COMMENT: How rancorous fans marred World Cup’s ‘must-see’ clash

Published October 16, 2023
Fans cheer for team India during the 2023 ICC Men’s Cricket World Cup ODI match between India and Pakistan at the Narendra Modi Stadium in Ahmedabad on October 14, 2023. — AFP
Fans cheer for team India during the 2023 ICC Men’s Cricket World Cup ODI match between India and Pakistan at the Narendra Modi Stadium in Ahmedabad on October 14, 2023. — AFP

WHENEVER your team loses a match, it smarts, but you get over it. When your team loses to India, however, that one really hurts. Then again, everyone knows that the India-Pakistan cricket rivalry transcends the pitch — it is a political issue, one both countries hold quite near and dear.

So when Pakistan failed to produce the goods in Ahmedabad on Saturday, collapsing in spectacular fashion from 155 for two to 191 all out, it was natural for fans to air their grievances and try to rationalise why the same team that chased down a record-breaking World Cup total in their last outing could crumble so quickly in the face of Team India.

Pakistani cricket fans are known for being a fickle lot: they can back the green shirts all the way, and then turn on the team at the drop of a hat.

But in the aftermath of the Ahmedabad clash, which was being billed as a must-see match, Pakistan fans have been more understanding of their circumstances.

With a mere handful of journalists from Pakistan only managing to reach the city on the eve of the match, there was understandably not much reportage on the issue on mainstream media.

However, footage of crowd behaviour that has emerged on social media speaks volumes of the kind of pressure Babar Azam’s men were under when they stepped out before a 100,000+ crowd at the world’s largest cricket stadium.

As was evident on TV screens, the stadium was a sea of blue, with not even an errant speck of green any­where on the horizon whenever the Pakistani fiel­ders or batsmen turned their gaze towards the crowd.

 Cricket fans cheer during the 2023 ICC Men’s Cricket World Cup ODI match between India and Pakistan at the Narendra Modi Stadium in Ahmedabad on October 14, 2023. — AFP
Cricket fans cheer during the 2023 ICC Men’s Cricket World Cup ODI match between India and Pakistan at the Narendra Modi Stadium in Ahmedabad on October 14, 2023. — AFP

This was bound to happen, as Pakistani fans did not get visas to travel to India for the big game, giving the team in blue a home-field advantage unlike any other.

In the post-match presser, Pakistan team’s Director Mickey Arthur hinted the lack of support was a factor in the fledgling performance. But what he didn’t — or couldn’t say — was what the players exp­e­rienced on the pitch and on their way to dressing rooms.

For example, a widely circulated video shows Indian fans aggressively chanting ‘Jai Shri Ram’ in Mohammad Rizwan’s face as he walked back to the pavilion, with just a tunnel and metal mesh separating the departing cricketer from the charged crowd.

In another clip, chants of ‘naam mitao Babar ka,’ or ‘erase Babar’s name’ ring out from a stand. That is not all, and it gets worse. The more unsavoury chants, which rung out in stands full of families and children, are too obscene to reproduce.

In addition, TV cameras often caught moments when paper planes were launched onto the field, some even landing inside the fielding circle. While it isn’t clear if they carried any messages or not, if this had happened anywhere else, the MCC may have said that it’s simply ‘not cricket’.

The ‘unsportsmanlike’ conduct was also pointed out by some conscientious Indian fans. Tamil Nadu’s sports minister, Udhayanidhi Stalin, raised the issue in a post on X, saying: “India is renowned for its sportsmanship and hospitality. However, the treatment meted out to Pakistan players at Narendra Modi Stadium in Ahmedabad is unacceptable and a new low.”

In his article, ESPNcricinfo’s editor-in-chief Sambit Bal also pointed out the glaring lopsidedness of the crowd. “I have watched India and Pakistan play in Lahore, Bengaluru, Adelaide, Centurion, Johan­nesburg, and now Ahmedabad, and never has a cricket ground felt so hopelessly lacking in something so essential: one group of fans,” wrote Mr Bal.

He said the showpiece event would “continue to feel like a travesty, and an act of neglect” if organisers failed to ensure the participation of fans from other countries.

While being in absolute majority, and with no Pakistani fans to counter them, some Indian spectators made no efforts to conceal their derision for the Pakistani players.

One fan who was in the C block of Narendra Modi stadium on Saturday recounted how Hassan Ali was taunted and ‘bullied’, with abuses and paper planes being hurled at him.

Hooting and chanting is nothing new for sportsmen who compete at the international level. Be it football (which perhaps has the rowdiest fans), cricket or baseball and rugby, chants, boos and hoots are par for the course.

But India versus Pakistan is more charged and high-stakes than the average football club rivalry.

In addition, the religiously motivated chanting is in bad taste. Only recently, football leagues have had to take action after a crowd hurled racist abuse at footballers of colour, including England star Marcus Rashford.

If racially or religiously motivated heckling is not allowed for a rough and tough sport like football, how can it be considered kosher in the so-called ‘Gentlemen’s Game’?

Published in Dawn, October 16th, 2023

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