Babar Azam is applauded, Shaheen Afridi admired, as Pakistan settle into warm hospitality of Hyderabad

A gasp of disbelief first and an applause of admiration next met every stroke of Babar Azam, as he purred along, pulling, driving and even slogging with stupefying grace. When he retired at 90 off 59 balls the crowd embraced an awkward silence before they rang in the applause as if to say, “Welcome to India.” Later, after the warm-up match was over, Australia winning by 14 runs, the crowd massed near the stands behind Pakistan’s dugout and screamed Babar’s name until he left the area.

It could be that India might not be playing a game in Hyderabad, but the audience are past the phase of mourning and beginning to soak in the World Cup fervor, putting aside allegiances and rivalries. Not just Babar, but his colleagues too might have felt the blanket of adulation. None more than Shaheen Afridi. The scattered audience were stretching their limbs to stave off post-meal siesta when the seamer ambled onto the ground for the pre-game stretching. Like the sudden buzz of an alarm, half-awake heads turned and tuned their gaze to the nearly-two-metre frame of Afridi, his tidily-gelled quiff blazing like an aura. Hastily, they converged to a vantage point beside the chain-linked fence. They neither chanted nor yelled out his name, but stood hypnotized.

Soon joining Afridi was his accomplice Haris Rauf, whose sight prompted someone in the gallery to shriek out Virat Kohli’s name, reminding him of the brace of sixes the Indian talisman had struck in Melbourne. Rauf spread a smile and waved at the crowd in a blue jersey. Though India are not playing a game at this venue—the only World Cup city where they are not stopping for a game, much to the crowd’s chagrin—blue was the most ubiquitous shade in the stands, of them numbers 18 (Virat Kohli) and 45 (Rohit Sharma) being the most sighted ones.

Among the 7700-odd crowd, only Pakistan’s super-fan Mohammad Bashir, better known as Bashir chacha, a hotelier from Chicago, stood out. He passionately wielded the Pakistan flag and was seen engaging with the spectators. The lathi-wielding policemen sniffed around, in case the crowd turned hostile against Bashir, who masked the crushing solitude of a one-man cheerleader with his undimmed enthusiasm.

Half of the crowd, which picked up in the evening, wore the blue jerseys, cheap and counterfeit ones. Some others grabbed a pale, near-transparent yellow downmarket ODI cap of Australia. With the unlikeliness of fans crossing the border, there were hardly any jerseys of Pakistan, or any merchandise of theirs. “Pakistan team humein pasand hain; achhe khiladi hain, lekin hame kya faayda, agar koi fans nahin aate hain? (We like the Pakistan team, but if no fans are coming here, why do we need to stock their stuff?” asks Prasad, a street-vendor selling flags, jerseys and caps. He is angry at himself for not hoarding enough jerseys of India, and is wondering whether to cancel the orders for the shirts of Netherlands and Sri Lanka. “We could make some decent profit only if India plays here,” he cribs.

Freedom Sale

It’s the city’s collective grouse—why only Hyderabad of all the ten venues? But they soon put their angst behind to play gracious hosts to Pakistan, traveling to India after seven years. The city prides itself on overwhelming hospitality and there has been an overflowing affection for the Pakistan team even since they landed in the city. Thousands gathered outside the airport on the night of the arrival, a few grabbed selfies with them when they dined out at the Jewel of Nizam. Later, captain for the day, Shadab Khan would rave about the food and hospitality. “I think our fat level and weight might increase because of the tasty food,” he said.

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Whenever the team bus glides through the highway, there is a gush of excitement, followed by the obvious question to the nearest person: “Did you see anyone?” In a fake exaggerated tone, the other would reply: “I think I caught a glimpse of Babar. I think so.” Envious glances are exchanged. Only that the bus-windows are so tightly curtained that you would not even spot a silhouette. So much so that the other day some teenagers furiously waved at Australia’s bus shouting Babar’s name. With their training sessions shut for public, their first warm-up game, against New Zealand, being played in empty stands due to security reasons, it was finally on Tuesday that they saw Pakistan’s players in flesh.

The only cricketer who stole the thunder from Afridi and Co was David Warner, the beloved former captain of the city’s IPL franchise Sunrisers Hyderabad. He was their captain in the lone IPL triumph in 2016. “Warner anna, sexy anna,” reverberated in the stands whenever he struck a boundary, and he smeared three sixes and four fours in a power-filled 48 off 33 balls. Twice the victim was Afridi and the crowd let out a sigh of disbelief. They are more used to him blasting pads and smacking stumps.

It was finally on Tuesday the World Cup frenzy began to kick in , when the buzz began to bubble and excitement began to shimmer. For much of this week, a freshly-inaugurated 500,000 square feet shopping mall has been the proverbial talk of the town. There were no signs or signboards celebrating the occasion in most of the city. Even the posters on the red-tiled walls of the neighbouring Survey of India campus were those of a political rally of the Congress Party. But the warm-up between Pakistan and Australia has finally switched the city into World Cup mood.

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