Covering cricket, bridging nations: A Pakistani journalist’s journey through the ICC World Cup 2023

"For Pakistani journalists, this World Cup had been a ‘Will we? Won’t we?’ question from the start. With no communication even after the World Cup had started, most journalists, myself included, had given up," says Ali.


FIle photo of journalist, Mir Shabbir Ali. PHOTO: DAWN

December 1, 2023

ISLAMABAD – On a regular day at the office, sunk into my creaky chair at the Dawn sports desk, I received the most awaited phone call of my life. Coincidentally, this was during Pakistan’s match against Sri Lanka, which brought us the record for the highest chase in a cricket World Cup, as Abdullah Shafique had my eyes glued to the television.

I wouldn’t say I was expecting it, but I had surely prayed and hoped this day would come.

On the other side of the phone was the head of the visa office at the Indian High Commission. Apparently, I had been selected as one of the few journalists from Pakistan who were allowed to apply for a visa to cover the 50-over Cup. In true impostor-syndrome fashion, the first thing I did was confirm if was someone playing a prank on me. Thankfully, it wasn’t.

The dream comes to life

It has been decade-long dream to cover big sporting events; it’s what drove me to become a sports journalist. Visiting India too had always been on my bucket list, especially due to my ancestral roots. Both these things coming together made it all the more exhilarating.

For Pakistani journalists, this World Cup had been a ‘Will we? Won’t we?’ question from the start. The schedule of the tournament was announced just three months before it was set to begin and media accreditations confirmed just a month before. For anyone wondering — that is very little time to prepare for an event as big as the ICC World Cup.

Then I heard the news of fellow accredited journalists being turned away from the Visa Dropbox offices and being told that only a go-ahead from the Indian High Commission would allow them to continue processing the visa — which takes at least 40 days.

With no communication even after the World Cup had started, most of those journalists, myself included, had given up. But the call I had just received had changed everything. I asked around if my fellow journalists from other media houses had also received the call. It turned out some of them had. A few television channels also started running tickers about Pakistani journalists finally being invited to apply for visas.

The call came on a Tuesday, and I was looking at the possibility of being in India to watch the hosts take on Pakistan in Ahmedabad. Travel arrangements were made in haste and packing was basically me spilling my wardrobe into a suitcase. The next morning, I was standing outside the Indian High Commission in Islamabad, under the bright sun and crisp breeze, a perfect encapsulation of the uncertainty that we were facing.

After an hour of waiting outside, I and two other colleagues were allowed inside the embassy, where we were verbally told that we were most likely going to India. However, until I received my passport with the visa stamp, it was hard to really believe it.

The next day, there it was, my first-ever visa stamp with permission to visit five cities. India was happening!

The emotions came all at once — anxiety, stress, happiness, excitement and even fear — considering the political tensions between Pakistan and India. But I was not going to let all those feelings get in the way of what was to come; they were to be deferred to another day when I would have enough time to address them.

We travelled to Lahore that very night. A short nap was all I could manage before heading to the Wagah Border, from where we were to enter India via Attari.

The last time I visited Wagah was in my adolescent years to see the daily flag-hoisting ceremony. I remember being fascinated by how a single line separated two countries; how a step here or there would mean standing in different territories.

As I proceeded towards the Zero Line after a smooth immigration process on the Pakistan side, I felt goosebumps on my arms and my eyes getting watery. Gratitude, in its purest form, took over. I was seeing my dream come true.

Stepping into India

I couldn’t stop smiling as I stepped forward and looked back at Pakistan. Thankfully, the immigration process on the Indian side went smooth as well. A jovial Sardar Jee drove us to the Amritsar airport as we exchanged friendly banter over the India-Pakistan cricket rivalry. It seemed to be all that was important on both sides of the border those days.

From Amritsar, we flew to Ahmedabad via Delhi. From the looks of it, it felt like everyone was headed to attend the most anticipated clash of the World Cup. Throughout the flight, all I could hear were conversations about cricket — that didn’t change after the flight either. I also met two Indian expats who came all the way from Australia, specifically to watch the India-Pakistan match.

Driving by the Sabarmati River in a taxi, I reached Mirzapur, a Muslim-dominated neighbourhood in Old Ahmedabad, which was also home to the hotel I would go on to stay in for two nights later.

In Mirzapur, I was received by a distant relative, Turab and his friend, Ali Raza. They couldn’t wait to take me out to have bheja (brain) and kaleji (liver) in the older parts of the city, which resembled the old parts of Karachi quite a bit. The people speaking Gujarati around me made me feel as if I were on the streets of Kharadar or Soldier Bazaar in my hometown, Karachi.

The next morning, when it was all set to go down, I took a rickshaw to the media shuttle pick-up point. Varadbhai, the rickshaw driver manoeuvred past Indian fans clad in blue jerseys on the road. Many of them had travelled from all parts of the country. Varadbhai was delighted to hear that I was from Pakistan and excitedly shared that his grandfather too was from Karachi.

I bid him goodbye at the pick-up point and found a seat beside Sabu Cherian, a Times of India reporter — and also my first Indian journalist friend — on the media shuttle.

As we entered the Narendra Modi Stadium, the goosebumps were back and this time, I wasn’t just able to believe my dream was coming true, I could feel it.

The view from the media centre of the 120,000-capacity venue and of the athletes striking back and forth was a sight to behold. Unfortunately, however, Pakistan put up a disappointing performance and the sea of blue in the crowd didn’t help much either.

Ahmedabad to Bangalore

I had breakfast at the Lucky Hotel with Turab in the little time I had before my flight the next morning.

