“You’re at the wrong ground mate.”
These were the words welcoming an Englishman who walked to his seat in the stands at the Vauxhall end of the Oval Cricket Ground. A group of raucous Indians were trying to put this outsider in his place. “At least you should be wearing an India shirt, because we’re playing against Australia, your enemy.”
The irony that the forefathers of this very English gent, sporting his team’s colours, established this ground back in 1845, and that the first Test in the country was played here in 1880 was clearly lost on the men wearing India’s blue.
Of the 25,000 that can fit into the Oval, one enterprising journalist counted 36 people dressed in Australian yellow, only to later reveal that these were the jackets of the stewards in place to keep the peace. There were a few Australians in the stands, but for the most it was India’s supporters.
“Look, if you want to get tickets to these matches, you have to watch the online booking page like a hawk,” said Bharvgav Patel, who will attend three of India’s matches in this tournament. “At 3am, when the tickets go on sale, my friends and I are ready and waiting, refreshing the page every few seconds and as soon as a ticket is available on the system.”
The sheer tenacity of these fans combined with the large number of Indians looking for these tickets meant that Australia’s fans had completely lost the online ballot.
But, it was not merely Indians in the United Kingdom who had come to the party. An official revealed that there had been a dramatic increase in the number of Indians travelling from home, using official International Cricket Council packages. And these tended to be groups, rather than individuals or families.
But, even in this, there were committed individuals who managed to find their place in the stadium. Take the gent who identified himself as Babs in an interview with a ICC digital channel. “This is my 600th day of watching India at the grounds,” he said. “My first game was in Tunbridge Wells in 1983 when Kapil Dev made 175 not out. That was special.”
And he has another special and rare Kapil moment. “I was also at the ground when Kapil Dev hit four sixes to avoid the follow-on,” he said. That was the 1990 Test when, with one wicket remaining, Kapil hit four consecutive sixes off Eddie Hemmings to get India past the follow-on mark. If you think Babs was stuck in the past, think again. His favourite player is Virender Sehwag, and was once mistaken for a member of the larger team group by Rahul Dravid in Sri Lanka.
For one group of friends, who grew up together but now live in far corners of the world, the quadrennial event is a chance to catch up. Shabad Thadani, who lives in Hong Kong, has linked up with two friends to take in the cricket. “It’s a blast. We save up to do this. It’s not cheap of course, but we love cricket and the Indian team and it’s a great way to connect every World Cup with old buddies,” said Thadani. “I met these same buddies four years ago in Australia during the World Cup.”
But there are others with even more dramatic stories. Ritwik Mallik is on his first trip outside India. Having bought his tickets and planned the travel through the Bharat Army, Mallik was faced with a dilemma when he attended a job interview after recently completing a Masters in Business Administration. “When I went for my interview I did not ask about higher compensation or position. But I did make it clear that I needed a week off during this time because I had to be at the World Cup,” said Malik. “This was a non-negotiable for me. Fortunately, it worked out.”
Sitting in the stands was to be engulfed by the chant of Jeetega Bhai Jeetega, India Jeetega, from start to finish. What began gently and cheerfully enough grew urgent and even belligerent as the Bira kegs emptied out and the fans got more spirited. The now mandatory drums were in place, the dhols of Punjab becoming the soundtrack of the Oval where once the horns of Brixton rang out in support of the mighty West Indies.
India have long had a serious axe to grind over being colonised by the British. Freedom may have been hard fought and won, but the legacy of being ruled over still remained, in one way or another. If you follow India at the cricket in this tournament, you will not be able to escape the sense that the colonisation process is being applied in reverse, one cricket ground at a time.