, , ,

Three sounds echoed in my mind as I left Trent Bridge on Monday, having watched England play Pakistan in the World Cup: the incessant dull resonant thud of thundersticks being whacked together, the exquisite sound as the ball hit Jos Buttler’s bat before disappearing through extra cover, and the soundtrack of the day: the chant of ‘Pakistan! Zindabad!’

I went to the match alongside teachers and children from the school where I am a governor – all of us the fortunate recipients of tickets through the commendable World Cup Schools Programme. It was a first big-match experience for all the children who went and they loved it. Our seats were allocated, sensibly, in the alcohol-free stand; this, of course, was also where the vast majority of Pakistan supporters were too. We had quite an experience.

If I know nothing else, I know now that Pakistan supporters love their cricket, their team and winning. They live and breathe every delivery. They walk a tightrope of joy and despair every single ball, they are the very antithesis of stoicism.

How has it come to this, I wondered. How is it that all the England supporters (unfuelled by stiff-upper-lip-inhibiting alcohol) sit quietly, applauding gently, and trying not to eat their lunch before midday, while the Pakistan supporters punctuate any quiet moment with a series of loud call-and-response chants, chatter excitedly, and leap from their seats and run down the steps to dance with impressive vigour and enviable disinhibition every time there is a four, six or wicket? This is no hyperbole: there was not one boundary hit that was not celebrated as if the match were won.

What is the dancing all about? Is it simply a message of joy? Surely it cannot be – it is too orchestrated, too deliberate (though undeniably joyful too). It appears to be a bonding experience, a moment for men (for it was exclusively so) to bond under one flag, one religion, one nation. It is perhaps a rare space to express themselves and the pride in the nation from which they or their forbears come. In a British society that sadly appears to be becoming less tolerant, this is a rare opportunity where they feel safe just to be.

That’s not to say there aren’t tensions. The interactions with the stewards are uneasy, both parties trying their best (some individuals succeeding, others not) to find a light-heartedness in their interactions that doesn’t come easy. Despite the supporters’ ebullience, there is an underlying sense of nervousness, a tacit awareness that despite the freedom they have here in the ground, it is still one that could be curtailed at any moment. At one point someone from the back of the Pakistan section throws a bottle of water which lands in the area in front of the seats. Every Pakistan supporter turned to look, repugnance writ large on their faces, followed by several exasperated cries of ‘Come on, bro’. There are a few minutes’ uncomfortable silence.

There is little tension in the crowd, however (apart from, understandably, the old couple who can’t see the cricket every time the Pakistan supporters leap up to dance. They were moved after a while – a sensible decision from the stewards). There is no sense of aggression or pending confrontation bubbling beneath the surface. Ultimately we all share a huge love of the game, even if we express it differently. Everyone of us is amused by national loyalty tensions that are embraced by the fans: the chants of ‘He’s one of our own’ whenever Mo or Rash come on to bowl (see this great piece from Mo for more on this https://www.theguardian.com/sport/blog/2019/jun/05/england-moeen-ali-cricket); the pantomime booing of an Asian man in an England shirt; the fans in half-and-half wigs and shirts proclaiming support for ‘EngPak’. A be-turbanned Indian supporter with a huge flag is embraced and sits amongst the Pakistan fans.

The schoolchildren we are with watch in bemusement and amusement everything that is going on, looking to the adults with perplexed faces as the famous Chacha Cricket sweeps regally around the stand, leading chants, greeting fans, taking selfies. I’m not sure how much adulation one man needs but clearly he is yet to reach his limit.

So I leave Trent Bridge having watched a wonderful match and experienced an extraordinary atmosphere that has left me curious to understand more about this group of cricket supporters, whose fervour is untrammelled, whose joy is unsurpassed and whose enthusiasm unimaginable. Where does it come from? What is it all about?

It makes me think back to the wonderful film Fire in Babylon in which one comes to understand the critical importance of the West Indies cricket team to the Caribbean diaspora, and I wonder if it’s the same for Pakistan today. There’s so much more than cricket at stake.