I don’t know if it was the ease with which Pakistan put away the West Indies or the prospect of watching them end another unbeaten World Cup run – India’s then 4-0 record against Pakistan, ugh – but that Pakistan Day, I began to dream.
I had read earlier that day that the ICC had promised to expedite the visa process for Pakistan fans. After we won, I called my best friend and partner-in-cricket-obsession and told her we had to go. If India lost their quarter-final to Australia a billion tickets would suddenly become available, and if they won, well, then we would be going to TGME (the greatest match ever). I’m not sure whether her response was more WTF-are-you-crazy bewilderment or whoa-could-this-work excitement: “Should we do it!” Why not?
We had no idea where to start, but that was probably a good thing because we didn’t realize how hopeless our cause was until it was too late to give up.
Inspired by Ashley Kerekes making it to the Ashes thanks to a viral twitter campaign, we started a #getthegirlstomohali hashtag on twitter asking for ticket/visa information, and secretly hoping for ridiculous favours. We had 5 days to get visas, find match tickets and get on a plane or a train or a taxi to Mohali. How hard could it be?
Pretty much all the information I got on how to make this cricket pilgrimage happen – from the link to the right visa form to where in Islamabad I could find a printer at 5AM – came from twitter:
-The PCB has a visa-hotel-match-ticket package for $500 but you have to know one of their hotshots.
- The Indian embassy is issuing visas along with tickets if you have a contact in the High Commission (they didn’t pick up their phone from 10:30 AM to 3PM).
- If you have a visa, getting a couple of match tickets is going to be a breeze.
- Actually, you need a ticket to apply for a visa. There MUST be some tickets reserved for Pakistan fans.
- Even some of the journalists covering the event don’t have visas yet, applying at this point is hopeless.
- Just apply ASAP, I think you’ll get it.
You get the picture.
Our first breakthrough came on Friday when the kind Ambassador Haqqani messaged on twitter saying he would try and help us get a couple of tickets. Now that I had more tangible hope of getting a ticket, I got another friend on board. We thought briefly about sending in a rushed application immediately, but were advised that the better option would be to submit in person Monday morning, two days before the match. We made plans to get to Islamabad from Karachi and Lahore to kick off operation #getthegirlstomohali for TGME. (Dammit Australia).
The next step was filling out the online Indian visa application form. Saying that the experience was frustrating would be as much of an understatement as saying Test cricket will miss Mohammad Amir: there was no “Go Back” option and the form kept dying on us thanks to some aggressive timeouts that a guy at the Pakistan Foreign Office insisted were intentionally programmed in by the Indians to discourage visa applications (ha!).
There were non-technical challenges too. We nailed the first hurdle thanks to the generous Dileep Premachandran from Cricinfo etc. who agreed to be our sponsor. We still needed a place to stay and all the hotels in or near Chandigarh were sold out. Our visa application deadline was 0830 on Monday the 28th, so no hotel success by Sunday evening meant we were now also looking for friends, acquaintances or angels in India who were willing to write us letters inviting us to stay with them AND send us two proofs of residence and identity. We also needed to submit a photocopy of our yet-to-be-sourced match tickets.
It was a long shot, but if any of us didn’t believe in the kindness of strangers, we were about to change our minds by the end of this match. A sweetheart of a journalist in Delhi agreed to be our pretend-host and quickly scanned and sent us her ID minutes before another very resourceful and exceptionally kind stranger tweeted to say he could get us a booking in a (nice) hotel about two hours from the stadium. Another friend in Mohali emailed us a picture of his 3 VIP passes to the match, taken by what I’m sure was a camera-phone from the early noughties. We were officially all set with the visa application requirements – thanks to three Indians we had never met!
In retrospect, it’s kind of appalling that there was absolutely no information from any of the PCB, the BCCI, the ICC or the Indian High Commission to guide Pakistan fans who might have become interested in going to the match – no helpline, not one page on a website with instructions, not even a press release saying whether getting a visa was even possible at this stage.
