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Why a billion people will watch when India, Pakistan play

The last time India and Pakistan met was in Dubai in September 2018 Tharaka Basnayaka/NurPhoto/Getty Images

MANCHESTER, England -- The men sit in a pub on the eve of the Cricket World Cup coming to their new home. Their old home is between the modern nation states of Pakistan and India in the mountain region known as Kashmir. They live in Manchester now, their lives forever changed when an Englishman named Cyril Radcliffe drew a line on a map in 1947 and tried to put Muslims on one side and Hindus on another, with predictable results. In the decades that followed, a dam project flooded large swaths of the area where they lived. They truly cannot go home again.

"It destroyed a very old civilisation," one man said. "It destroyed a way of life."

"What does that do to people?" I asked.

"It disconnected them," the other replied.

***

On Sunday in Manchester, India and Pakistan will play the latest installment of the most important and fraught sporting rivalry in the world. This game is often described by a shorthand of three numbers, and as this story is written by an outsider for other outsiders, that's how I'll begin.

The first numbers are 3 and 6.

The countries have fought three wars (and several near-wars) -- over simple things such as land and borders and complicated things such as religion and home, depending on whom you ask. In the World Cup, they have faced each other six times. India have won all six, including a match in 1999 that was played while the countries skirmished and nearly started the fourth of those wars. Shots were being fired in Kashmir as the team took the field at Manchester's Old Trafford (a half-mile from the more famous football stadium with the same name).

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The teams will take that same field on Sunday, 20 years later.

The third number used to describe this rivalry is the television audience for the matches: estimated at somewhere around 1 billion people.

That's nearly 10 times the most-watched Super Bowl.

Before flying to Manchester for this match, I talked to a friend who works on ESPN's College Gameday. He heard the numbers and couldn't process them.

"Is that real?" he asked.

The 10 most watched regular-season college football games ever have drawn a combined audience of around 170 million. Seven times as many people will watch Sunday's cricket match. If you're an NBA fan, it would take 56 of the recently concluded Game 6 of the Finals (in U.S. viewers), where the Raptors beat the Warriors, to equal the cricket audience.

"It's not just a game," says Raj Gupta, an Indian fan who lives and works in Manchester. "For me, this is a World Cup final. In a way, the reason it means a lot is because Indians and Pakistanis have very few venues to settle their rivalry."

Picture the television sets in India and Pakistan, in the mansions of the elite and in urban skyscrapers and in sidewalk slums and in medieval villages and mountain passes. For many of the people tuned in, the match is about a lot more than 22 men trying to hit and field a ball.

Earlier this year, war almost broke out again. A terrorist's suicide bomb in February killed 40 Indian soldiers in Kashmir, and India responded with an air strike and Pakistan responded by shooting down an India fighter jet and taking the pilot prisoner before handing him back. The downed pilot's interrogation video was released and watched over and over on both sides of the border.

In a match in early March, the Indian team wore camouflage hats instead of their usual sky blue, further blurring the line between sports and politics. A few days ago, a commercial promoting the World Cup premiered on Pakistani television, where an actor playing the downed Indian pilot mocked the famous interrogation video. And so here we are, once again, where cricket is asked to be both a bridge and a sword, maybe both at the same time, depending on who's doing the asking and who's doing the answering.

"Cricket diplomacy," tweets former Indian star Sachin Tendulkar.

"Cricket diplomacy," says Pakistani prime minister Imran Khan, himself a cricket great and national team captain when Pakistan won the World Cup in 1992.

***

Not long after I landed in Manchester on Friday, I made my way to the famous Curry Mile, the strip of restaurants that advertises Indian food made and served by mostly Pakistanis and Bangladeshis. In former industrial powerhouses such as Manchester and Birmingham, there are huge South Asian communities, and this match is dominating conversation around dinner tables and in lunch counters serving kebab and curry, and in the barbershops where men expertly wielding straight razors switch back and forth between English and Urdu.

