“It is virtually a home ground for us,” says Tariq Khan, a 48-year-old Diabetes specialist and UK-born resident of Birmingham, neatly summing up what the Edgbaston Cricket Ground has come to mean to Pakistani cricket fans, like himself, who reside in UK’s ‘second city’.
Khan and his Pakistan-loving peers, a passionate collective, leave no stone unturned in backing their favourite team whenever it visits Birmingham, through an extravagant show of green flags, fireworks, songs, chants, open-top bus parades – you name it.
It matters little that their arch rivals and next opponents India are, as Khan admiringly puts it, a “superpower in world cricket”. Painting Edgbaston, a prominent suburban area in central Birmingham, green is simply, he says, a way of saying “we’re always behind you”.
And they’ve had several chances to say so. Sunday’s ICC Champions Trophy clash will be Pakistan’s seventh match at the venue in the last seven years, though it is on a four-game losing streak at Edgbaston. India, with its own share of massive support in the city and from all over the UK, will also be playing its sixth game at Edgbaston over the same period.
For cricket’s greatest rivalry, devoid of a proper home for several years now with the fixture serving as a political and diplomatic tool, Birmingham is virtually a ‘homecoming’ – an Indo-Pak home away from home. A happy, almost fantastical, place of spirited co-existence.
“It’s considered a huge game here,” says 60-year-old retailer Bharat Amin, a resident of the second city since 1979, who was born in Africa and educated in India. “It is even bigger than an England versus Australia match.”
A look at Birmingham’s demographic diversity explains why. According to UK’s 2011 Census Data, nearly one-fifth of the population – which contains a wide range of national, ethnic and religious groups – is either of Pakistani ethnicity (13.5%) or of Indian origin (6%). In absolute terms, these figures combine for a total well in excess of 200,000 Indo-Pak people.
Birmingham’s true identity lies in acknowledging, embracing, celebrating and taking pride in its own ethnic and cultural diversity. As a multi-cultural city, it allows, even encourages, a freedom of expression and religion that might be frowned upon elsewhere.
“Whenever Pakistan has played here in the last couple of years, we’ve hired a green open-top bus,” Khan explains, citing a match-day ritual. “We’ve flaunted huge flags, shouted our support in full voice and followed the team’s official coach all the way from the hotel to the ground. We then circled the ground a few times and chanted ‘Pakistan Zindabad’”.
There aren’t many places on an increasingly divisive planet which allow you such liberty. “I’ve never seen an Indian bus,” he cheekily adds. Khan is expecting a phone call on Sunday to invite him on the bus again, though sterner security measures, such as closing of streets around the stadium, in the wake of the Manchester attack may not allow for a bus parade.
Naturally, the 25000-capacity Edgbaston ground isn’t large enough. “Numbers from the initial (ticket) ballot suggested that the match could have sold out eight times over,” confirmed Paul Smith, who is Head of City Partnerships at the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB).
This was an opportunity which translated into Birmingham breaking new ground by hosting the first-ever ICC Champions Trophy Official Fan Parks – two zones, with a capacity of 8,000 spectators and free entry, screening the match while offering several fun activities to engage the fans – over three days. It’s ideal for a fan who couldn’t get his hands on a ticket.
High-profile sporting events have become central to the city’s economic expansion in recent years, one of the most exciting periods of regeneration and development for any UK city.
“Sport has played a key role in Birmingham’s 17% increase in tourists since 2010,” says Emma Gray, Director of Marketing and Communications at Visit Birmingham, the ICC’s Tourism Partner for the event. It’s the highest number for any city in UK outside of London.
Rugby’s World Cup, tennis’ Davis Cup, athletics’ Diamond League, cricket’s NatWest T20 finals and the Ashes Tests, football’s Premier League and the Championship, darts’ Premier League among other events – Birmingham has played host to a wide array of sports.
The city had welcomed the Champions Trophy four years ago as well, including hosting key fixtures such as India’s comfortable victory over Pakistan and their title-clinching triumph against hosts England. The event had made a massive impact.
“More than 100,000 sports fans visited the city for that tournament,” says Gray, “with Birmingham’s name beamed to a global audience of almost a billion people.”
It’s easy to forget that cricket, while not renowned for its inclusivity, is still second only to football as the most watched sport in the world. It brings plenty of eyeballs. In 2013, it helped that India, home to cricket’s largest fan base and viewership, had gone all the way.
Gray estimates that this year’s tournament will “bring a £25.3 million economic benefit” to the West Midlands, with Birmingham benefiting from visitors staying longer to experience the city and spending more on leisure activities – the city being a hub of jewellery and shopping and, one of its favourite selling points, having more miles of accessible canals than Venice.
Champions Trophy 2017 will raise Birmingham’s profile even further, not just as a tourist spot but also as an area of interest for investment by businesses – which is in line with the second city’s aggressive quest to leave Manchester, its closest economic competitor, behind while gradually closing the gap to London, UK’s global behemoth.
In all of this, the city’s South Asian population will play a vital role – city administrators firmly recognise this – and thus an Indo-Pak tie gains importance beyond just its economic impact.
Two weeks ago, Edgbaston hosted a one-of-a-kind ‘Edgbaston Fans Trophy’, a series of cricket games between supporters of both teams. Khan was part of the Pakistani contingent.
“It was a remarkable initiative,” he says. “Edgbaston welcomes diversity and real passion for the game. It was a great day out to play with my Indian brothers.” (For information sake: after splitting a win each, Indian fans won in a super over – though, really, cricket was the winner.)
Year 2017 is being celebrated as ‘Utsav: The Year of South Asian Culture’ in Birmingham, to add to the city’s several annual and everyday customs. “Our city council organises Diwali functions in the Town Hall,” says Amin. “A mega mela so to speak. The festival of Baisakhi too is celebrated in a big public park.”
Khan sheds more light on Birmingham’s traditions. “The city council pays for commemorative lights on the street lamps during Eid and arrangements are always in place for the Muslim population to pray in public parks – numbers often reaching close to 20,000.”
Come Sunday, a vibrant Birmingham will light up again for the iconic clash. Both Khan and Amin acknowledge that there’s more buzz in the city this year than compared to four years ago – even if the gap in quality of the two teams is larger.
“Toss is important,” reckons Amin, who puts “75 percent” winning probability on the toss alone. “If India win the toss and bat first, we’ll win easily. Otherwise, Pakistan have a good chance.”
Khan remains a believer. “It’s the month of Ramadan,” he points out - the holy month, the month the Quran, holy book of Islam, was first revealed to the prophet Muhammad by Allah.
“A month of miracle,” he says.
“We will need one on Sunday.”