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How the girls got to Mohali

Published Apr 15, 2011 01:43pm

Virender Sehwag was smashing our best fast bowler around for fun, but nothing could put a damper on our excitement. We made it to Mohali!  —Photo courtesy Sana Kazmi
"Virender Sehwag was smashing our best fast bowler around for fun, but nothing could put a damper on our excitement. We made it to Mohali!"  —Photo courtesy Sana Kazmi

I don’t know if it was the ease with which Pakistan put away the West Indies in the quarter-final or the prospect of watching them end another unbeaten World Cup run – India’s then 4-0 record against Pakistan, ugh – but that Pakistan Day, I began to dream.

I had read earlier that day that the International Cricket Council (ICC) had promised to expedite the visa process for Pakistan fans. After we won, I called my best friend and partner-in-cricket-obsession and told her we had to go. If India lost their quarter-final to Australia a billion tickets would suddenly become available, and if they won, well, then we would be going to TGME (the greatest match ever). I’m not sure whether her response was more ‘are-you-crazy? Bewilderment’ or ‘OMG-let’s-do-this excitement.’

We had no idea where to start, but that was probably a good thing because we didn’t realize how hopeless our cause was until it was too late to give up.

Inspired by Ashley Kerekes making it to the Ashes thanks to a viral twitter campaign, we started a #getthegirlstomohali hash-tag on twitter asking for ticket and visa information, and secretly hoping for ridiculous favours. We had five days to get visas, find match tickets and get on a plane or a train or a taxi to Mohali. How hard could that be?

Pretty much all the information I got on how to make this cricket pilgrimage happen – from the link to the right visa form to where in Islamabad I could find a printer at 5AM – came from twitter:

-The Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) has a visa-hotel-match-ticket package for $500 but you have to know one of their big-shots. - The Indian embassy is issuing visas along with tickets if you have a contact in the High Commission (they didn’t pick up their phone from 10:30 AM to 3PM). - If you have a visa, getting a couple of match tickets is going to be a breeze. - Actually, you need a ticket to apply for a visa. There must be some tickets reserved for Pakistan fans. - Even some of the journalists covering the event don’t have visas yet, applying at this point is hopeless. - Just apply ASAP, I think you’ll get it.

You get the picture.

Our first breakthrough came on Friday when the kind Ambassador Husain Haqqani messaged on twitter saying he would try and help us get a couple of tickets. Now that I had more tangible hope of getting a ticket, I got another friend on board. We thought briefly about sending-in a rushed application immediately, but were advised that the better option would be to submit in person Monday morning, two days before the match. We made plans to get to Islamabad from Karachi and Lahore to kick off operation #getthegirlstomohali for TGME.

The next step was filling out the online Indian visa application form. Saying that the experience was frustrating would be as much of an understatement as saying Test cricket will miss Mohammad Amir: there was no “Go Back” option and the form kept dying on us thanks to some aggressive timeouts.

There were non-technical challenges too. We cleared the first hurdle thanks to the generous Dileep Premachandran, who agreed to be our sponsor but we still needed a place to stay and all the hotels in or near Chandigarh were sold out. Our visa application deadline was 0830 on Monday the 28th, so no hotel success by Sunday evening meant we were needed someone in India willing to write us letters inviting us to stay with them, along with the relevant documents.. We also needed to submit a photocopy of our yet-to-be-sourced match tickets.

It was a long shot, but if any of us didn’t believe in the kindness of strangers, we were about to change our minds by the end of this match. A sweetheart of a journalist in Delhi agreed to be our pretend-host, before another very resourceful and exceptionally kind stranger from Ludhiana tweeted to say he could get us a hotel booking. Another friend in Mohali emailed us a picture of his three VIP passes to the match and we were all set with the visa application requirements – thanks to three Indians we had never met!

The officer at the Pakistan Foreign Office responsible for forwarding our applications to the Indian High Commission was on his fifth paan and impatient for breakfast, but he went out of his way to help us. It turned out that the visa application I had spent the last three nights filling out had been the wrong form all along. Thankfully this one was offline so we finished it quickly, paid the visa fees and said bismillah and shukriya and got out of there.

We were told we would hear about the decision by that night so we went home and crashed for a while before we began searching for match tickets. We pushed our twitter campaign, messaged every cousin, high school-nemesis and ex-colleague who worked at or knew someone at the tournament sponsors or the PCB and e-mailed all online black-market ticket sellers. By that evening, we had been promised two tickets – one from the kind ambassador and another from a friend’s friend at Times of India. Just one more to go…

At around 8.00pm that night – 42 hours before the match – we got a call from the Foreign Office saying our visas had been approved: 10 days, for Chandigarh, Mohali and Mumbai (we hadn’t even asked for Mumbai!) but that they hadn’t been stamped, so we needed to wait until 11.00pm. This was great news but we still had to get those visas that night to be able to leave for Lahore the next morning and reach Mohali before the match. It was a race against time.

No updates from the foreign office until midnight, then a call saying my friends’ visas were there but mine wasn’t and wouldn’t be there till at least 11.00am the next morning. It pretty much meant game over for me. I couldn’t believe it. The girls said they didn’t want to leave without me. I told them they were being silly and they had to go. We were too tired to debate, so we decided to talk in the morning and went to sleep after what felt like years.