The officer at the Pakistan Foreign Office responsible for forwarding our applications to the Indian High Commission was on his fifth paan and impatient for breakfast, but he went out of his way to help us. It turned out that the visa application I had spent the last three nights filling out had been the wrong form all along. Thankfully this one was offline (no saazishi timeouts) so we finished it quickly, paid the visa fees and said bismillah and shukriya and got out of there.
We were told we would hear about the decision by that night so we went home and crashed. For about an hour. Then it was back to looking for match tickets. We pushed that #getthegirlstomohali hashtag hard on twitter. We messaged every cousin, high school-nemesis and ex-colleague who worked at or knew someone who worked at Pepsi/LG/Servis/the PCB. We emailed every poster on every sketchy online forum selling tickets in black. Some guy on twitter said he had a classmate he hadn’t spoken to in 20 years but who might be selling 3 extra tickets – we even called him. By that evening, we had been promised two tickets – one from the kind ambassador and another from a friend’s friend at Times of India. Just one more to go.
8 PM that night, -42 hours before the match – we got a call from the Foreign Office saying our visas had been approved: 10 days, for Chandigarh, Mohali AND Mumbai (we hadn’t even asked for Mumbai)! But that they hadn’t been stamped, so we needed to wait till 11 PM. This was great news but we still had to get those visas that night to be able to leave for Lahore the next morning to be able to cross the border before 4 PM to be able to get to Mohali the night before the match. It was a race against time.
No updates from the foreign office till midnight, then a call saying my friends’ visas were there but mine wasn’t and wouldn’t be there till at least 11AM the next morning. It pretty much meant game over for me. I couldn’t believe it. The girls said they didn’t want to leave without me. I told them they were being stupid and they had to go. We were too tired to debate, so we decided to talk in the morning and went to sleep after what felt like years.
We had slept in till noon. It was the day before the match. There was still no word from the Indian High Commission about my passport. We decided to leave for Lahore either way, India or not, so we had a lazy breakfast, packed and headed out to pick up our passports, stamped or otherwise. On the way to the foreign office I got a call saying my passport was back. It was 1PM – too late to aim to cross the border that day. If we crossed the border at 9 the next morning, we’d be at the stadium in Mohali by 2PM, which was when the match was to start. Picking up our tickets from their various sources in India beforehand would be a challenge, but we decided to go for it.
Our luck had turned again. In trying to get that third ticket through our hotel reservation lifesaver from earlier – let’s call him Superman – we landed a pass. We got on the bus to Lahore and started planning the fun stuff we hadn’t got time to think of yet, like whether we should wear green kurtas or personalized Boom Boom jerseys to the match. We also needed flags and green paraandas and green chooriyaan and face-paint and stickers and green glitter and neon wigs. The bookshop on the rest-stop on the motorway to Lahore didn’t have flags or any of the other green gear we were looking for, but there were a couple of giant-sized Afridi posters (actually Jazz ads) on the window. Of course we convinced them to give us one. Got to Lahore and packed for four days in ONE handbag that we would carry in to the stadium. No sleep again.
Superman had told us the border was opening early, at 6:30AM, and that not many people knew this. If we crossed over by 7, we would make it, even if the drive was 5 hours. (There were reports that the gates were going to close at 12:30, even though the game wasn’t going to start until 2:30 local time). Got to the border around 6:45 and saw a few boys in Boom Boom shirts waiting for things to open. A guard told us the immigration guys wouldn’t be there before 9! Thankfully, a friend had been kind enough to give our names and our car’s license number to some hotshots at the border, so we we pleaded with them to check those records, and they let us through. Immigration and customs on our side was pretty quick. We exchanged cash too – from a guy in a brown shalwar kamiz who had all the money in his shalwar-pocket, forget about receipts. (The rate was good). Shaikh Rashid was in line ahead of us, beaming.
