It was not quite Nero fiddling while Rome burned, but there was an eerie sense of calm at leafy Edgbaston where India and Pakistan played cricket in the backdrop of the atrocities of London. Not one full sleep after a van mowed down pedestrians on London Bridge, that most English of landmarks, and knife-wielding men slashed and stabbed people at a restaurant in Borough Market, cricket provided a soothing oasis of normalcy.
England has had more than its fair share of terror attacks in the recent past and the response from the public has always been one of not giving in, not being cowed down or allowing fear to hold them back.
At Edgbaston, security was always going to be a major factor given the political baggage that India-Pakistan cricket carries with it, wherever it goes. A full two hours before the game, the banter had begun between rival groups of fans, the Crescent and Moon fighting to be seen in a sea of the Tricolour. When India’s team bus pulled up outside the ground, the players in their self-preservatory bubble, a group of protesters pulled out their Freedom for Kashmir placards and raised slogans that fell on deaf ears. After all, there was a match to think about.
Security was so tight at the venue that Amitabh Chaudhary, the secretary of the Board of Control for Cricket in India, was stopped from entering the ground, his accreditation not quite having made it into the back-end system. Sourav Ganguly, who was just entering the ground, intervened, and normal service resumed.
When play began, however, after a moment’s silence for those who lost their lives in the London attacks, and stirring renditions of Qaumi Taranah and Jana Gana Mana — there are few more evocative things than hearing your country’s national anthem on foreign soil — India’s batsmen set about on the business-as-usual theme.
Rohit Sharma was beaten plenty by the skilful Mohammad Amir, but he huffed and puffed and protected his wicket, settling into a solid rhythm before unfurling his full range of strokes. Shikhar Dhawan, for his part, had one eye on the grey skies and another on the the white ball, deftly dabbing, gliding and easing the ball into gaps to help build a partnership.
As the atmosphere built, not dampened by the inevitable interruptions that the rain brought, and the beer flowed, Pakistani fans baying for a wicket, some no doubt buoyed by the product being sold as the Real Taste of India, tempers frayed and skirmishes broke out in the stands. Photographers getting close to the action were swiftly removed by the more pedantic enforcers of order and security around.
The Indian partnership for the opening wicket went past a hundred and Rohit, who has struggled to hit the high notes in the recent past, began playing the softening white ball from memory, like a maestro caressing the keys of a piano blindfolded. Dhawan began to find his timing, whipping the ball to the onside with some ease.
It wasn’t until India had 136 on the board that Pakistan struck, Dhawan (65) mowing a full-toss from leg spinner Shadab Khan straight to the fielder in the deep. A second rain break ensured that India’s batsmen, especially Rohit, could not build any momentum, and what once looked like it might be a tall score took on the feeling of desperation. While Rohit had done his bit seeing off the early challenges posed by the quick bowlers, when he was run out for 91 off 119 balls, he had racked up a whopping 63 dot balls. The millionaire batsman in Rohit probably thought singles were a pittance, and that his booming sixes would more than make up at the end, but that was not to be.
The stands may not have been packed when the game began, but there was barely a seat to be had anywhere in the stadium by the time the Indian innings drew to a close. Touts did a roaring business outside the ground, flogging tickets for in excess of 1000 pounds, buyers getting desperate to be a part of the action with India going well.
Virat Kohli, Yuvraj Singh and Hardik Pandya provided exactly the kind of late flourish that ensured that spectators got their money’s worth. A couple of spitting showers later, the skies cleared and the green turf of Edgbaston was bathed in glorious sunshine, and it did feel like all was well with the world.
(This article first appeared in the Economic Times on June 5, 2017)