Thompson: India, Pakistan produce electric atmosphere in Manchester

MANCHESTER, England — I woke up this morning to the sound of drums.

Many times, this Old Trafford neighborhood has hosted wild, important games, and Sunday’s madness felt equal to the biggest of those days. India and Pakistan were playing for the seventh time in the Cricket World Cup, all previous matches won by India, which was a heavy favorite once again.

Let me strip away the fourth wall so I can put this straight: Writing about sports is always a great job, even on the worst day, but every now and then, it’s truly magical. Sunday was one of those days, ending with India’s blowout victory and beginning with the scene around the stadium in the hour before the match began.

The masses descended, coming on busses and in taxis from across town and on airplanes from across oceans, flying from home or some diaspora capital, wearing blue and green, carrying flags and colors. Fans outside Hotel Football, across a narrow, industrial canal from the famous Man United stadium, beat out a marching rhythm on a drum and blew melody on a saxophone.

It was a half-mile south on Sir Matt Busby Way to the cricket ground.

People didn’t march, which sounds too martial, or stroll, which sounds too casual, so much as they floated along the sidewalks. The mood was joyous. These bitter rivals whose governments aim nuclear warheads and fighter jets at each other walked side by side toward the stadium, everyone connected by the crackling energy — the people once again proving themselves superior to their politicians.

Vendors sold scarves and flags and umbrellas; the weather report promised rain, and the cricket officials looked nervously to the sky. Somewhere from a speaker, a radio or television feed blared out across Great Stone Road, narrating the madness in a strange, meta way as everyone walked in range of the speaker and then out again; “… most anticipated cricket game of the 21st century …” is the bit I heard, and a Range Rover roared past with the driver blaring on the horn and a man waving a Pakistan flag out the passenger-side window.

The street is named after an enormous rock that some people theorize was used as a road marker when the Romans ran this part of the world. The de Trafford family who once owned this land fought against the Normans in 1066 but eventually made peace. The cricket stadium was used as a camp for soldiers rescued from the beaches of Dunkirk. All of which is to say that countries and even empires come and go, but the feeling on these streets was eternal, whether felt by fans walking into the Circus Maximus 2,000 years ago or toward a cricket ground on a chilly Sunday morning in the northwest of England. Hate flashes and burns out, seductive and unsustainable, but love is forever, and if there’s a word that described the looks on the faces of the old men and pregnant women and fathers and daughters and little boys wearing replica kits and thousands upon thousands of people simply happy to be alive and to have a ticket in their hands, it was love.

This is just another game, is the lie the Indian captain told over and over in his news conference Saturday. The big cricket writers counted the number of times he got a question about the magnitude of India versus Pakistan — The Pressure! The Billion Fans!! The Tensions!!! — and successfully moved just out of reach, like a boxer slipping a punch. It was a work of art, really, because while Virat Kohli is a great cricketer, perhaps his greatest gift is the ability to appear completely calm at the center of a storm, which is what India and Pakistan playing in the World Cup most definitely is. The more times he said it was just another day, the more it became clear that it was not that at all. The Pakistan coach, not as smooth as Kohli, acknowledged how the geopolitical hype and stress had pierced his dressing room; he told his players that a great performance from them would make them “heroes” back home.

India looked calmer before the match, and once it began, played like it, too.

Rohit Sharma came out and started lacing the ball all over the field, arcing shots high over the boundary for sixes or threading them through the infield for fours. Beyond his numbers, he just seemed in control, exuding a kind of power that, if it was palpable in the stands, must have been deeply intimidating to the Pakistani bowlers. I stood next to a colleague and marveled at the atmosphere.

Early during play, the sun came out and amplified the green of the field. Little geometries of blue peeked through clouds, which looked whiter than the gray thunderheads that hung low over Manchester earlier in the weekend. It seemed like the match might get played in its entirety, which had seemed impossible 24 hours before.

When Rohit finally got out, he’d scored 140 runs and set a tone for his team.

The India batsmen swung aggressively, with ease, and their fans responded with loud approval. A beautiful noise came from the grounds and beyond; a Hilton Garden Inn loomed close over the grounds and fans gathered on hotel balconies, hanging Indian flags and Pakistani flags and, strangely, on the top floor, the flag of the city of Chicago. The old bricks on the Victorian member’s pavilion looked almost peach, they’d been weathered so much. A German bomb hit it in 1940, but it was rebuilt, and now it, too, came alive, with cheers and waving Indian flags.

