A fan gets his face painted in the India and Pakistan colours

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Frenemies forever

Presenting India v Pakistan, a British rivalry. With a little more dosti than you suspect

Vithushan Ehantharajah  |  

"I was at the 2004 one which India lost," recalls Balraj Matharu, an India fan born and raised in Leeds. "That was annoying. I was up in Edinburgh, where I went to university, but I was ill in hospital with a stomach bug. I managed to discharge myself and get down to Edgbaston for the match. And then we f**king lost!"

Also present at that Champions Trophy match, in which Pakistan beat India by three wickets, was Nazid Khan, a Pakistan fan from east London. "I went with my mates, who are Indian fans, and we agreed that the winner would buy everyone dinner. So it turned out to be an expensive day out for me." Nazid's mates returned the favour at the 2013 Champions Trophy, when India won a rain-affected match by eight wickets.

In the build-up to the big game on Sunday, June 4, you will hear a lot about how India v Pakistan is more than just a cricket match. Some might term it a matter of "life and death". Others, on cue, will claim it is more than that. You will hear about divisions. About the partition of British India and the large-scale, bloody violence that claimed, some estimate, as many as two million lives.

In the eight years since the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks, India and Pakistan have played each other just 16 times. Starting with the 1999 World Cup, this will be their fourth international and third Champions Trophy match on British soil. There was also a warm-up game at The Oval before the 2009 World T20, declared by Steve Elworthy, the tournament director, as the biggest contest of the competition.

"We'd invite our India friends over and they'd bring flags to our place. It was all a laugh, but when the game started, all the fun went out of the window!" England cricketer Sajid Mahmood

The crowd dynamics for India v Pakistan vary across the globe. Matches hosted in Sharjah during the mid-'90s were described by those who attended as dangerous affairs: overcrowding, unsegregated stands, and heavy-handed security, leading to appalling scenes around the stadium. It was not much better in England during that period.

In 1992, a floodlit India-Pakistan charity match for Imran Khan's cancer hospital at the Crystal Palace National Sports Centre was played before a crowd reported to be 16,500. The game featured Sachin Tendulkar, Kapil Dev, Wasim Akram, Waqar Younis and Imran himself. Kapil smashed a century, but the match was abandoned after fighting in the stands spilled onto the field.

A few days later, a fixture in Manchester between an Asian XI and World XI was called off for crowd trouble, with the odd flag being burned, and it prompted the BCCI to threaten its players with suspension for participating in these exhibition matches without the board's consent. At the Under-15 World Cup final at Lord's in 1996, fans fought on the pitch after India beat Pakistan, and in 1997, as the teams faced off in distant Toronto, clashes between fans in Leicester required heavy police intervention.

Also in Leicester, in the lead-up to the 1999 World Cup, the police were called to a match between Hindu and Muslim sides after a player assaulted an opponent with a bat. It meant heightened security for the India v Pakistan game at Old Trafford, played in the shadow of the Kargil conflict. While that match went by without much disturbance, the tension in the air was unsettling.

The ground was 70-30 in favour of green over blue. India fans made a point of going to the bar or the toilets in groups of four, in case they were jumped. When India completed their win, a number of Pakistan fans stormed the ground. There were fights outside the stadium, and further along on the way into the centre of Manchester. Even in service stations and gridlocked motorways on the way home, fans were getting out of their cars to trade blows.

Now things have mellowed, largely because the ill will has diluted over generations. "I think the 'hate' that the media always talk about, or that some politicians from either side try and stoke up, is forced for the sake of it," says Nazid. "Of course, a lot of that comes from being brought up over here in the UK. We don't have the hang-ups like they used to. At the end of the day, for those of us living here - we're all English who just happen to support our team, whether that's India or Pakistan.

Fans invade the pitch during a India-Pakistan charity game at Crystal Palace in 1992

Fans invade the pitch during a India-Pakistan charity game at Crystal Palace in 1992 © PA Photos

"You take an Indian and Pakistani from the Punjab: we do business together, we socialise together, we're all very similar. The only reason, I think, there's any hate is because it suits some of the politicians for us to hate each other. It seems the crux of politics now that you have to have an enemy."