"For me, this is a World Cup final. In a way, the reason it means a lot is because Indians and Pakistanis have very few venues to settle their rivalry." Raj Gupta, India fan

All day, I talked to people who were supporting India, and people who were supporting Pakistan. Gupta, an Indian fan in his 30s, met me for lunch in a coffee shop beneath his office. His family came to England from India. He described a local community where people from both sides are trying to safely skirt the conflict from earlier this year.

"I think there are tensions occasionally, particularly when you hear about an event that happens there," he says. "I have a lot of Pakistani friends on Facebook. You try not to let it simmer over. I would never go there. It's difficult to navigate. That's there and we're here."

One thing he has noticed is that, from his point of view, the biggest existential desire of the Indian immigrants was for their children to climb the ladder of British life, while he sees the Pakistani community concerned with protecting its culture. Both are understandable goals of an immigrant community.

"For a lot of that time, Indians and Pakistanis lived side by side in those communities," he says. "It was shelter and safety. It was a safety blanket. The Indians didn't stay together as much as the Pakistani community. There is still a concern of losing their culture more than Indians. I think Pakistanis are more in touch with that than Indians are. They have held onto their cultural identity more, and Indians have assimilated more."

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In Manchester, he says, the communities arrived together and lived together, eating in the same curry shops on Wilmslow Road. Even now, they turn to each other for support. The shared experience of coming to a new country and building a new life gives them more common ground than people back in India or Pakistan.

Gupta weaves his hands together.

"I would never go so far as to call it brotherly," he says, "but there are lots of things that bring us all together."

His grandfather was the first to come to England. Each generation takes them further from the life their family lived on the subcontinent, which plays out in a lot of places, including Sunday's cricket match.

"My generation, 27 and above, still support India and Pakistan," Gupta says. "Below my age group, I think you'll find a lot more mixed feeling."

His daughter is 4.

"She's never been to India," he says. "She knows we're Indian, but she doesn't know what that means."

She doesn't understand why her father doesn't cheer for their country.

"Daddy," she tells him, "we live in England."

"That's a hard question for me to answer," he says.

***

Gupta introduces me to a Pakistani friend: a healthcare executive named Oz Khan. I meet Oz and we take a ride in his used BMW, which he is selling in about an hour. He bought it eight years ago for £1,850 and has put another £1,000 into it. Today he's selling it for £800. It has been a good car, and he'll miss it. Khan lives near the cricket ground -- he grew up within eyeshot of it -- and he takes me on a tour. As we pass the stadium, he says, "One billion people watching tomorrow."

He describes his own children's view of the match being similar to Gupta's daughter. "What does 'we' mean?" he says. "My kids often support Argentina in football because Sergio Aguero of Man City plays for them."

He remembers back in school when Pakistan beat England in the 1992 World Cup final. He listened in class on headphones and, without thinking, he yelled, "We won!" His teacher initially celebrated, too, not understanding that his student was cheering for Pakistan.

"Growing up in England," Khan says, "you're in two places."

Khan doesn't follow cricket like he did as a child, but he'll be watching this match. India are the more powerful team, with bigger stars. Pakistan have struggled, which isn't helped by India refusing to allow Pakistani players to participate in the IPL, and by foreign teams not being able to travel safely to the country. Pakistan are the underdogs, to be sure.

"They're gonna have to find that Ali moment against Foreman," he says. "They're gonna have to find some ropes to lean on."

Khan smiles.

"Pakistani curries are way better than Indian curries any day of the week," he says.

His family tree goes back 600 years on both sides of the border, and his father moved to Kenya for work before Khan was born. His dad carried a British passport and he never forgot the anonymous border control man who checked his documents when he finally came to live in England.

"Welcome home," the man said, and then stamped the passport and handed it back.

Khan can still feel lingering anxiety from the near-war earlier this year.

"There's an underlying tension of the fights between Muslims and Hindus over the years" he says. "People have long memories when it comes to politics and religion. That thing is often passed on generation to generation, especially when borders are as hard as they've made India and Pakistan."

He points to an example.

"There is no way my mom would ever support India," he says.

People can change.

His father often warned him about trusting any Indians, and yet his boss at work has Indian roots and that man has given him his biggest promotion.

Families can change.

His wife is Indian.

