Watching a film at a theatre — India’s most expensive movie, the Rajnikath starrer 2.0, or the family comedy Badhaai Ho — visiting Puri’s beaches and the Sun temple in Konark, exploring local malls and purchasing traditional gifts are the off-the-field agenda of the Pakistan hockey team during their three-week stay in Bhubaneswar for the World Cup.
While they have expressed paranoia over the actions of the organisers and rival teams in the last few days, off the field, Pakistan have been soaking in the atmosphere around the World Cup. In the past, the norm for most Pakistani teams visiting India has been to stay indoors, leaving the hotel only for official events, because of security reasons. But in a refreshing change, India’s arch-rivals on the field been given the freedom to travel in and around Bhubaneswar. A stringent security cover is in place but every attempt has been made to ensure that Pakistan players get to explore the city where they have come to play the World Cup, and the players are not letting the opportunity go.
“The schedule of the tournament is such that there are a lot of free days between two matches. We get bored at the hotel but thankfully, we have been allowed to travel without too much restriction,” Pakistan captain Muhammad Rizwan says. “I have heard a lot about the beaches here, and the Sun temple. If we get time, we would like to go there.”
“When we came to Delhi for the World Cup and Commonwealth Games in 2010, we would simply have to sit in the hotel room because of security reasons. But here in Bhubaneswar, we are getting a lot of freedom to roam around. The hospitality has been incredible. In fact, we took tips from our security officers to buy sarees,” says former Pakistan captain Rehan Butt, who is here as the team’s coach.
While they have received friendly reception wherever they have gone, on-field, Pakistan have had troubled last few days, giving rise to conspiracy theories in their camp. On Wednesday, their former coach Roelant Oltmans lodged a complaint against defender Ahmad Butt for ‘intentionally’ hurting one of the Malaysian players during a penalty corner defence. Butt was summoned for a hearing on Saturday and was let off with a reprimand. On Thursday, the International Hockey Federation pulled up their assistant coach Danish Kaleem for not wearing his accreditation card while entering official areas. To make matters worse, their captain Mohammad Rizvan had to pull out of the tournament after he fractured his toe. “We have struggled to focus on hockey in the last few days. May be this is all tactic from rival teams to distract us,” coach Tauqeer Dar said.
However, the on-field troubles have hampered their plans to explore the city. Last week, when they visited the city’s biggest mall, they were mobbed by roughly 200 fans for autographs and selfies. Even during their first match against Germany, the Pakistan team received a thunderous welcome by a packed crowd. “The reception we have received is like a dream. Everyone has been so kind and hospitable,” says Butt.
But one thing perplexes the Pakistani legend. Not a day has passed when someone hasn’t persuaded him to watch 2.0, the latest Rajnikanth movie. And he cannot figure out why. “Some of us are really keen to watch Badhaai Ho. Since there is just one show very early in the morning, we haven’t been able to go for it. So we have been asking around for good recommendations and everyone is telling me to watch Rajnikanth,” Butt says.
They are, however, shadowed by the security guards closely. Of the 16 teams participating at the World Cup, Pakistan’s security is the tightest – they have one pilot and two protection vehicles escorting the team. Every time the team leaves its hotel, the road leading up to their destination is cordoned off and the traffic is stopped.
The team management has been told to give the security team a 24-hour notice before they plan any visits so they can sanitize the place. That rule, however, was relaxed on Monday, when the team made an impulsive plan. The players wanted to buy sarees. Bored sitting in their hotel, they wanted to venture out. Initially, the security won’t let them leave their hotel.
It was turning into an awkward scenario as the team management kept on persisting. Eventually, the security detail assigned to the team relented. They alerted the police station near the main market; they in turn cordoned off the area and only after that were the players taken to the shop, where they spent a couple of hours buying sarees for their friends and family.
Almost every Pakistani player and official is gushing about the reception they have received since arriving in Bhubaneswar on November 24. The mood is exact opposite to the one four years ago, when they left some players of the Pakistani team got involved in an ugly exchange with a section of the crowd at the Kalinga Stadium after they beat India in the semifinal of the Champions Trophy in 2015. In the aftermath of it, India snapped all bilateral hockey relations with Pakistan and forced them to issue an apology. Since then a lot of water has flown under the bridge.