Balraj agrees. "Obviously there's a lot of political history behind it, but I guess it's now a bit like watching a derby match in football. You know that they hate each other but they are pretty similar in many ways."

"I always joke about this with my mates," starts Nazid. "If a racist sees me - a Pakistani - and my Indian mate walking down the road in East Ham and shouts abuse at us, what does he say? Does he single him out for being Indian and me for being Pakistani? Nah. We're both Pakis to him!"

This year Sajid Iqbal Mahmood will attend an India v Pakistan match for the first time with a mix of his Pakistani and Indian friends.

Mahmood was born in 1981 in Bolton, Greater Manchester to Pakistani immigrants. His father was from Rawalpindi, his mother from Islamabad. Spotted by a Lancashire Cricket Club scout while playing in the local Bolton Leagues, he became the beneficiary of an injury to a Lancashire U-17 bowler on the eve of a match; soon he was on a scholarship. It was at this point that Mahmood realised he was something of a commodity - a bowler of rare, frightening pace - and had a shot at making it to the top of the game. So, aged 16, he decided to start supporting England.

"I kinda took a step back and thought about everything," says Mahmood, now 35, with 38 England caps behind him. "I sort of realised that I wanted to play for England because that was my home country. That was where all my opportunity came.

In 1999, Rakesh Patel started the Bharat Army, an Indian supporters group that has grown to nearly 3000 members worldwide. Their Pakistan equivalent is the Stani Army

"Growing up in a Pakistani household, and I suppose the same as any other South Asian background, cricket basically runs in your blood. I used to love watching Pakistan and supporting them. You know, cricket can be so traditional and stale, but here was a team playing exciting cricket with players that were not necessarily textbook. My roots are in Pakistan and, not only that, I wanted to support a team with a bit of flair."

In the summer of 2006, Mahmood lined up for a Test series against Pakistan. His friends and family, filled with pride, were torn. At the time, Mahmood said he expected a hostile reception from the stands and wouldn't be surprised if his father led the booing. "Bear in mind - I grew up supporting Pakistan and watching the likes of Waqar, Wasim and Inzamam. They were heroes of mine. Suddenly, I'm playing against Inzamam and players like Mohammad Yousuf. I was like, 'Jesus, what's going on here!'"

Things almost spilt over at the end of the third Test, at Headingley. In the second innings Mahmood took a career-best 4 for 22 as Pakistan were bowled out for 155 chasing 323. As well as taking wickets, Mahmood was involved in an ongoing battle with the batsman Faisal Iqbal, which irritated the Pakistan fans. Between his overs, Mahmood was subject to severe abuse at the boundary, and after he "had a bit of a chirp back", security guards got involved.

"At the end of the day, I was leaving Headingley in my car and a few Pakistan fans were asking for autographs. I drove up to them and wound my window down, then suddenly a few other fans charged at my car and started shaking it and banging on the hood. I thought they were going to smash in my windows. It was a bit surreal, to be honest."

It was an incident that bore no reflection on the wider reaction to Mahmood's position as an England cricketer. "That was the funny thing. My Pakistan mates seemed to love the fact I was playing for England and representing our community. But the moment I played against Pakistan, everything changed! But when the series finished, it all changed again. People were apologising to me for stuff they'd said."

While players consider the rivalry as just another contest in a professional sphere, sometimes emotions can spill over in high-stakes games. Shoaib Akhtar and Rahul Dravid face off at the 2004 Champions Trophy, Edgbaston

While players consider the rivalry as just another contest in a professional sphere, sometimes emotions can spill over in high-stakes games. Shoaib Akhtar and Rahul Dravid face off at the 2004 Champions Trophy, Edgbaston Laurence Griffiths / © Getty Images

He regards messages from his family saying "sorry" for rooting against him as the funniest he received, not least because they had spent many hours huddled together in front of the same TV, watching Pakistan, displaying the sort of over-the-top passion that living rooms aren't designed for - especially for India games.

"We used to watch India-Pakistan matches together and we'd invite our India friends over and they'd bring flags to our place, or we'd go to theirs and do the same. The whole thing was an event. And I remember: it was all a laugh, but when the game started, all the fun went out of the window!"

