This was a giant of an occasion, but a midget of a match. After all the weeks of anticipation, the days of travel as fans journeyed across India and from its diaspora towards the homing beacon this epic bowl had become, and the hours as they filed and then flooded into the ground, in cricket terms it was decided in little more than the blink of an eye, the time it took for Pakistan to crumble.
With almost no Pakistani presence in the stands the game ended up almost as one-sided as the crowd. Mickey Arthur, Pakistan’s team manager, complained that “it didn’t seem like an ICC event to be brutally honest – it seemed like a BCCI event”, but admitted his side “went into our shells a little bit”.
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Pakistan now have a 0-8 record in these matches at World Cups – this was not the first time they have shrunk to the occasion. But midway through the 30th over they were 155 for two, Babar Azam had just reached his half-century and Mohammad Rizwan’s was not far away. They had scored slowly, but importantly they had not lost wickets, had two set batters and seemed poised to post a challenging score.
From that moment they faced 78 balls, scored 36 runs and lost eight wickets. After Babar and Rizwan’s partnership of 82 came sequels of seven, four, two, three, 16, none and three. There was good bowling and good captaincy – as soon as Pakistan started reeling Rohit Sharma rushed Jasprit Bumrah back to deliver the knockout blows – but the team in green ended with a total to match their miserable resistance. “We’ve had success by taking it deep and then cashing in at the back end,” said Arthur. “That’s been our style, that’s been our brand. But we didn’t play the Pakistan way tonight.”
Only twice in the past 20 years, both in 2011, have a team successfully defended a total below 200 at the World Cup, and this never looked likely to become a third, not with Rohit in this kind of mood. He hit his first ball for four and by the time he was out, 63 balls, six fours, six sixes and 86 runs later, India were 36 from victory, whereupon Shreyas Iyer assumed control. Rohit’s was an innings of ambition, sweet timing and occasionally sheer contempt, in which he did some particularly mean things to Haris Rauf. “For us, it was an opposition we wanted to play,” Rohit said. For Pakistan, it seemed an opposition they wanted to flee from.
A poor game, then, but a hell of a party, made all the sweeter for those present by the fact everyone could start celebrating so swiftly – and that for all the predicted chaos the event seemed as smooth as India’s victory procession. At 9am, five hours before the start and an hour before the gates opened, local roads had already been shut down, queues of suddenly boxed-in cars were coming to terms with the fact that the streets they were happily driving down had just become dead ends, car parks were approaching capacity, and fans – the vast majority wearing India’s blue shirts – were gathering at the gates.
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Outside the main entrance they spilled down the street and into the distance as final preparations were made for their entry. There was a heavy security presence – at least nine different police or military uniforms, plus a private security firm for good measure – but the atmosphere was relaxed as those outside sounded air horns and chanted to pass the time.
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Nearby, India’s National Disaster Response Force – a bit like St John’s Ambulance, but with a much scarier name – stood ready for action. While mainly focused on first aid the Times of India reported it had also prepared contingencies “for any chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear emergencies during the match”, which was not entirely reassuring.
Four hours before the scheduled start the gates opened and, slowly, the ground filled. Early arrivals were treated to an opening ceremony, a slick succession of locally renowned singers, which seemed an odd thing to do before the 12th game of the tournament, but not entirely outlandish. The previous 11 had all suffered for not being this one, for being in the shadow of this beast. The question now, as the rest of the tournament leaves it behind, is how long Pakistan are going to be stuck there.