It started with deafening boos when Pakistan captain Babar Azam took his turn to speak after the toss in the middle of the Narendra Modi Stadium in Ahmedabad and carried on long after India had inflicted another heavy loss on their neighbours in the ICC Cricket World Cup.
The Pakistani cricketers were at the receiving end of incessant hostilities from the crowd during their match against the hosts at the world’s biggest cricket stadium, named after India’s prime minister and leader of the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), in his hometown.
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As the match got under way, and with Pakistan fans effectively banned by the Indian authorities, the partisan nature of the crowd became evident as any boundary scored by the Pakistani batters was met with pin-drop silence.
When Muhammad Rizwan – Pakistan’s hero in their run chase against Sri Lanka earlier last week – walked back to the pavilion after his dismissal, the crowd surrounding the walkway mockingly greeted him with chants of “Jai Shri Ram [Hail Lord Ram]”.
The Hindi-language chant has emerged as a war cry by Hindu far-right groups and is often used in a derogatory manner against the country’s Muslim population.
Pakistan were dismissed for 191 runs in 42.5 overs, setting an easy target for India’s star-studded batting lineup amid a sea of blue Indian shirts in the stands.
India captain Rohit Sharma smashed six sixes and six fours as India eased home, much to the delight of the thousands of supporters seated in the saffron-coloured stands.
The jubilant crowd made it a point to add insult to injury and shouted expletive-laden chants when Pakistan stepped on to the field as Sharma and his team made merry on the pitch.
Indian sports writer Karthik Krishnawamy termed the crowd’s behaviour “unapologetic Islamophobia” and urged the Pakistan Cricket Board to file a complaint against it.
‘Never seen such hostility’
Veteran cricket writer Kuldip Lal believes the behaviour of the crowd, including several BJP members, has a lot to do with the stadium’s location, Ahmedabad.
“If there is one venue where you would have such strong anti-Pakistan public sentiment, it’s Ahmedabad,” Lal told Al Jazeera.
“In my 30 years of covering cricket, I have never seen such hostility anywhere else in India,” he said.
The reception handed out to Pakistan on Saturday was in stark contrast to their previous two matches, which were played in the southern city of Hyderabad.
The Hyderabad crowd roared for Babar when he stepped on the field and cheered for Rizwan when he guided his team home with a fighting century.
Lal believes locals at some other famous Indian cricket venues, such as Chennai and Bengaluru, have traditionally been better sports fans who appreciate the game instead of putting on an over-zealous display of politics.
“The people in Ahmedabad weren’t there to enjoy the match, they had their own political agendas,” he said.
Lal, who has visited Pakistan on several occasions since he began covering Indian cricket as a sports journalist in 1982, says he has fond memories of the trips he made with the Indian team.
“It has been likewise for Pakistan’s cricketers, fans and journalists who have always been warmly welcomed by Indians whenever they have visited in the past, especially during the last Cricket World Cup that India hosted in 2011,” he recalled.
‘Political stadium used as political statement’
While the jingoistic display on Saturday was cheered by many Indian fans, not all of them appreciated it and distanced themselves from it on social media.
“It [the stadium] was built as a political statement. It is used like a political statement,” Gaurav Nandan Tripathi wrote in a post on X, the social media platform formerly known as Twitter.
“The audience that comes here [Ahmedabad], think they are free to do these shenanigans because they know it’s all allowed in the saffron den. Politics affects culture.”
‘Didn’t seem like an ICC event’
Pakistan’s head coach Mickey Arthur took notice of the hostilities and said the match “didn’t seem like an ICC event” and more a part of a bilateral series hosted by the Indian cricket board.
“I didn’t hear ‘Dil Dil Pakistan’ coming through the microphones too often tonight,” he said, referring to the Pakistani song that has become an unofficial cricket anthem for the team.
“That does play a role. But I’m not going to use that as an excuse [for the loss],” he told reporters after the match.
Prior to the match, an Indian travel website tapped into the pre-match hysteria in its tournament advertisement campaign by inviting Pakistani fans to India and offering them various discounts based on their team’s (predicted) loss margins.
The campaign was largely slammed in India, but some Indian cricket fans said they wanted “Pakistani fans to come to India” as they enjoyed “watching them lose matches to India”.
Pakistan’s tournament campaign returns to south India, where they will play their remaining six matches of the group stage.
Their next match is against Australia in Bengaluru, where sports writer Lal expects a “sporting crowd” to welcome them.
“I hope and pray what we saw in Ahmedabad will not happen again, and I am quite sure it won’t as the crowds in Bengaluru understand and respect sport and sportspersons of all countries.”
Source: Al Jazeera