

When India-Pakistan Anthems Played On Ahmedabad Cricket Pitch And The Game Showed The Way

The journey to watch the India-Pakistan match at the Narendra Modi stadium in Ahmedabad this weekend began with conversations with an elderly auto-driver and a young taxi-driver taking me to Motera, who complained about the unique brain-freeze (“magaz-maari”) that comes upon the city when there’s anything to do with Pakistan.

On the one hand, both said, things were absolutely fine between the Hindu-Muslim communities and that even if Pakistan won, it would be totally okay. No Hindu-Muslim problems in Ahmedabad at all. We go to each other’s houses, we eat and drink together, our children play together…

On the other hand, the elderly auto-driver added, Hukam ka ikka hai, this Hindu-Muslim sentiment. He turned back to his driving, muttering “magaz-maari” every few seconds. (Turned out, his wife had left him.)

The ace of spades. Hukam ka ikka. You pull it out only when you absolutely need to.

As for whether there might be trouble if the Pakistan team won, both men said, Absolutely Not. The Pakistani players are fully secure; there will be absolutely no trouble; remember that the BJP government has a reputation to keep. This is Prime Minister Modi’s city. And the world is watching.

They were right. There was absolutely no trouble at all. Pakistan fought for a while, then gamely caved in. India’s bowlers stole the show. Virat Kohli tried his hand at playing tennis and got out soon after. Rohit Sharma stabilized the game. Shreyas Iyer did the rest. We know all this by now.

What was so unusual was the 100,000-plus crowd exiting the stadium after the match, a mass of people so tightly packed that there was only enough room to inhale and exhale, slowly walking to the gates, no touching, no groping, only seeing the blue jersey backs of the man or woman in front, on the sides and behind you, a woman’s body her own, just her and her handbag slung across her shoulder and chest, no whistling, no sexually loaded comments, just a mass of people very aware that one unnecessary move could cause a stampede, and so we all walked, our shoulders straightened, almost free, not crouching inwards like we do anywhere in north India.

I asked a woman walking next to me, why, why Gujarati men had learnt to keep their hands to themselves and did not believe in the violation of someone’s else’s physical privacy. “They’ve spent their passions inside,” she said, gesturing towards the Narendra Modi stadium we had just left behind.

Those passions had been on full-throated display for the previous six hours. The mass of people had stood when the flags of both nations were brought into the field and unfurled horizontally, the crescent moon just about nudging the tricolour, just like friends preparing for a gossip session. And then the two anthems rose and fell, their melodies both yearning and inspiring, unveiling the possibility of what could still be.

The Pakistanis began well. There was polite clapping from the crowd when the first cover boundary was clocked. A lot of the stands were empty, although online booking agencies had declared them “full” a while ago. And then, when Imam-ul Haq was caught behind the wicket, and Rizwan walked in to face the first ball, the crowd erupted in a frenzy.

Have you ever heard a stadium roar? It happens suddenly, in the flash of a lightning second, a disembodied growl that begins in the bowels of the concrete building you are sitting in, then escaping and turning into a massive explosion of sound. You look around you, stunned. Who are these god-fearing people making this incredible noise, the outstretched fingers pointing at the field, accusingly?

Has this respectable citizenry, each of whom have paid Rs 10,000 to sit in my section of the stand that affords you a spectacular view that is in line with the wicket, turned into an aroused rabble? Elsewhere, ticket sales and resales had cost much more.

But Rizwan takes the first ball calmly, and the crowd settles. When Babar Azam hits a four in the 17th over that eludes the best Indian fielders, people clap with some enthusiasm. And then, in the 25th over, there’s a close call, and the umpire refuses to give the Pakistani captain “out” on a leg-before-wicket appeal.

It’s not enough that the Indian boys clamour for a change of mind. They are backed by the unanimously angry sound that emanates from the mouths of 100,000 or so people. Booooooooo. Have you ever heard a stadium “boo”?

Bowler Jadeja tempts Rizwan in the 26th over, but he won’t be drawn out from the refuge of his crease. “Bhaag, bhaag, bhaag,” shouts a man sitting behind me in Hindi, his lip curling in rage. Run, run, run. Could this become ugly?

And then, in the 25th over, the first “wave” explodes – you’ve seen them often enough on TV, especially in the football World Cup matches, but friends say Amdavadis, the people of this city, are past masters at it. The “wave,” consisting of an ocean of outstretched hands, moves across the stadium fast, round and round a few times. It’s an expression of unadulterated joy, glee and mastery over the moment.

You wonder: Who started the “wave,” who lit the fire?

Then Mohammed Sirajuddin shows up and bowls Babar Azam out just as he’s crossed a personal 50 runs. Perhaps you could hear the roar in Delhi. Home Minister Amit Shah is already in the house – his son, Jay Shah, also secretary-general of the Board of Cricket Control in India, has been there presumably from the start – presumably representing the PM and his council of ministers. 

Meanwhile, Virat Kohli, who has been placed near the boundary to protect the Pakistanis from breaching that “lakshman rekha”, seems to have his own, personal fan club, which cheers him lustily just for standing there.

Ganpati Bappa Morya! As Babar Azam begins his lonely walk down the long stretch of green towards the Pakistani tent as he's given "out", the chant of Ganesh, the god of all beginnings, a god especially favoured in Gujarat and Maharashtra, is now invoked to celebrate the moment. Both vindication and victory must be around the corner.

Bowler after bowler then proceeds to decimate the Pakistani lineup. In retrospect, we know that this is when the match turned – when Mohammed Siraj, Jasprit Bumrah and Kuldeep Yadav decided to alternatively feint and invade into the opposition. A break, some more entertainment on the field and then it is time for the Indian batters to strut their stuff.

The remarkable thing about Saturday's game was that when something happened to the Indian team, like when Shubham Gill got out, you didn’t really figure out until he began to walk or unless you were watching hard. It was like a small drop of pure silence in the crowd. No collective expression of grief – no elongated “ah”, for example – just a momentary shutdown. 

Or when Virat Kohli was caught, minutes after the stadium had erupted in joy when he lobbed an oh-so-casual sixer, all that happened to the stadium’s stop-watch was that it stopped for one, large, massive second. And then it was over. Time to return to celebrating Shreyas Iyer, who came in, in his stead.

This stadium seemed sworn to fiercely protect its boys, like a mother of her child. Pakistan had to be beaten at all costs. “This is not cricket; this is war,” an Ahmedabad techie told me, minutes before he put the phone video on to show his wife how the Indians were pasting Pakistan.

Why, I asked. The legacy of Partition (“when India became independent, they didn’t want to remain with India, they wanted to be separate,” one young boy said), three wars, Kargil, Mumbai, Jammu and Kashmir, terrorism, several replied in answer. They didn't say if there was more.

By now, the official public address system was being used to echo the crowds. “Jeetega, bhai jeetega, India jeetega” (India will win, India will win).

And then when the last ball was bowled and India had convincingly won, the roar of victory gave way organically to the singing of A R Rehman’s “ma tujhe salam.” A collective catharsis had just taken place. 

As everyone walked quietly to the gates, the thought surfaced: Perhaps, now, the Indian and Pakistani teams can move on to play some real cricket in the ongoing World Cup.

Note: The article has been reproduced from Awaaz South Asia and the original can be viewed here.