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The night when flags, slogans, fans put polls on pause

The big screen in the ground repeatedly reminded fans that any "wrongful display" of the national flag would invite punishment.

Written by Aniruddha Ghosal | Kolkata | Updated: March 20, 2016 5:41:05 am


Cricket - India v Pakistan- World Twenty20 cricket tournament - Kolkata, India, 19/03/2016. India's Virat Kohli (R) plays a shot watched by Pakistan's wicketkeeper Sarfraz Ahmed. REUTERS/Rupak De Chowdhuri

There was thunder, there was lightning and there was the Tricolour all around. This was the setting for the India-Pakistan battle Saturday night.

As the match and the night progressed, the stands too came alive. Cheers and gasps accompanied every shot to the boundary, every turn of the ball. By 10.30 pm, with India tottering at 23 for 3, Eden Gardens had been silenced. But in less than an hour, it was clear that India was going to win.

What was equally clear was that the debate over nationalism and its many meanings was also playing out here amid the chants of ‘Bharat Mata Ki Jai’ and three giant flags announcing the ‘Bharat Army’. The two Pakistani flags were dwarfed by six massive Indian flags and every blowing of a conch shell was followed by shouts of ‘Bharat Mata Ki Jai’. And Mamata Banerjee, flanked by the Trinamool’s Muslim face and minister Firhad Hakim, promised Eden Gardens that her government would always support cricket.

In this massive arena of Indian support, there were three groups of Pakistani fans. “I’m here for the match. I am travelling all over the country and I do hope India wins. Although I wish this wasn’t all so last minute. A lot of my friends were denied visas and didn’t get tickets in time,” said Usman Ali, a Pakistani fan.

The big screen in the ground repeatedly reminded fans that any “wrongful display” of the national flag would invite punishment.

Before the game began, Amitabh Bachchan, who later sang the national anthem, said a few words to Kolkata, at Mamata Banerjee’s prodding. The 50-odd team that was busy drying the pitch let go of the dryers and listened intently. One of them, Abhishek, later said: “We get cricketers here all the time. But actors and legends like Imran Khan, that doesn’t happen very often.”

Surrounding the Chief Minister were journalists, politicians and party workers, equally star struck. There was no one from the BJP or the Left. Mukul Roy, who had been keeping a low profile since returning to TMC, watched the match from the club house stand and left soon after the match. After the first innings though, even he seemed to have forgotten the elections. “Jadeja bowled really well. Even if the pitch did help him,” he told a friend.

A senior TMC leader declared: “It’s a victory for Bengal that the match has been held here. And definitely a victory for Didi.”

Organisers too had gone out of their way to promote this “war” as a match for peace. Pakistani songs, like “Dil mein Pakistan” played alongside Bollywood hits. And there were cheers for Sania Mirza once Shoaib Malik was asked to bowl.

Each Indian run was cheered, and there were polite claps to Pakistani successes on the field. Imran Khan, who had been engaged in a long conversation with Steve Waugh, allowed himself a smile.

Mohammad Ali, a police officer who began his shift at 3 pm, was keeping an eagle eye: “We have been asked to ensure that cheering for India doesn’t lead to violence or arguments. The CM has promised safety to all.”

With the match ending on a high for India, the crowds surged for the exits. Out of the ground, and on board buses headed home, the talk moved to elections once again.

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