During his playing days, he was never a big watcher of the game, and any banter with fellow England players of Indian descent, such as Vikram Solanki, Ravi Bopara and Monty Panesar, was minimal - something Mahmood puts down to the fact that they were all either born or brought up in England. Now he is looking to enjoy the experience as a fan.

"You know, it's huge with my mates. WhatsApp's always going mad when there's an India-Pakistan game on, or when they're playing other teams. But it was never much with the players. I think that's because cricketers see it as just a job and it's just what we do. When you're out of the game and talking to fans that don't play, they tend to be a bit more opinionated on it. I get into it with a lot of my Indian mates: whenever we have a bit of match chat, they'll be really on it and firing chat off back and forth."

"No doubt we want to try to put India versus Pakistan in our event," came the admission from ICC chief executive Dave Richardson last June, when the itinerary laid out for the 2017 Champions Trophy confirmed that, for the fifth tournament in succession, the teams would be in the same group. "It's hugely important from an ICC point of view," Richardson said. "It's massive around the world and the fans have come to expect it as well. It's fantastic for the tournament because it gives it a massive kick."

"When I used to play in the park, if we had enough people, we'd always play India versus Pakistan. Every time. Even in the park, it gets the best out of you" Warwickshire's Sunny Singh

Richardson did his best to argue away this, well, "fix": that care was taken to ensure that the two pools were balanced. "It's silly to avoid [the fixture] when you can fairly cater for it." Silly to avoid and silly to let slip.

Having successfully hosted the game in the 2004 Champions Trophy was seen as a good reason to award Edgbaston the 2013 match, and having impressed with their handling of a frustrating, rain-affected match, they were entrusted with 2017 too.

"We've learned a lot from 2013 and 2004, just in terms of how to handle the crowd and that dynamic," says the Warwickshire CEO, Neil Snowball. And at the core of those lessons is developing a greater understanding of the Asian community. Birmingham, while majority white British, has a large number of Pakistani and Indian residents. The Pakistani community, making up 13.5% of the population, is more than twice as large as the Indian community (6%). In all, 21.8% identify themselves as Muslim and 86% consider themselves to be British, regardless of ethnicity.

A crucial concept the club came to understand is one often joked about among the Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis and Sri Lankans alike - "Asian time".

In both 2004 and 2013, fans, despite turning up surprisingly early outside the stadium to revel in the atmosphere, were late to make their way inside. It resulted in huge queues as the game began, with some spectators able to get in only after the first ten overs. Stewards and the police were caught off guard. This time around, the county, with the help of West Midlands Police, has made a note to have feet on the ground earlier in the day, and to make announcements encouraging spectators to take their seats in good time. The club was also surprised by the level of interest in the Colts Ground, where the players warmed up in 2013. Fans desperate to get a closer glimpse of their heroes lined up nearly five-deep and were not too happy when told to move along. This time there will be an adequate barrier between the fans and the players.

An India fan falls to the ground during a pitch invasion at Old Trafford during the 1999 World Cup game between the two sides

An India fan falls to the ground during a pitch invasion at Old Trafford during the 1999 World Cup game between the two sides © PA Photos

Another aspect the club had not considered was the sheer number of fans who turned up without tickets, leading to overcrowding on the concourse and the roads around the stadium. This time, it is liaising with West Midlands Police over a partial road closure, which would "extend" the concourse. And while it is actively discouraging people from coming to Edgbaston if they do not have tickets, it is in talks with the ICC, ECB, Birmingham City Council, and Marketing Birmingham to stage a fan park in Victoria Square, a pedestrian area. The idea comes from Snowball, who worked on the 2015 Rugby World Cup, for which there were fan parks in all 13 host cities. It also helps address a common complaint across the three 2013 Champions Trophy venues: that while the activity was evident around the grounds, there was little buzz in the cities themselves.

But the biggest long-term changes have come inside Edgbaston. The food kiosks now feature halal catering, and on major match days, blocks one to three of the Drayton Manor Stand are officially an alcohol-free "Family Stand". The ground now has a prayer room; during the Friday of the England v Pakistan Test in 2016, prayers were led by Inzamam-ul-Haq.

