The cricketing rivalry between India and Pakistan is arguably one of the fiercest in global sport. While sport is held dear in Australian culture, for Indians and Pakistanis, cricket represents something greater, transcending passion to something more akin to religion. With the T20 World Cup being held on Australian shores for the first time, over 90,000 people descended upon the MCG. If it wasn’t the largest gathering of South Asians in history outside of South Asia, it would be mighty close.
The rivalry between the two nations is often characterized by political tensions. They last played a bilateral series over 10 years ago and now only play at global events. Indeed, bureaucratic tensions simmered before the match after the Board of Control for Cricket in India secretary, Jay Shah, unilaterally declared that India would not play the next Asia Cup in Pakistan. Yet, animosity could not have been any further from the stands of the MCG on Monday night.
On the way towards the Melbourne Park precinct were two enterprising groups side-by-side, one selling India jerseys and one selling Pakistan jerseys. A group of India supporters, decked out in the nation’s royal blue, posed together with green-clad Pakistan supporters. Throughout the sea of blue and green around the precinct, this was the general trend and instead of the turbulent rivalry often fueled by fans 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 hit particularly hard. The two nations were two of the hardest-hit during the pandemic, with loss touching most at some point. Combined with two years defined by lockdowns, travel bans and increased cognisance of discrimination towards these communities, it often felt as though there was not a lot to cheer about. On Monday, there was a sense both sets of fans felt they were in it together and a sense of camaraderie built around the grounds.
Indian and Pakistani bands played simultaneously, engulfing the MCG in a wall of sound. They joked and laughed in the lines to enter the ground and they jostled to get a glimpse of the teams warming up in the practice nets. The diasporas are two of the fastest-growing in Australia so the audience was comparatively young; the excitement of many attending their first India v Pakistan game (myself included) was palpable.
Music and song were ever-present throughout the match, with both groups of fans allowing themselves to be swept up in the atmosphere as their chants filled the stadium. Most memorably, the roar of thousands singing the Indian national anthem was nothing short of chill-inducing. Captain Rohit Sharma was almost in tears by the time the anthem concluded.
As the players entered the fray, the MCG transformed into a modern-day colosseum, with baying spectators gleefully awaiting the gladiatorial combat they were about to witness. When Arshdeep Singh trapped Pakistan captain Babar Azam in front of the stumps in the second over, the excited murmur turned into a visceral roar. The sound perforated through the stands so powerfully it almost felt as though the ground were shaking.
The horns of the Pakistani bands began to blare when it seemed the match was beyond even Kohli’s reach. But when the man from Delhi hit Haris Rauf back over his head for six in the penultimate over, the crowd whirred back into life, doing everything they could to cheer their team on. When the winning runs were struck, it felt for a moment as if time stopped. Then, it was pure pandemonium.
Many will argue this was the greatest ever T20 game. On cricketing quality alone, perhaps others sit above this match. But considering the crowd, the atmosphere, the drama and the overall narrative, there’s a very strong argument that this was one of the most iconic cricket matches of the 21st century. It was career-defining for Virat Kohli. Perhaps it also defined a generation of fans as well.
Either side of us, the most fervent Indian and Pakistani supporters cheered their heart out for their teams the whole way through the match. Yet after the final ball was struck, both groups shook hands with us and then with each other. It was a display of camaraderie symbolic of the occasion. This was more than a cricket match. It was a celebration. And one that nobody in the ground will ever forget.