World Cups bring a feel-good factor to a country, and the 2021 T20 Cricket World Cup in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is my favourite. It’s the first international competition I am covering as a reporter. I was 10 years old when I started playing in a school team and getting into cricket, properly. I mostly spent my time back then playing cricket, watching matches on TV, and accosting my parents to buy me a Sachin Tendulkar jersey!
Now, as I go from one match day to another, I am reminded of sport’s power to unite and inspire development. Afghanistan captain Mohammad Nabi could hardly have captured the mood any better. “The only happiness in Afghanistan is cricket,” Nabi said in a pre-match press conference. “If we do well in the tournament and win the games, the fans are really happy and there will be a lot of smiles on faces and everything will be changed.”
Afghanistan is gathering momentum at the T20 World Cup and, all of a sudden, there is a sense of nature’s equilibrium being restored. In common with much of the UAE, a country is being allowed out of its shell; COVID-19 rates across UAE are at their lowest and, with many restrictions having been lifted, there is a wildness in the air. Add to the mix a cricket team that continues to inspire optimism and the confluence of circumstances lifts spirits.
It pulsates with an emotional rawness that might not readily be associated with the sport, though, and the feeling cranks up another notch during Afghanistan’s Super 12 contest against Pakistan. Humari awam jo sehri hai, usey 3 ghante ke liye bhulne yahan match dekhne aaye hai. Cricket meri Jaan, Afghanistan zindabad! (We’ve come here to forget all the pain our countrymen are going through. Cricket is our life, Afghanistan zindabad),” says a teenager, draped in Afghanistan team colours.
Afghanistan cricket has defied odds and surpassed expectations in emphatic fashion in the last 20 years. But now, the fans want their team to be more than just a feel-good story. “Bas Super 12 mein achha nahi karna, semifinal jaana hai, final khelna hai (Doing well in Super 12s isn’t enough, we need to reach semis and then the final),” announces Gurbaz as he paints fans’ faces in the colours of the Afghanistan flag.
“Bahut saha hai humne ji. Humara ghar chhod ke yahan Dubai aa gaye 2019 mein. Humara bachha cricket khelta tha ghar ke paas… khelte khelte kahin bomb girne ki awaaz aati hai.. issi khel ka sahara tha humko (We’ve suffered a lot. We came to Dubai in 2019. Our son used to play cricket near our house and we could hear bombs going off nearby. Cricket was our only lifeline,” he adds, allowing himself a pump of the fists and a smile.
Steady rise: Afghanistan fans gets their faces painted with their national flag before the Pakistan encounter. – Ayan Acharya
Meanwhile, Pakistan takes the game deep against Afghanistan at the Dubai International Cricket Stadium before four sixes from Asif Ali seal a tense run-chase for Babar Azam’s men. The International Cricket Council later reveals that thousands of ticketless fans attempted to force their way into the stadium. Following the disruption, local police and security staff had to close the stadium, with several legitimate ticket holders denied entry. Nabi had a message for the fans in his post-match press conference: “For the Afghan fans, please buy a ticket and come to the stadium (smiles). Don’t repeat again. This is not good.”
Elsewhere, Pakistan win a men’s World Cup game for the first time against India. Several Indians, including this reporter, are mocked with the “mauka mauka” jibe (a Star Sports advertisement) after the defeat — all in good spirit, though.
Of the UAE’s 9.9 million inhabitants, plenty are mainly from Asia, working in construction, hospitality, retail and as taxi drivers. The day after Pakistan beat India, I am driven to the stadium by a Pakistani taxi driver named Khalid. He hails from Peshawar and moved to Dubai in 2012. I tell him I am here to cover the World Cup and we get talking. “Sir, aapne India v Pakistan dekha ke nahi? Badhiya kheli Pakistan. Par yeh crowd reaction hai na thoda zyaada hogaya sir (Did you watch the India v Pakistan game? Pakistan played really well but the crowd reaction was over the top),” he says. “Yeh TV waale match ko jung bana dete hai. Aisa thodi na hota. Jung bomb aur banduk se ladi jaati hai, cricket bat aur ball se khelte hai. Kuch bhi kehte hai TV waale. (These TV guys draw parallels between war and cricket. Wars are fought with guns and bombs, cricket is played with bat and ball).”
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Khalid didn’t know anything about the game when he began falling in love with it through his father’s respect and dedication for Zaheer Abbas and Sunil Gavaskar. But mera interest unke passion ki wajah se badh gaya. Test cricket ka bahut bada fan hun main. Yeh T20 toh thik hai, India-Pakistan ko ek Test match khelna chahye. Koi chance hai kya sir? (I got interested in cricket because of my father’s passion for the sport. I’m a big fan of Test cricket. India and Pakistan should play a Test. Will that happen?)” he asks in jest. “Abhi ke liye toh nahi hoga (It won’t happen for now),” I tell him as we reach the stadium. As I am about to get down, he asks, “Sir, aap TV waale ho ya akhbaar? (Are you a TV reporter or a print reporter),” he asks. “Website k liye likhta hun main, sir (I write for a website),” I tell him. “Phir theek hai (It’s fine then),” he says with a smile.
Meanwhile, the T20 carnival carries on.