These developments are a happy progression from a past that was not quite as welcoming of the Asian community. "It is something over the last 12 to 18 months that we have focused on," says Snowball. "We want to open our doors to everybody."

In 2015, in the middle of an Ashes summer, the ECB brought in a director of participation and growth, the Australian Matt Dwyer, who had successfully used the Big Bash League to increase spectators and playing numbers. In his first six months in the job, Dwyer discovered that kids and adults of South Asian descent were six times more likely to play cricket than others. With that in mind, the ECB identified target counties to improve their links with their Asian communities. Warwickshire was one of them.

"The baggage of things like partition, I don't think it affects the communities in the same way as it might have done. We're British in everything but name, I guess" Gulfraz Riaz, National Asian Cricket Council

The scale of Asian participation in Warwickshire is startling. The Birmingham Parks League, almost entirely Asian, features 80 teams playing on council grounds. There is the Al Faisals League - a two-tiered system, with six teams each - and the Local Leagues. Perry Hall Park, a cricket equivalent of Hackney Marshes, now has 15 cricket squares - all grass - as well as toilets and shelters. With Chance To Shine, Warwickshire runs ten free schemes in Birmingham and eight in Coventry; the initiatives revolve around tape-ball cricket, with 250 (mostly Asian) youngsters playing every week, and competitions during holidays and half-terms.

And the club has at last taken cognisance of some remarkable institutions just a short drive away from its headquarters - such as Attock Cricket Club.

Attock Cricket Club's roots go back to 1975. After a wave of migrants from South Asia set foot in the UK in the 1960s, their children were the next wave to arrive, around a decade later. A group of these "children" from Attock - a city on the northern border of the Pakistani Punjab - who played cricket together, decided to continue playing in England. They rustled up a group of about 13 and formed a wandering cricket team, using someone's living room in Sparkbrook in south-east Birmingham as a base to make teas for their matches. Primarily playing in the Parks League, they had their moments, but because they were unable to move up into the Birmingham Leagues, which was closed to sides like theirs, they had plateaued.

In 1989, Naz Khan, a teacher at Joseph Chamberlain Sixth Form College who had helped start the college's cricket team, was asked by a Warwickshire representative to watch Attock and provide his assessment. Naz attended Attock's match against British Rail but left annoyed and dismayed: it descended into a fight after Attock's opening bowler knocked out a batsman with a bouncer.

A year or so later, Naz returned to assess Attock's set-up, this time as a favour to some of his students who played for the club. He knew that the best thing for the club was to move leagues, but that meant proper infrastructure. They hopped around to all corners of Birmingham and various council grounds for nets and matches. And playing in a new system brought its own problems: the level of racist abuse, sometimes even from security guards who were supposed to be keeping the council grounds safe, was galling. At the end of one season, when Naz had had enough of the club's players being referred to as "Pakis and coons", he called in some favours and marched into a few offices to demand help from the council to find Attock a home ground.

You can never have enough taunts, brags and war references at an India-Pakistan game

You can never have enough taunts, brags and war references at an India-Pakistan game © Getty Images, PA Photos

Within six weeks Attock had secured the ground they still inhabit: a playing field at Moseley School. Initially the school's head teacher was resistant to the idea, but Naz soon talked her around. If you hadn't realised already, Naz Khan is a man who gets things done. In 1994, Attock received funding from Sport England for a pavilion and to get equipment for maintenance of the ground. From that point on, the club has been on the up. A change in the Birmingham Leagues in the late '90s to make it a pyramid structure helped Attock get all the way up to Division One (the second tier). This season the club will have five Saturday teams, two Sunday teams and five Colts sides.

In 2016, Attock hosted the first Fans Trophy match between the Barmy Army (representing England) and "Pakistan" - a side featuring players from across the country, including from Attock. The match was such a success, in terms of turnout as well as media coverage, that on May 15 this year a second Fans Trophy Match was played, between "India" and "Pakistan". The Indian side was a mix of players from the Bharat Army and club cricketers from Leicester and London, as well as from an Indian-majority Birmingham club that has a strong relationship with Attock: Smethwick.