We had slept in till noon. It was the day before the match. There was still no word from the Indian High Commission about my passport. We decided to leave for Lahore either way, India or not, so we had a lazy breakfast, packed and headed out to pick up our passports, stamped or otherwise. On the way to the foreign office I got a call saying my passport was back. It was 1pm – too late to aim to cross the border that day. If we crossed the border at 9 the next morning, we’d be at the stadium by 2pm, which was the official start time for the match. Picking up our tickets from their various sources in India beforehand would be a challenge, but we decided to go for it.

The green gear we gathered for the match.
The green gear we gathered for the match.

Our luck had turned again. In trying to get that third ticket through our hotel reservation lifesaver from earlier – let’s call him Superman – we landed a pass. We got on the bus to Lahore and started planning the fun stuff we hadn’t got time to think of yet, like whether we should wear green kurtas or personalized team jerseys to the match. We also needed flags and green paraandas, green chooriyaan, face-paint, stickers, green glitter and neon wigs. The bookshop on the rest-stop on the motorway to Lahore didn’t have flags or any of the other green gear we were looking for, but there were a couple of giant-sized Shahid Afridi posters (actually mobile-company ads) on the window. Of course we convinced them to give us one. Got to Lahore and packed for four days in one handbag that we would carry in to the stadium. No sleep again.

We reached the border at 6:45 and saw a few boys, in team jerseys, waiting around.
We reached the border at 6:45 and saw a few boys, in team jerseys, waiting around.

Superman had told us the border was opening early, at 6.30am, and if we crossed over by 7.00am, we would make it to the stadium, despite the five-hour drive. We reached the border at 6:45 and saw a few boys, in team jerseys, waiting around. A guard told us the immigration officials wouldn’t be there before 9.00am but thankfully, a friend had been kind enough to give our names to some officials at the border, so we pleaded with them to check those records, and they let us through. Immigration and customs on our side was pretty quick. We exchanged cash too – from a guy in a brown shalwar kamiz who had all the money in his shalwar-pocket, forget about receipts. (The rate was good). Shaikh Rashid Ahmed was in line ahead of us, beaming.

Crossing over to India.
Crossing over to India.

We ran to the Indian side. It was kind of surreal, but we were too rushed to think about how big a moment that was. The Indian guard at the border didn’t smile, but he was quick, which meant he was nice. The chatty officers at registration told us we had enough time to get to Mohali (not) and reassured (sic) us that it wasn’t going to rain. Ran from there to customs, where, thanks to Superman, some guy already had our names on some be-nice-to-them list. Filled out another form, then borrowed face-paint chalk from the other Pakistan fans in line to colour our faces while waiting for our passports to be scanned and copied. A very long 15 minutes and we were through to customs, who were so helpful they told us we didn’t have more than the maximum amount of Indian Rupees you were allowed to carry. They also liked our scary Afridi poster.

A very long 15 minutes and we were through to customs, who were so helpful they told us we didn’t have more than the maximum amount of Indian Rupees you were allowed to carry. They also liked our scary Afridi poster. That was it, we were in India!
A very long 15 minutes and we were through to customs, who were so helpful they told us we didn’t have more than the maximum amount of Indian Rupees you were allowed to carry. They also liked our scary Afridi poster. That was it, we were in India!

That was it, we were in India. There were about three dozen taxi-wallahs, all with “Special Permission for Pakistan WC” signs posted on their cars, each of whom insisted we go with him. We borrowed a taxi-wallah’s phone to call our taxi-wallah – he was clearly far away but insisted he would be there in two minutes and that we shouldn’t let the taxi drivers there mislead us. We waited about 20 minutes, which we spent haggling unsuccessfully with the taxi-wallahs to bring their rate (Rs.8,000) down to our pre-arranged cab rate (Rs.3,200). A couple of uncles in team jerseys and sunglasses inspired by Waqar Younis circa 1992 had just crossed the border with a man who looked like a driver for a fancy tour package. We acted fast and asked them if we could share a ride with them to the match. They agreed.

Fifteen minutes into the ride, we discovered that they had three extra tickets that they were trying to foist upon a reluctant golf buddy who lived in Mohali. With every passing minute and every call to our ticket sources in Ludhiana, Chandigarh and Mohali, we knew we wanted those three tickets more and more: they were all for the same stand and they were all in that car. We would feel terrible about not using the passes that our friends had worked so hard to secure for us, but unfortunately there was just no time for us to pick them up. So we spent the next four hours trying to convince our new Lahori friends that we deserved those tickets more than some guy who was playing golf on the day of an India-Pakistan cricket match and was going to cheer for the wrong team anyway. They couldn’t believe we had crossed the border without tickets. (“Who are you guys? Hide your wallet, KP!”) They also didn’t understand that anyone could want to go watch a match that badly: one of them (the golfer) had considered going straight to Mumbai when he got his visa and the other left – get this – seven tickets at home. I don’t remember how we did it in the end, but we managed to prise those tickets out of them. (“But we came all the way from Karachi and we haven’t slept in four days and… okay ask me anything – anything – about cricket!”).

Happily seated on the steps between aisles.
Happily seated on the steps between aisles.

We reached the stadium a few overs late and had to look around for seats before finally settling down next to the families of Wahab Riaz and the Akmals. Virender Sehwag was smashing our best fast bowler around for fun, but we couldn't stop smiling: we made it to Mohali!

Sana Kazmi is a reformed (read failed) computer scientist who has a serious tweeting-about-cricket problem.