From Ahmadabad, I had a four-hour layover in Chennai — the city my ancestors come from and where my maternal aunt still resides. Making the most of my layover, I met her after seven long years and in those few hours, we managed to have street food and masala dosa near the airport.

An hour later, I was in Bangalore. Compared to Ahmedabad’s hot and dry weather, Bangalore was cool and pleasant. After a day of much-needed rest, I went out for some tourist excursions — the Cubbon Park and the Vidhana Soudha, the largest legislative building in India, spread over 60 acres of land.

Both sites were close to the M Chinnaswamy Stadium, where Pakistan was scheduled to play Australia two days later. The Chinnaswamy ground has hosted some of the most memorable Pakistan-India matches.

I covered the team practice held in the stadium that evening. I also met India’s 1983 World Cup-winning wicket-keeper Syed Kirmani, who was kind enough to let me interview him, while also offering me South Indian classics — spicy Idli and filter coffee from Karnataka.

That day I also met Sandeep Gopal, a cricket writer from the Indian Express newspaper. Gopal helped me shake off my nerves before I interviewed Kirmani and for me, that was enough to consider him as another friend in what I was finding to be a vibrant, lively country.

After the pre-match press conference coverage, I took a stroll down the famous Church Street, the hub of Bangalore’s nightlife in search of a bookstore. Somewhat contradictory? Perhaps it was.

I was looking for a book which a friend back home had asked me to get due to its unavailability in Pakistan. I came across the Blossom Book House, located just in the midst of the Church Street area. Coming from Pakistan, just seeing huge bookstores themselves was quite amusing.

While I was getting familiar with Bangalore, Pakistan seemed to be getting more and more unfamiliar with winning. In what I can only describe as a terrible fielding performance, we lost to Australia by 63 runs.

Back to Chennai

The next match was to be held in Chennai, where Pakistan had an exceptional track record so far. I took the four-hour-long Vande Bharat Express speed train. This time I was received by my aunt’s son, my first cousin.

From the very first day, Chennai felt like home. I knew a week here would never be enough but it was all I could manage between work and family. Despite being told by many in Bangalore about Chennai’s irritable humidity, it did not bother me much, perhaps owing to Karachi’s own humid, coastal weather. In fact, to me, the weather seemed rather pleasant. Chennai’s air had a sense of calm — the main roads were wide and spacious, and the people were welcoming and warm.

Pakistan was to play Afghanistan and South Africa in the coming week in the MA Chidambaram Stadium — commonly known as Chepauk. The stadium felt like a representation of Chennai through its simple yet visually appealing architecture. The white conical roofs of the stands made it my favourite venue in India.

The first friend I made in Chennai was Bhargav Nadendle, a talented sports writer from the DT Next newspaper. He was my guide in the city and easily my best friend in India.

After exploring the stadium together, we went to the Press Trust of India regional office to meet their reporter Shyam Sundar where we discussed Pakistani cricket over a cup of filter coffee.

Bhargav then took me to his own office and introduced me to his whole team, including the sports editor, Gopu Mohan. Mohan and I went on to talk at length about Pak-India relations and cricket. He recounted how Indian fans once feared, but were also inspired by Pakistani pace greats, Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis. Both Shyam and Gopu regretted how Pakistan, once a side Indians loved for their sheer quality and class, were now struggling to make it to the World Cup semi-finals.

During my time there, I experienced Chennai’s culture through food — more dosas, coconut chutney and of course, filter coffee. My cousins took me out on late-night drives and I even watched a recent Tamil movie called ‘Leo’ at the Satyam Cinema.

In the seven-day trip to my ancestral home, I also visited my great-grandparents’ graves to pay my respects. I left Chennai with a sombre feeling and with the hopes of coming back soon, but for now, it was time to move on. Kolkata awaited.

It was amusing to see how each city brought with it its own distinct yet diverse people and traits. I visited Kolkata twice, for four and seven days, respectively. It started with checking into a hotel and going down to have biryani at Arsalan’s — one of the famous desi food chains in the city — right after.

We drove to Eden Gardens the next day to watch Pakistan train ahead of their clash against Bangladesh. One arrives at the historic venue after passing the famous Maidan — a vast piece of land dedicated specifically for people to play sports on. The area is also known for having the home grounds of famous football clubs, Mohammedan Sporting and Mohun Bagan.

In the massive Eden Gardens, we watched Fakhar Zaman smash it away against Bangladesh to break Pakistan’s losing streak. The sporting crowd thoroughly enjoyed his innings. Fakhar would also later be the master entertainer in Bangalore against New Zealand to help Pakistan win on the DLS method, on a cold rainy day.

My second trip to Kolkata started with immense anxiety as I struggled to find a good hotel. After managing a night at a not-so-preferable property, I found an amazing host who was renting out his Airbnb.

My host, Kabir Sircar is a communication design professional and he helped me settle into Kolkata with ease. He introduced me to the tasty ‘desi-Chinese food’ in the city and took me on walks to the New Market and Chandni areas.

Kolkata smelt of nostalgia. It was ripe with old buildings from colonial times — some turned into government offices, others left to rot. Speaking of history, I also visited the famous College Street — home to centuries-old educational institutions, hundreds of bookshops dating back to the 1800s and the Indian Coffee House. Once again, I was here looking for the book my friend had asked me to bring.

Kabir made me meet his grandfather, a 93-year-old man who has authored numerous books in Bangla on a range of topics. The conversation with ‘Dadaji’ never seemed to end just as his delight to meet someone from Pakistan.

Seven days would pass in no time and just as I started to fall in love with Kolkata, it was time to go back home. With the end of Pakistan’s journey in the World Cup came the end of my journey to India.

But this was just the beginning of my dreams.

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