Smethwick, founded over 150 years ago, is an established club with surer financial footing than Attock, and the ability to sign marquee players. Their former stars include Sydney Barnes, Mushtaq Mohammad (who, incidentally, went on to become one of Attock's biggest supporters), Dennis Amiss, Steve Waugh, and for two games after the 1999 World Cup, Wasim Akram (he took eight wickets, and scored 135 and a duck).

One Smethwick player starting to command the spotlight is Sukhjit "Sunny" Singh - a 20-year-old left-arm spinner on the Warwickshire books since 2012.

Sunny was born in the Indian Punjab, just a couple of miles away from the Mohali Stadium. His father died when he was five, and the family struggled for the next few years, barely scraping by, before moving to England in search of a better life. They began that life with relatives in Walsall, north-west of Birmingham.

There was a spine-tingling moment when both sets of fans sang along to the hit song from the 1975 Hindi film Sholay, "Yeh Dosti Hum Nahi Todenge" (This friendship we will never break)

Just nine years old in a foreign country, with barely a word of English, Sunny found it difficult at first. While he was able to get to grips with school, play cricket and get a part-time job in a supermarket, he struggled socially. He was mugged more than once. The way he speaks about those days now tells you all you need to know about Sunny. "It wasn't easy but I ended up making friends, playing more cricket. I'd like to think I wouldn't get robbed now, as I know a few more people!"

When he moved with his mother and sister into a place of their own, Sunny began taking his cricket more seriously. At 15, he was brought into the Warwickshire academy and spent most of the 2016 and 2017 pre-season with the first-team squad. For him, Smethwick is a home away from home.

"It's majority Indian but there are some Pakistani players there too. It's the first time I've played in that kind of team in England. It's different but I feel a bit more comfortable and it's been a great experience. Culturally people are similar to me and understand what I'm like."

Sunny is desperate to get to this year's Champions Trophy match - but that will depend on whether or not he is in action for the 1st or 2nd XI. He wasn't able to make the 2013 India-Pakistan match, but was inundated with requests from friends and family for tickets. He hopes that after four years he has better connections. He is excited by what he describes as "a very Birmingham rivalry".

"Obviously I grew up in India and I support them, but India-Pakistan feels like right over here. When I used to play in the park with my mates, if we had enough people, we'd always play India versus Pakistan. Every time. It was serious, really competitive. Even in the park, it gets the best out of you."

"As for what it means to me - people talk about it like a war. I just love the fact that everyone comes out in Birmingham to watch the match, and whether it's India or Pakistan, they make a big noise about it. I remember in 2013 people were on the roads after, beeping their horns and celebrating."

Sajid Mahmood started out as a Pakistan fan who went on to play for England against Pakistan, which created a dilemma for many British-Pakistan supporters

Sajid Mahmood started out as a Pakistan fan who went on to play for England against Pakistan, which created a dilemma for many British-Pakistan supporters © Getty Images

There was a similar scene on Sunny's road when India won the World Cup in 2011. In fact, across Birmingham, Leicester, Manchester, Leeds and London, there were similar scenes, impromptu street parties and car horns filling the night air until 3am. "Seriously - everything was jammed and it was so loud. It was like home."

In 1999, Rakesh Patel started the Bharat Army, an Indian supporters' group that has grown to nearly 3000 members worldwide. This Champions Trophy they will be responsible for bringing some 2000 fans to each India match. Over the course of the tournament, around 1000 Indian fans from overseas will attend as part of the Bharat Army's touring party.

Their Pakistan equivalent is the Stani Army, featuring characters such as Mr Pakistan. While not as big as the Bharat Army, they have built a steady following in the UK and the UAE. Both groups see it as their duty to push the amicable side of the rivalry, and make a point of taking photos with each other when their paths cross. But don't be mistaken - the mutual respect does not get in the way of the atmosphere. An atmosphere that has a very British feel.

"The crowds over here for India-Pakistan are much more vocal," says Rakesh. "There are more songs sung at matches in the UK. That comes from having more of a football culture, I suppose, which you don't get in India."

