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Wednesday, March 30, 2011
Pageantry of India-Pakistan unparalleled

By Amar Shah
Special to ESPN.com

LAKEWOOD, Calif. -- One of them wore a green Pakistani jersey. The other had on a blue India jersey. They were friends.

Twenty-year-old Mustafa was born in Islamabad, and 23-year-old Mohamed Ali was from Pune. They had traveled from Irvine to the NAZ8 Cinemas in Lakewood near the Little India of Southern California to watch Pakistan versus India in the ICC Cricket World Cup semifinal.

My wife, Tejal, and I joined them as they stood in a parking lot a few hours before the match started. Around us, cars cranking bhangra music pulled up. Hundreds of Pakistan and India fans who couldn't make it to Mohali in India had come here to watch the epic match on the big screen.

Tejal and I had come here four years ago to watch India play Bangladesh, which turned out to be a washout as India choked itself out of the first round. This year would be revenge.

The parking lot had become a football tailgaiting party. Fans brought Indian food and drink and chatted about the state of the pitch. Mustafa and Mohamed swigged Red Bull and Monster Energy drinks as this would be an all-night affair.

As we waited in line to buy our $10 tickets, Tejal and I saw men draped in Pakistan and India flags whose wives had brought blankets. We had suited up in our India jerseys. Tejal hesitated about wearing them. I insisted.

Inside, the theater was bustling as Pakistani fans wore Shoaib Akhtar masks and Indian fans painted their faces orange, white and green. A group of people lined up to buy samosas and chai at the concession stand.

The theater had been hosting screenings of the entire World Cup, but this day was something entirely different. Two theaters would show the match. And hundreds would fill the seats to watch their native countries battle it out in a subcontinental superfest.

When Tejal and I found our seats, we could already hear the Pakistani fans chanting "Pakistan jeetega" (Pakistan will win) and Indian fans answering "Pakistan harega" (Pakistan will lose). Flags waved. Fans clapped and whistled.

The lights finally dimmed, and the match started. The first sights of Pakistani captain Shahid Afridi and Indian star Sachin Tendulkar elicited raucous applause. Each fan stood for the anthem of his or her favorite country. Indian and Pakistani prime ministers shook hands with the players. India won the toss and decided to bat.

All of us cheered when Sachin Tendulkar and Virender Sehwag walked up to the crease to begin batting. Umar Gul opened the bowling. On the third ball, Sehwag exploded for a boundary. Behind us, a dhol began to bang. We started to balle balle.

In the third over, Sehwag blitzed 21 runs. Gul looked spooked. India was in control as Sehwag looked as if he was about to smack the cover off the ball. Then, in an instant on the fifth ball in the fifth over, he was dismissed for a leg before wicket. The first wicket. The Indian fans, including Tejal and I, shook our heads. The Pakistani fans howled in jubilation and blew air horns. Tejal was still reassured. We still had Sachin.

And god save the little master. By some divine grace, or perhaps the prayers of a billion, Sachin escaped getting out at least four times. A biladi, someone yelled. Indeed, he was a cat. But India's middle order completely collapsed in one quick spill. Gautam Gambhir, Virat Kohli went out quickly.

The Indian crowd was tense, and the Pakistani crowd felt the momentum changing. And it did when the star of India's batting this World Cup, Yuvraj Singh, swung mightily in the 25th over and hit nothing. Out on his first ball. Quack. A duck. Tejal and I were stunned. A Pakistani fan ran around the theater waving a flag.

Tendulkar struggled but still managed 84 runs, but we were expecting a run total of 300-plus runs. At 4:22 in the morning, he was out. The Indians team was lucky to finish with 260 runs. Pakistani bowler Wahab Riaz, who was picked over veteran Shoaib Akhtar, looked like Jon Lester out there, accruing five wickets with a nasty left-arm pace.

When India finished its disappointed spell at the bat, the stunned India crowd exited for a much-needed break in the lobby. The Pakistani fans had our number. Tejal noticed my dejection, but told me to cheer up. There was still another inning to play.

We grabbed chai and returned to the theater. Pakistan started out strong, going up 43-0. We were dejected, tired and had work to get to in a few hours.

I was pissed. This was the Indian team I knew so well. I told Tejal that we were leaving. She didn't understand. We still had 28 overs left. I let her know that I was not going to suffer another shellacking like the one four years ago. Begrudgingly, she followed me out of the theater into the harsh morning light, murmuring that we should stay. We didn't even say goodbye to the new friends we had met.

I refused to know what the score as. But Tejal checked my cricket app in the car as we got stuck on the 5. Morning traffic, an all-nighter and India choking. I didn't care.

She told me we had picked up six wickets. I thought she was lying. I looked at the phone. I never drove faster in my life. We got home with enough time to see Misbah-ul-Haq's high popup land in Kohli's hands. Tejal stared at me. She didn't say a thing. She just smiled.

Amar Shah is a writer and producer living in Los Angeles. He is developing a romantic comedy screenplay set in the world of cricket. He can be reached at shahespn@gmail.com or on Twitter.