The runs kept piling up, coming in bunches. My strongest memory of India batting won’t be any specific moment — although the sound of ball colliding with willow on Rohit’s monster shots will linger — but the blur of saffron, white and green from the Indian flags waving all over the grandstands. Someone from home texted me during the match to ask if it was raucous, which it most definitely was for long stretches, but the thing I’ve grown to love about cricket are the periods when the ground falls quiet, with the drone of those plastic horns in the background, yes, but most of the fans sitting, waiting, anticipating, leaning in, locked in, feeling anxiety and hope in equal measure. Cricket matches get tense. In the last 10 overs of India’s innings, as the team closed in on 300 runs, the fans at Old Trafford watched the scoreboard and did math in their heads. After one big six, the anxious silence was broken by the stadium rocking and shaking, a sea of saffron and green, before the Indian fans settled down for more tension.

Then, with around four overs to go, I noticed rain had started to fall. Moments later umbrellas popped up around the grounds. The rain fell harder. India had scored 305, losing four wickets, with 20 balls left to face.

The officials suspended play, and the players left the field.

The sun came out again, brighter than before.

A half-hour later, the teams emerged to finish the first innings, with India continuing to slam the ball all over the grounds, finishing with 337 for 5. In addition to Rohit’s 140, Kohli scored 77, and K.L. Rahul scored 57. The clouds parted for a sliver of blue above the hotel then for patches all around the stadium before going a dark and threatening cobalt gray.

A group of Pakistan fans posed with a homemade banner.

It showed former captain and current prime minister Imran Khan and his famous quote.

“Fight like cornered tigers,” it read.

They mugged for a camera. When they saw the India team standing on a nearby balcony, taking in the scene, they booed and jeered, all tongue in cheek. Fans of both teams hung nearby in groups in the plaza, standing in line for food and merch. Watching everyone made me think about how the animus and political gamesmanship that exists around this game in India and Pakistan didn’t extend to the stadium itself. Here, it is a game. A tense, intense game, but a game. Everyone sat side by side with people of different religions and political opinions, and everyone cheered their team and waved their flags, celebrating the highs and mourning the lows. Neither side needed to be corralled in pens like football away fans. The atmosphere was vibrant, the kind of stadium that makes the hair on your arm stand up, but it never got menacing, if that makes sense.

A half-mile away, outside Man United’s stadium, a local, Muslim charity hosted an Eid Festival event, celebrating the end of fasting, billed in ads as family-friendly and welcoming to people of all religions and, it noted, fans of all football teams. At a hotel downtown Saturday, an international business organization hosted a joint meeting of its Capital Pakistan chapter and its Calcutta chapter, and at the cricket ground, the palpable joy from early Sunday morning lived on in the grandstands.

The Pakistanis started trying to chase down India.

That big number, 337, loomed over every shot, and they got one run, then two, then 11, then 12, building an innings out of the only materials at their disposal: time and patience. The Indian fielders crowded in close, aggressive and in control. The Pakistanis needed to score nearly seven runs an over and weren’t even close to that metabolism. Yesterday, I had coffee with a top cricket official in Pakistan, and he talked about his team’s need to shed the insecure-little-brother complex that so clearly impacts its play against India. I saw what he meant. Pakistan is struggling economically and socially, although many people have faith in the leadership of prime minister Khan. The only two national interests are cricket and politics, which mean they often become the same thing, way too closely tied to national mood and identity. That’s a lot of pressure for 11 men to bear with so many people watching, and if Pakistan fell short Sunday, they still went out onto the field and bore that stress.

Pakistan limped along at 2.71 runs an over, not nearly enough. They lost a wicket, and their fans groaned, and they hit a boundary for four and their fans leaped up and waved flags. Pakistan picked up steam and runs, and the truest fans might have even believed for a passing half-hour, but it was not to be. The run rate got up to five per over, still not enough. India took wicket after wicket — including one batsman on the first ball he faced — and by 5:30 p.m., the game was clearly over in every way except officially, which finally happened two hours and one more rain delay later. (The match was shortened to 40 overs because of the stoppages, and Pakistan came up well short of the target set by the Duckworth-Lewis-Stern method, a formula that adjusts scores for rain-affected matches.)

India moved to 7-0 in World Cup matches against Pakistan. I made plans with friends for later, and I wondered about the thousands of people who packed Old Trafford on Sunday and filled it with noise, energy and life. I hoped they’d keep this rare and beautiful feeling alive in homes, hotels and cafes and not let the magic born of a nearly perfect sporting day be extinguished with the stadium lights. I felt sure Curry Mile would be packed again, like it was last night. I could see it clearly: the restaurants humming with Indian and Pakistani fans celebrating or commiserating with family and friends, and the street glowing with headlights from an endless line of cars and with the bright neon from the curry-house signs.

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