Outside the gates of the Narendra Modi Stadium, stands a solitary Pakistan fan, known as Mohammad Bashir or Chicago Chacha. He is surrounded by television reporters, fans, and passersby, making him a sought-after figure. Despite the scorching noon sun, causing sweat beads to form on the 68-year-old’s forehead, the questions keep coming. Chacha is encouraged to predict an Indian victory.
“I can’t make that prediction,” he responds. “The best team should emerge victorious.”
An hour later, Pakistan’s captain, Babar Azam, is questioned about the prospect of playing in a stadium with a massive 1.3 lakh capacity, possibly with Chacha as the sole Pakistani supporter in the stands. He handles the question gracefully, stating, “If Pakistani fans were permitted, it would have been great… But when we arrived in Hyderabad, I sensed strong support for the Pakistan team, and I anticipate the same here.”
Based on the scenes witnessed at previous India games in Chennai and New Delhi, as well as the abundance of counterfeit merchandise being peddled on the road leading to the stadium, Ahmedabad is expected to be a sea of blue on match day.
In the press box, Pakistani journalists have finally received visas to cover the World Cup.
“Salaam alaikum, Babar,” a seasoned sports journalist from Pakistan greets the pre-game press conference. The Pakistan captain, pleasantly surprised, scans the room, locates the familiar face, and responds with a warm smile. The conversation shifts to Pakistan’s World Cup struggles against India and their seven consecutive losses. Babar’s expression changes. “Records like these are meant to be shattered, and I’m striving to do just that…”
However, Ahmedabad does not appear to entertain the possibility of such an outcome. India’s dominant performances in the first two games have made them the clear favorites for the tournament. While the city’s streets may not be exuding cricket fever, the sounds of Navratri, a festival where the state hosts garba dances, are already in the air. Just before the Indian team arrived for practice under lights, a group of dancers graced the field. Even the rehearsal for the pre-game entertainment show had a garba-inspired theme.
Once Rohit Sharma and his team entered the arena, the drumbeats fell silent. During the press conference, the Indian captain was asked about the crowd, specifically the pressure of delivering a victory in front of a partisan audience. When does home advantage become a disadvantage? Rohit paused, pondered for a moment, and then replied, “I don’t believe it’s a disadvantage. In all my experiences in India and abroad, I have never encountered a situation where the crowd turned against us.”
Rohit’s words were rooted in reality. The last time India played in a World Cup at a stadium of this size was in 2015 when they faced Australia at the MCG, the second-largest cricket stadium in the world. Even in Melbourne, Indian supporters had nearly outnumbered the locals. This generation of cricketers feels at home no matter where they play.