Photograph: William West / AFP / Getty Images
The cricket rivalry between India and Pakistan is arguably one of the fiercest in global sport. While sport is very dear to Australian culture, for Indians and Pakistanis cricket represents something greater, one that transcends a passion for something more akin to religion. With the T20 World Cup being held for the first time on the Australian coast, over 90,000 people descended on the MCG. If it weren’t the largest gathering of South Asians in history outside of South Asia, it would be very close.
The rivalry between the two nations is often characterized by political tensions. They last played in a bilateral series over 10 years ago and now only play in global events. Indeed, bureaucratic tensions are simmering before the game after India’s Board of Control for Cricket Secretary Jay Shah unilaterally declared that India would not play the next Asian Cup in Pakistan. Yet, on Monday night, the animosity couldn’t have been further from the stands of the MCG.
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On the way to the Melbourne Park district there were two enterprising groups side by side, one selling Indian jerseys and one selling Pakistani jerseys. A group of supporters from India, dressed in the nation’s royal blue, posed alongside supporters of Pakistan dressed in green. Across the sea of blue and green around the district, this was the general trend and instead of the turbulent rivalry often fan-fueled on social media, this felt like a true celebration of the diaspora in Australia.
For both the Indian and Pakistani diaspora, the Covid-19 pandemic has hit particularly hard. The two nations were two of the hardest hit during the pandemic, with a loss that at one point touched the most. Combined with two years of blockades, travel bans and increased awareness of discrimination against these communities, it often seemed like there wasn’t much to cheer about. On Monday, there was a sense that both groups of fans felt they were involved together and a sense of camaraderie built around the ground.
Indian and Pakistani bands played simultaneously, enveloping the MCG in a wall of sound. They joked and laughed in the lines to get into the ground and pushed to get a look at the teams warming up in the practice nets. Diasporas are two of the fastest growing in Australia, so the audience was relatively young; the enthusiasm of many who attended their first match between India and Pakistan (myself included) was palpable.
Music and songs were always present throughout the match, with both groups of fans letting themselves be carried away by the atmosphere as their choirs filled the stadium. Most memorably, the roar of thousands of people singing the Indian national anthem was nothing short of relaxing. Captain Rohit Sharma was almost in tears when the anthem ended.
As players entered the fray, the MCG transformed into a modern coliseum, with screaming onlookers cheerfully awaiting the gladiatorial combat they were about to witness. When Arshdeep Singh trapped Pakistani captain Babar Azam in front of the stumps in the second floor, the excited hum turned into a visceral roar. The sound pierced the stands so powerful it almost felt like the ground was shaking.
Horns from Pakistani bands began blaring when it seemed the match was beyond Kohli’s reach. But when the Delhi man hit Haris Rauf over his head for six in the penultimate over, the crowd came back to life, doing everything they could to cheer their team on. When the winning points were beaten, it seemed for a moment that time had stood still. Then, it was pure pandemonium.
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Many will argue that this was the greatest T20 game ever. Only on the quality of cricket, perhaps others sit above this match. But considering the crowds, the atmosphere, the drama and the general narrative, there is a very strong argument that this was one of the most iconic cricket matches of the 21st century. He was instrumental in Virat Kohli’s career. Perhaps he also defined a generation of fans.
On both sides, the most fervent Indian and Pakistani fans cheered for their teams throughout the match. Yet after the final ball was hit, both groups shook hands and then each other. It was a display of symbolic camaraderie of the occasion. This was more of a cricket match. It was a party. And one that no one on earth will ever forget.