India's MS Dhoni bats against Pakistan during the ICC Champions Trophy final in London in 2017.


by RONNIE RUFF

PASSIONATE Indian and Pakistan fans will descend on Manchester this weekend as two of cricket’s biggest rivals meet in what should be a World Cup classic.

Set to be one of the tournament’s most watched encounters, up to one billion people from around the world are expected to tune in to see Virat Kohli and Sarfaraz Ahmed’s sides in action on Sunday (16).

Diplomatic tensions between the nations mean the teams only play each other in ICC events, giving even greater significance to the match at a sold-out Old Trafford.

Pakistan shocked India to win the ICC Champions Trophy, also held in England, the last time they clashed in a major event two years ago. That tie was the second-most watched game of all time, with half-a-billion views, and there are high hopes that Sunday’s match could surpass that.

There were almost half a million applications for the 23,000 seats, and as Eastern Eye went to press on Tuesday (11), tickets on secondary sites were on sale for over £3,600.

Despite both captains’ call to keep sport and politics separate, cricket historian and author Boria Majumdar said that element adds an extra ingredient to any contest between the two sides.

“India-Pakistan matches have always been billed as the ‘final before the final’, because people have attached political factors to the game,” Majumdar said.

“The moment you are singing the national anthem on the sports field, you are invoking a strong sense of nationalism. And what else is it but a political statement?”

Kohli and his teammates wore army camouflagestyle caps in a one-day match against Australia in March to show solidarity with the Indian paramilitary police killed in a recent Kashmir attack.

Majumdar added: “The hype is massive, tickets have been sold out, and the broadcasters will project it as the final before the final. Every player in his heart of hearts knows this is a very different game, an opportunity to become a national hero.”

There will a special ‘fan village’ set up in Cathedral Gardens in the city centre from Friday (14), with a range of multicultural food, music and entertainment on offer. The match will be shown on a big screen on Sunday. Extra police officers will be on patrol around Old Trafford and in the city centre.

Rakesh Patel, CEO and founder of Bharat Army, India’s biggest supporters club, is one of the lucky fans who will be at the match.

He told Eastern Eye just how important this weekend is to him, other British Asians and the thousands who have flown to the UK for the game.

“It’s a huge occasion any time India plays Pakistan, even more so in a World Cup match. Playing in a neutral venue in a country that has a huge Indian and Pakistan population just adds to it,” he said.

“The Bharat Army started 20 years ago during the 1999 Cricket World Cup, when India played Pakistan at Old Trafford. So, following the team around the world on the eve of India playing Pakistan in a World Cup match in Manchester again makes the celebration even more special.”

The Bharat Army is also planning a celebration of its own for both set of fans, with a huge party in Manchester’s Victoria Warehouse on Saturday (15). The group has even penned a special World Cup song called We are One for the tournament.

Patel added: “We expect 20,000 Indians at Old Trafford, which will be a lot different to how it was 20 years ago when the crowd was 70 per cent in favour of Pakistan.

“The stadium could have been sold out three or four times easy, such was the demand, and general tickets are being sold upwards of £1,000 in the secondary market.

“We wanted to put on something special. Our concert is an opportunity for fans to come together on the eve of the biggest match of the tournament.”

On the field, two-time winners India have made a positive start to the World Cup, beating both South Africa and the highly-fancied Australia in their first couple of matches.

After being hammered by the West Indies, Pakistan shocked hosts England by pulling off an upset win before their match with Sri Lanka was rained off.

Talking about whether politics can ever be put to the side by supporters, Patel said: “It’s easy for true followers of cricket because to them it’s just a game that’s followed by fans who share the same passion. It’s fair-weather fans who bring politics into a sport.

“We’ve already invited Pakistan fans to our event and they’ve invited us to theirs, and we will do everything we can to ensure we show unity. It’s a cricket match and nothing more.”