The four-year-old girl, Ahana Bagul was screaming her lungs out. “Mithaliii Raaaj! I want a selfie with you!”
This was before the match even started, and the toss a good half hour away. There were already close to a thousand people at the Derbyshire County Cricket Ground, garbed in different shades of blue and green. Some carried drums, most carried flags, many were smiling, and all of them were excited. It was the biggest match of the tournament, and they were there.
By the end of the game, there were 2,649 people at Derby to watch India and Pakistan. For perspective, that is more people than when the hosts England played India last Saturday in the tournament opener. They all turned up for a game that was supposed to be a mismatch, and eventually was, after some “anxious moments” in Mithali Raj’s words. Pakistan restricted India to a sub-par 169, though India had little trouble defending it. There were some ‘anxious moments’ off the pitch too.
Derbyshire County Cricket Ground has picketed stands just outside both dressing rooms. In the middle is a wide area through which the players walk through on to the pitch. Just before the start of the game, the two teams lined up in this area, waiting to be called out on to the ground for the national anthems.
As they stood there, the fans lined up along the picket fences on each side, in throngs five bodies thick. From one side came cries of “Jeetega bhai jeetega, India jeetega”, and on the other, Pakistan zindabad. One side sang ‘Morya re, bappa moray re’. The other, ‘Dil, dil, Pakistan.’ And between these two strident sections, stood the 30 players, not quite sure how to react.
Deepti Sharma looked nervous, and she seemed to be trying hard to look dead ahead, and not pay attention to the chanting. Harmanpreet Kaur was more relaxed, signing autographs while she waited. Mithali Raj said later that she enjoyed the atmosphere, although she also said “the player’s arena should be off limit for the crowd, especially for people coming to India-Pakistan games.” The moment got so charged, that the security supervisor had to ask –which means tell— both sides to calm down.
They calmed down a bit when the anthems began. Meanwhile , Ahana was still looking for her selfie. Her father, Nitin Bagul drove the 200 odd kilometers from London for this game, with his wife and Ahana’s elder brother Adit. Nitin had been to men’s cricket games before, but never with his family. “Normally I don’t take her for men’s games”, he said of his daughter. “We don’t get family enclosure tickets.” Nitin had seen women’s games in the UK before, but for Adit, this was a first taste of live women’s cricket. Should his sister decide to play cricket, Adit will grow up thinking it to be completely normal.
A couple of rows behind is a curious Sikh couple. The gentlemen, easily over 70 years of age, holds an Indian flag, and his wife, a Pakistani one. “Her parents were born in Pakistan”, Harbaldev Singh says of his wife Barinder Kaur. Despite their age and the 50 plus years they have lived in England, this is only their first cricket match. “I don’t come for men’s game because they always fight” he said. “In the women’s game, the girls are like my daughters.”
They are not here alone though, their daughters and granddaughters are with them as well. Two of them wear India shirts, and one wears a Pakistani one. And they sit together and cheer for both sides.
On the other side of the picket fences, is Asma Mirza. She has not travelled far to come to the game, because she hails from Derby itself, but she has waited long. It is her first cricket match since watching Pakistan win the World Cup in 1992. “I was a kid then”, she says. “So I don’t remember much but all I remember is I had a good time.” Pakistan’s win in the Champions Trophy brought her back to a cricket match after 25 years, along with her large family. “We looked on the website, and we found this. We felt excited and thought that we should come out and give support. This is our city,” she adds.
In the most widely broadcast World Cup ever, Ratandeep Kaur’s story is not surprising. Her husband Karthik Ramanujan is an avid male cricket fan, but it is the women’s game that brought her to a stadium.
“We were watching India and England women play on TV, and I found their game pretty impressive”, she said. “When they were playing England, it looked like good cricket. Then I wanted to watch an India game. And we found tickets for India-Pakistan.”
She is among the many people who have been touched by this World Cup through their televisions. “If that England match had not been on TV, I would have not have come here”, she said. “It’s difficult for you to develop a fan following if people don’t see you.”
The second half of the match saw the arrival of what could be called ‘professional fans’. Carrying flags of the Bharat Army, they were dressed for the occasion, with tricolor pagdis, clothed in Indian hues, and drums, which they used while chanting, “Jeetega bhai jeetega, India jeetega”. But their festivities were one-sided. More endearing, were the impromptu dances that broke out in the stands with fans on both sides participating. It was a sight worth watching, although it invited the presence of a nervous security cordon.
But the worry was needless. Dr. Talha Ahmed, one of the most vociferous Pakistan supporters, explained it best. “We want to enjoy the atmosphere, and support our own Pakistani supporters, who have come all the way. (But)Despite the rivalry, it has to be a friendly gesture at the end.”
Snehal Pradhan is a former India cricketer, and now a freelance journalist. She hosts the series ‘Cricket How To’ on Youtube, and tweets @SnehalPradhan