Thursday, March 31, 2011

I watched the match with 200 Indians.

In the lead up to what undoubtedly is the most important cricket match I have witnessed in my life I read probably over 100 articles about the epic India-Pakistan semi-final. Many of them were fascinating to read, including an article from the Times of India about the Punjabi connection this match was facilitating. However, there was one in particular I disagreed with; the ‘Dil Bolay Boom Boom’ article. To sum up, basically the Pakistani writer here says she just simply can’t watch an India cricket game with her dear Indian friend. No two nations in the world love cricket more than India and Pakistan, and fans of these two countries should be able to watch games together. I, therefore, was all too happy to confirm my involvement in a joint screening of the cricket match on campus.

So come the day, finally, and my guess that not too many fair weather fans would show up at 4 am was way off. The Michigan Cricket Association did a brilliant job organizing the screening of the match on campus, and an hour before the match started the crowd started to trickle in. By the time of the toss there was a good 150 odd people in a room not built for more than 70, but what good would a India-Pakistan game be if we weren’t packed like a can of sardines. The noise level was incredible, with the Indians accounting for a good chunk of that. In our crowd which eventually grew close to 300, Indians outnumbered Pakistanis by, I’d say, at least 4:1. That didn’t deter us one bit, we were being heard as well. No one had a hope in hell of hearing the toss, our crowd was just too raucous.

With such a momentous occasion it was hard not to be a bit nervous about things perhaps going south with some of the animosity that can naturally exist between the two nations. However, MCA did a brilliant job of making sure everyone was able to watch the game in the right spirit. There, of course, were a few incidents that in hindsight should have been avoided but really nothing more than a blip on the radar. For the most part the atmosphere was sublime. The Indians cheered every boundary with amazing fervor, and not two overs passed with a chant for the god of batting: ‘saaccchiiinnnnn sachin!’ Of course, we did our best, amusing the Indians with our ‘tara-rere-roro-ra’ chant. The best part was that everyone was joining in, from unknown grad students who randomly stopped by to freshmen still finding their way: no one was holding back anything. I must admit I tried to stay calm but when Wahab bhai shattered the stumps of Yuvraj Singh, I was overcome with sheer elation. I beat my chest so many times and so hard I knocked my own breath out, but thankfully no one noticed in the commotion! The Pakistanis overall were a joy to watch the match with. They were all well behaved, kept their cool and showed incredible grace as our team headed towards the exit door.

The second innings was a much calmer affair. We shifted to a larger room and there was more segregation. People were also losing steam, as the all-nighters start to catch up and the voices slowly disappeared. However, they came roaring back on the Indian side when Kamran Akmal got caught at point for about the 10,000th time of his career. Hafeez’s dismissal brought more noise in anger from the Pakistanis than it did in joy for the Indians. The match was close enough that the Indians were nervous till the end, but the balance shifted with one magic ball. Bhajji came round the wicket with the newer ball after the mandatory change and Umar Akmal played all around a delivery that crashed into his off-stump. Pakistan may still have had a chance if we took that damn batting powerplay early. People may blame Afridi all they want, the real culprit in my eyes is Waqar Younis. As the coach, he is responsible for the poor tactical decisions made right throughout this tournament about the timing of the batting powerplays.

Take nothing away from the Indians. They were the better team and deserved to win on the day. Sachin may have been lucky to win the man of the match, but if anyone deserves a bit of luck, it is the batting god himself. Dhoni was spot on with all of his bowling changes, and only had to use 5 bowlers. The contest was fitting for the hype, and sets a stage fit for two legends to bow out. I don’t think Sachin is about to retire but I highly doubt he is going to be around when he is 41 although you never know, but it’s a safe bet to say this is his last World Cup. The other legend who is in my eyes equally great is of course the one and only Muttiah Muralitharan, whose spelling changes as often as Razzaq’s so forgive me if I don’t have the updated version of his spelling. Where Sachin has 99 tons, Murali has over 1300 wickets. Sachin is the leading runs scorer in both firms of the game, Murali is the leading wicket taker in both forms of the game. The difference is of course Sachin is at home while Murali already has a World Cup title. Whatever the outcome at least one great will end his stellar career right on top. I am going to watch the game as a true neutral. Sri Lanka has always been my second favorite team since the days of the magical Arivinda de Silva which is why I may lean towards them. I will not however root against India, some might and that’s fine, but I have no qualms about enjoying good Indian cricket.

But this is not about a preview of the final or a breakdown of the match. What moved me to write this article was the camaraderie between two amazing countries. Over the last four years at college, I have developed the most fantastic relationships with Indians stretching from Delhi to Bangalore and beyond. This match did not for one second jeopardize those friendships, in fact it strengthened them. When the final wicket of Misbah fell, before celebrating, Nirmit Agarwala, the president of MCA and the leading voice on the Indian side came over to the Pakistani side and congratulated and consoled each one of us. This was followed by my normal gang: Anant, Varun, Aaron, Baliga and many more. There was no taunting, no jeering, just cheering for a great victory. The experience of losing to India with 200-odd other Indians remains a shattering one, and the pain is here to stay for some time. However, as long as I have friends like these on both sides of the border, it is a pain I can live with.