Generations can change.

His children have a connection to both teams, and their children might not have a connection to either.

***

At the end of a long gray day, I walked through tiny lanes toward a pub where three British-Kashmiri men waited to talk about the third local view of the India-Pakistan match: the people caught in between. This part of England is home to a huge number of displaced Kashmiris. Their homeland lies in the beautiful mountains and valleys of the high Himalayas, far from the industrial lowlands where they now live. Two of the wars, and most of the skirmishes, have been over (and in) Kashmir.

As I walked, the skies finally opened up and the rain fell, not the kind that leaves the world smelling new and reborn, but the kind that leaves you chilled hours after drying out, a northwest England rain, a factory-town rain, hard and bone cold.

I shivered as the men met me at a table across from a tram station.

For years, Kashmir has been a battleground, and I won't even try to sort out right and wrong, except to say that everyone with an opinion about this feels it deeply. One of the men at the pub, Daalat Ali, drinks a glass of red wine and tells a detailed history of the Kashmiri roots of the famous Irish song, "It's a Long Way to Tipperary," describing Irish soldiers in Kashmir dreaming of home. That's not true, of course, but the important thing to understand is that he believes it.

In the Indian part of Kashmir, generations of soldiers have been stationed there. Any first-year student at West Point can tell you that an occupying force rarely turns out well for anyone, not for the occupiers or the occupied. The Indian army accuses locals of aiding terrorists and locals accuse the army of human rights violations. Five Indian soldiers were killed by rebels this week. The tensions between soldiers and citizens have made many Kashmiris support Pakistan in cricket, although these men say it's more a case of cheering against India.

They want whatever team the soldiers like to lose.

These men have worked together for an independent Kashmir for decades, a future that seems somehow less possible now than when they began. They argue that the only possible solution to a conflict set in motion when the British divided the country in two in 1947 is to remove the conflict. "The only dispute between India and Pakistan is Kashmir," Talat Butt says. "That's the only way forward."

Butt, a journalist in Sweden now, brought his 14-year-old son, Yousaf, with him.

They're on vacation.

Butt points at Yousaf and gestures at the streets of Manchester and at the elders sitting around this table.

"For him," he says, "this is Kashmir."

Shams Rehman looks across the table at the young man.

"I was his age when I came here," he says. "I used to cry."

On the weekends, the men go with a group of Kashmiri friends to hike what passes for high altitude in England.

"Every Sunday," Butt says. "We go to the mountains."

"We go to the mountains and talk about home," says Ali, who like Rehman grew up in Kashmir and is forever trying to return to a place that exists mostly in his memory. He tells me at the end of a hike he never fails to sing, "It's a Long Way to Tipperary," and he lets himself go high into the Himalayas in his mind.

It doesn't matter who wrote that song or what they wrote it about.

To him, it will always be about Kashmir.

Those are the powerful emotional and nostalgic forces that will be at play when these two teams take the field in Manchester. Sitting in the pub, we talk about the cricket and if Pakistan have a chance at all, and about an event the next day honoring the memory of a Kashmiri activist. The men describe a world more fundamentalist and polarised than the one they knew growing up -- Ali says that people are more conservative in England than they were back on the subcontinent -- and they hope for change.

The teenage boy spends a lot of time on his phone, and his father keeps nudging him whenever something political is discussed, or when one of the elders tells stories of life back before they became a battleground between two powers with nuclear capabilities.

These men are from Kashmir, but they could be from Pakistan or India, and that's why a billion people will be watching. Sure, the score matters, deeply, but the match also gives everyone with an emotional stake a chance to talk about home -- to feel home -- to repeat the old stories and make that home live and breathe again. Rehman tells me a British Kashmiri journalist is encouraging fans to wave Kashmiri flags at the game, to let people know they exist. That's cricket diplomacy, too.

Butt wants his son to know these things about their past, to internalise them so an idea can live, which is why something as meaningless as a sporting event becomes a vessel. Ali is telling a story about a local Hindu grocer who hugged him when he found out that they were both from the same place in Kashmir.

Butt turns to his son.

"Are you listening?" he asks.