"Borrowing" an Afridi poster
All our green gear
Walk to India
We ran to the Indian side. It was kind of surreal, but we were too rushed to think about how big a moment that was. The Indian guard at the border didn’t smile, but he was quick, which meant he was nice. The chatty officers at registration told us we had enough time to get to Mohali (not) and reassured (sic) us that it wasn’t going to rain. Ran from there to customs, where, thanks to Superman, some guy already had our names on some be-nice-to-them list. Filled out another form, then borrowed face-paint chalk from the other Pakistan fans in line to colour our faces while waiting for our passports to be scanned and copied. A very long fifteen minutes and we were through to customs, who were so helpful they TOLD us we didn’t have more than the maximum amount of Indian Rupees you were allowed to carry. They also liked our scary Afridi poster.
That was it, we were in India. There were about three dozen taxi-wallahs, all with “Special Permission for Pakistan WC” signs posted on their cars, each of whom insisted we go with him. We borrowed a taxi-wallah’s phone to call our taxi-wallah – he was clearly far away but insisted he would be there in two minutes and that we shouldn’t let the taxi drivers there mislead us. We waited about twenty minutes, which we spent haggling unsuccessfully with the taxi-wallahs to bring their rate down to our pre-arranged cab rate (8000 INR to 3200 INR). A couple of uncles in Boom Boom jerseys and sunglasses inspired by Waqar Younis circa 1992 had just crossed the border with a man who looked like a driver for a fancy tour package. We acted fast and asked them if we could share a ride with them to the match. They agreed. Fifteen minutes into the ride, we discovered that our friendly uncles had three extra tickets that they were trying to foist upon a reluctant golf buddy who lived in Mohali. With every passing minute and every call to our ticket sources in Ludhiana, Chandigarh and Mohali we knew we wanted those three tickets more and more: they were all for the same stand and they were all IN THAT CAR. We would feel terrible about not using the passes that our friends had worked so hard to secure for us, but unfortunately there was just no time for us to pick them up. So we spent the next four hours trying to convince our new Lahori friends that we deserved those tickets more than some guy who was playing golf on the day of an India-Pakistan cricket match and was going to cheer for the wrong team anyway. They couldn’t believe we had crossed the border without tickets. (“Who ARE you guys? Hide your wallet, KP!”) They also didn’t understand that anyone could want to go watch a match that badly: one of them (the golfer) had considered going straight to Mumbai when he got his visa and the other left – get this – SEVEN tickets at home. I don’t remember how we did it in the end, but we managed to prise those tickets out of them. (“But we came all the way from Karachi and we haven’t slept in 4 days and… okay ask me anything – ANYTHING – about cricket!”).
We got to the stadium a few overs late and had to look around for seats for a while before finally settling on a place on the steps next to the families of Wahab Riaz and the Akmals. Sehwag was smashing our best fast bowler around for fun, but nothing could put a damper on our excitement. We made it to Mohali!
We made it!
Special thanks to: Adnan Alam, Yusra Askari, Hafeez Chachar, Piyali Dasgupta, Vandna Dhand, Husain Haqqani, Faizan Lakhani, Dileep Premachandran, Mehmal Sarfraz, Tooba Awan, Barkha Dutt, my partners-in-crime Sukaina Ali and Saba Gul and everyone who tweeted for us including sufisal, FiveRupees, bbcsport_oliver, tazeen, thecricketcouch, AltCricket, gkhamba, iamhassan9, khurram_mir, sehwagology, alizeb, fizzarahman, Third_Umpire, syrabanu, richaaagarwal, sid_famir, skabi2010, parasdesai22, Nairvana, mount_57, ibudhani, Alifaruq, Banarisoh, Mehmal, ahmadbabar, haiderazhar, Korrupt_, sahyder1 , seennoonkaaf and oneonejubb. You got the girls to Mohali!
An edited version of this post was first published in Dawn.