Ahmedabad, India – Cricket fans have poured into Ahmedabad in their thousands, hotel tariffs in the city are up to 20 times the usual, the wealthy have let out their spare homes for about $2,500 a night, and hospitals have observed a most unusual interest in admissions for Saturday, when India host Pakistan in the ICC Cricket World Cup.
But there will be a glaring absence at the biggest occasion in cricket: Pakistanis – fans and media – have been all but blocked from attending.
The echo in the Narendra Modi Stadium on Saturday will be the incredibly loud sound of one hand clapping. The home team will have more than 100,000 supporters cheering it on, the away side close to none.
Scores of Indian journalists are at hand to cover the event, just one from Pakistan. The Indian cricket board has simply ignored its obligations to the International Cricket Council of providing access to media and fans from all teams.
“I can’t fathom the situation,” Farrukh Shahzad, a Pakistan cricket fan and Glasgow resident, told Al Jazeera. “This is a world event. It is an ICC event.”
Pakistanis living overseas have found that holding passports of their adopted countries does not count for much. If they were born in Pakistan, or their parents or grandparents were, the chances of getting a visa on time are just as slim as resident Pakistanis.
Shahzad, a dual citizen, was told at the Indian consulate he would have to apply on his Pakistani rather than his British passport. He failed to secure an online ticket for the India-Pakistan match and saw reports that they were selling on the black market for more than $60,000.
Adjusting his expectations, he put in his visa application 11 days ago, with a view to attending the game against England next month. He has no idea whether it will come through.
For the T20 World Cup in Australia last year, when India and Pakistan played a match for the ages in Melbourne, he had got tickets in a ballot nine months in advance. “The next day we booked the flights and hotels, and got the Australian e-visa in five minutes,” he said.
Such planning was impossible this time around, with the Indian board’s unprecedented delay in announcing the tournament schedule, which was then changed a mere eight weeks before the first game.
Haider Israr of Brampton, England, has travelled the world with his wife for a decade and a half. “We have special memories of India from 2016 [at the T20 World Cup],” he told me. “We went to Delhi, Jaipur, Ajmer, Shimla, Mumbai. I love India.”
He speaks with tenderness about the Pakistan team.
“I have pangs in my heart, that I wish I could reach there and support them,” Israr told Al Jazeera.
He referred to the Pakistan captain Babar Azam’s words on the eve of the tournament. Azam, although pleased with the warm reception his team received in Hyderabad, said “it would have been better if we had fans from our side”.
“My team is missing me,” Israr told me. He is a British rather than a dual citizen but learned that since he was born in Rawalpindi, the process might take a while. He put in an online application last week. “If I get a visa I will come tomorrow. But this time our friends from the Indian community are saying, ‘We cannot help, we’ll get into trouble if we try.’”
Ashfaq Hussain, a Dubai-based businessman, like other cricket travellers Al Jazeera spoke to, said he “did not have the courage to even apply” after reading media reports on the visa situation.
Jameel Uddin, a Canadian citizen based in Vancouver did not attempt it either; his friend, with whom he had travelled to the 2019 World Cup, was declined a visa.
For Shahzad of Glasgow, these events – “a way to make Pakistanis aware that we don’t want to play with you” – have been a dampener.
“If I get a visa, I might as well come,” he said. “But it will not be the same thing if there’s just 10-15 of us.”
Meanwhile, out of about 70 Pakistani journalists accredited by the ICC, only Shahid Hashmi of AFP made it to Ahmedabad, the afternoon before the game. A handful might arrive in time for the first ball. All of them have missed Pakistan’s first two matches of the tournament.
The BBC’s Aatif Nawaz, who had applied for a visa in August, pulled out 10 days ago owing to the delays and uncertainty.
“Jarvo got a visa but I didn’t. Not gonna lie. Hard not to take that one personally,” he posted on X last week, referring to Daniel Jarvis – an English prankster and serial pitch invader, who got onto the field during India’s opening game against Australia.
If they had the will, the Indian government and the cricket board would have had little trouble in making arrangements for its visiting neighbours.
The secretary and principal decision-maker at the Indian cricket board, Jay Shah, is the Home Minister Amit Shah’s son. The home ministry, via its security agencies, vets Pakistani visa applications.
The Indian board has made no comments on the visa situation. A couple of months ago, at a semi-formal meeting with the press, which is how he prefers his media interactions, Jay Shah brushed aside questions on the matter, suggesting it was inappropriate to even raise them.
The ICC, much the junior in its relationship with the Indian board, has only uttered bland nothings.
‘They should have been here’
While it is always onerous for Indians and Pakistanis to obtain visas to one another’s countries, provisions are usually made for special events. On the tour of Pakistan by India in 2004 – the largest movement of people between the countries since the early days after partition – names approved by the Indian board were granted Pakistani visas within 24 hours.
Thousands of other fans were able to cross the border, on flights, trains and buses. At the 2011 World Cup, Pakistan played just one match in India – a semifinal against the home team in Mohali – for which a small number of Pakistani fans were able to come over at very short notice.
The only Pakistani fan presence in this tournament has been “Chicago Chacha” Mohammad Bashir, an elderly American Pakistani whose spouse is Indian. Outside the stadium in Ahmedabad the day before the game he was surrounded by television cameras, while bystanders hollered the Hindu chant “Jai Shri Ram” into his ear, goading him to repeat it. He did not take the bait.
The largest presence at the venue in the lead-up has been thousands of khaki-clad police – some 6,000 security personnel are on match duty – lending the gargantuan premises a somewhat sullen air.
Elsewhere in Ahmedabad, the joint commissioner of police told the Indian Express that the security forces are keeping an eye on “75 communal pockets”: security-speak, in a segregated city, for areas with mixed-religion populations.
On the streets, nobody seems too concerned by the absence of Pakistanis. Many are reluctant to discuss it at all.
“They should definitely have been here, we should all enjoy the match in a sportsman’s spirit,” one resident told me, yet found different ways to hedge this admirable sentiment.
“If the government hasn’t given them visas there must be good reason. Anyway, the media just makes up stories. You watch, I am sure lots of Pakistanis will be here.”
Such is the intensity of outside interest in the match, the mood in the city seems indifferent by comparison.
Some of it, a tea vendor told Al Jazeera, is down to the Ahmedabad ethic: work when you work, play when you play. He, like everyone else, expects deserted roads on match day. Tickets, hard to get hold of, have been released in mysterious tranches – 14,000 of them suddenly made available last week.
One person who does have a ticket was a co-passenger on a flight from Delhi. A US resident of Indian background, he was travelling to his home town, and had not planned on watching the match.
So how did he get one?
“Well, my friend got it,” he said after a moment’s hesitation. “He lives in the same neighbourhood as Mr Shah.”