Wednesday, June 19, 2024

A giant party and dad dancing galore – how India vs Pakistan converted a U.S. sports fan to cricket

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“You don’t know what you’re witnessing, this is World War 3.”

I’m at my first cricket match and as I take my seat, that’s what I’m told. It’s India versus Pakistan and the fan sitting next to me is explaining what the rivalry means. Rushabh, who has travelled from Chicago to be here in New York city supporting India, says that beating Pakistan would be as good as winning the tournament. 

That tournament is the men’s T20 World Cup, which the United States is co-hosting along with the West Indies. It’s the first time a cricket event of this magnitude has taken place here and, being the obsessive and curious sports fan that I am, I had to check it out. I knew almost nothing about the sport but it didn’t take any expertise, only a surface-level awareness of world politics, to know that India against Pakistan was the match to see. 

I drove the 30 miles from Brooklyn to Nassau County on Long Island for the match, but I met plenty of fans who came from further afield including New Jersey, Toronto, Atlanta and Los Angeles. One India supporter had a sign that read, “Drove 2000 km for this game!”


The Athletic has become a cricket convert (Michael Dominski/The Athletic)

As soon as I reached the stadium, I felt as though I had entered a festival. In front of me was a sea of colours, dominated by the blue and orange of the India fans and punctuated by the occasional green and white of Pakistan. There was chanting, laughing, and more dancing than I’ve ever seen at a sporting event. I saw several fans wearing neon green or blue afro wigs, and there were more flags of the two nations than I could count. 

The India-Pakistan cricket rivalry is one of the most bitter in world sport — opposing supporters have clashed in the past and defeats have been met with furious reactions at home — but you would never know it from the good-natured interactions I saw. Fist-bumps were as tempestuous as it got. Each national anthem was respected — not a given from my experience watching soccer — and booing or heckling was limited.

I witnessed a gigantic party. Every six that was hit, akin to a home run, was met with a big celebration and every wicket that was taken, like an out in baseball, was an even bigger deal. Harsh, an India fan from Toronto sitting near me, was running up and down the aisle celebrating each one with strangers. The stadium was blasting music when the ball wasn’t in play and I saw a lot of the worst dad-dancing imaginable. 

There was an instant camaraderie between all the fans around me despite them being strangers, more than I’ve experienced at other sporting events. When they learned I was a reporter at my first cricket match, they became my teachers for the day. Harsh echoed others in telling me that I picked the best possible match to come to. “Either this or England versus Australia,” he said. “But they’re more civil, we’re more expressive.”

Politics never intruded on my experience of this match, but it was never far away. A plane circled the stadium with a message reading “Release Imran Khan”, the former Pakistan prime minister and cricket star who is in prison. I saw signs with the same message and fans wearing jerseys with his face on the front. As I entered the stadium, I found Chuck Schumer, the majority leader of the US Senate from New York, glad-handing fans and posing for photos. 


Schumer meeting India fans (Michael Dominski/The Athletic)

In the stands, my only mistake of the day was asking a fan if he knew the score of the men’s French Open final in the tennis. He looked at me as if I’d told him a funny joke. “I only care about two sports,” he replied before another fan interjected, “Cricket and cricket! Cricket is a religion.” 

If cricket is a religion then the T20 World Cup is a missionary. The ICC, the sport’s global governing body, is making a concerted effort to grow its following in the US. It’s the second-most popular sport in the world, with more than a billion fans, but this country offers stronger revenue growth opportunities than anywhere else. Formula One has made a similar push into the US for the same reason. 

Whether the sport will truly gain a foothold here is another question. Living in Brooklyn, any marketing for the T20 World Cup taking place in my backyard missed me. If I did not work for The Athletic, I would not have known it was taking place. 

The US’s shock win over Pakistan on Thursday did generate publicity, but the tournament has not broken into mainstream consciousness. Soccer took several decades to create a real following in the US — and I can’t see that process moving any faster for cricket. 

The good news for those hoping to create new cricket fans in the U.S. is the sport isn’t nearly as foreign to Americans as it seems. It bears many striking similarities to baseball, from sixes and wickets resembling home runs and outs, to outfielders being repositioned for different batters. It has a version of a switch hit and of a replay-review challenge system that Americans have become all too familiar with.

A tarp covered the central part of the pitch during a rain delay, and a stadium announcer even likened the India-Pakistan rivalry to that of the Red Sox and Yankees during the pre-match build-up. And much like MLB’s recent introduction of a pitch clock, T20 is a relatively new format that dramatically shortens the game in an effort to attract younger fans. 

The fan behaviour, while exuberant and festive, does not feel different either. Cricket has a new fan in me, and not just because eating chicken tikka masala at a match was a delight. This match was a thrilling rollercoaster of emotions. The sell-out crowd of more than 34,000 was at least 90 per cent India supporters, and after losing the coin-toss, their team batted first. The party atmosphere carried on for a while, but it began to diminish as India’s batters struggled to a meagre score.

Cricket in this format resembles a one-innings game of baseball, where the first team posts a score and the second team chases it down. India finished with 119 runs, a sum that left Rushabh saying “it’s done” and giving his team just a 10 per cent chance of winning. The Pakistan supporters had become the ones partying, one near me waving goodbye to the opposition as those around him sang and danced. 


The Athletic with Rushabh (Michael Dominski/The Athletic)

Not every India fan lost hope, though. Another one next to me responds “Hell yeah!” when I ask whether they still have a chance. Harsh, the supporter who has travelled from Toronto, tells me that Pakistan are like his beloved Maple Leafs, “They can’t play under pressure.” 

The pro-India atmosphere is subdued as Pakistan begin batting, but when the first wicket is taken and survives a replay review, the crowd begins to have life again. By the time India take their fourth wicket, the party is well and truly back on. Pakistan are falling slightly short.

When India take their sixth wicket and Pakistan are down to their last six balls with which to score runs, the comeback is virtually assured. The mixture of joy and relief all around me sweeps me up like a wave, impossible to resist joining in on. 

While many of the Pakistan fans look positively miserable, the result still doesn’t appear to generate rancour. One supporter sitting behind me can’t hide his disappointment but is still magnanimous, admitting the better team won. 

An Indian song is played over the stadium’s speakers and the volume of singing reaches its peak for the day. As I exit, it’s clear to me that I’m the sport’s newest convert.

The World Cup will soon be over but Major League Cricket, a professional T20 league here in the US that began in 2023, will begin its second season immediately afterward. Looking further ahead, the sport is due to be played at the 2028 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles for the first time since 1900. As cricket searches for new fans, only one question remains: Who’s with me?

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