Speaking to fans on both sides, 2004 and 2013 were different experiences. While the 2004 atmosphere was helped by a close game, rain delays and a one-sided match in 2013 meant Edgbaston did not quite reach fever pitch. There was, however, a spine-tingling moment when both sets of fans sang along to the hit song from the 1975 Hindi film Sholay, "Yeh Dosti Hum Nahi Todenge" - "This friendship we will never break".

For this year's match the ECB enlisted the help of Two Circles, a sports marketing agency, which met with fans, including the Bharat Army, to improve spectator experience. Those entering the ballot for India v Pakistan tickets were able to specify whom they support, so that in the event they were successful they would be seated with like-minded fans.

There were fights along the way into the centre of Manchester. In service stations and gridlocked motorways, fans were getting out of their cars to trade blows

And having banned instruments for previous tournaments, the ICC decided to make exceptions. The Bharat Army has been given pre-approval for two dhol groups - one male, one female - to play in the stands. Music will also feature heavily before the game, with both groups booking open-top buses to take them to the ground. The Stani Army, as they did last year, will drive around the centre of Birmingham, while the Bharat Army will follow the India team bus and make their way to Edgbaston.

"It's always a great occasion, but this year it feels like it'll be really special," says Rakesh. "And I think you can see in 2013 and the lead-up to 2017 that the aggression has been replaced by banter between fans. It's not that heated rivalry of years gone by, because England is such a multicultural place and you'll go to school, work with or live next door to different people. Most fans that'll be going to these games will be second- or third-generation immigrants. That hate is long gone."

It is a sentiment that Gulfraz Riaz, one of the main characters behind the National Asian Cricket Council, wholeheartedly agrees with. Born in Pakistan but in England since the age of five, Gulfraz's work - mission might be a more appropriate word - is to bring Asian communities forward, out of the corners of society. The biggest indication of change he sees is at his local cricket club, Watford Town. "I've got a whole lot of Asian kids at my club: born and bred here, most fourth- or fifth-generation. And they've always said they supported India or Pakistan. And I couldn't really get my head around why they would." Then, something changed. Gulfraz calls it "the Moeen Ali factor".

"All of a sudden, kids were seeing this guy who looked like them, had a similar-sounding name and were like, 'I want to play for England.' I thought that was brilliant. That's exactly what I've been waiting to hear for a long time.

"The baggage of things like partition and all that nonsense from long before most of us were born, I don't think it affects the communities in the same way as it might have done. We're British in everything but name, I guess."

Can't do with 'em and can't do without beating 'em

Can't do with 'em and can't do without beating 'em © Associated Press

If there is a story that captures the best of the relationship between British Indian and British Pakistani fans, it is the final of the 2009 World T20.

As the tournament progressed and both teams made it out of the initial group stages, India fans fancied their chances. They entered the ballots for the final at Lord's and were rewarded with a healthy allocation of tickets. It was in keeping with a general trend: India fans have high expectations and look further ahead to the knockout stages; Pakistan fans, on the other hand, seem happy to purchase their tickets as late as possible. "You can't bank on Pakistan for the next game," says Nazid, weary from experience, "you never know when it's going to go wrong!"

In 2009, however, it went wrong for India. The team failed to hold up their side of the deal, getting knocked out in the Super 8s, losing all three matches. Pakistan, however, made it to the final.

But rather than flog their tickets online to the highest bidders, and knowing thousands of Pakistan fans would turn up at Lord's without tickets, many Indian fans travelled to St John's Wood on the morning of the game to sell their tickets directly to Pakistan fans. At the 2013 Champions Trophy, when a few local Pakistan fans had tickets for an India-England final, they returned the favour.

"Honestly, in 2009 it was incredible," remembers Nazid. "Some of them sold them on for a bit extra, some at face value. Let me tell you, the touts were getting really upset! But the Indians went out of their way to make sure the tickets got into the hands of proper Pakistan cricket fans."

Rakesh, one of those Indian fans to make the trip to Lord's to give up his tickets, concurs. "It wasn't about undercutting ticket touts or anything like that. We just wanted to make sure the tickets went to the right people.

"End of the day - we're all brothers. We just support different teams."

Vithushan Ehantharajah is a sportswriter for ESPNcricinfo, the Guardian, All Out Cricket and Yahoo Sport