With no fellow Indian fans in sight, Patel briefly feared for his own safety.
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“I was thinking, ‘If Pakistan lose, this is going to get quite tasty’,” Patel told Al Jazeera. “In those days, you could move around in the stadium. By the end of that match, we’d gathered between 300-400 Indian fans in one section. While we were still outnumbered, we created a great atmosphere.”
The experience inspired Patel to create the Bharat Army, the Indian team’s first ever organised supporters’ group.
Over the past two decades, the Bharat Army has exploded in popularity. By the end of the ongoing Cricket World Cup next month, more than 11,000 fans from 23 countries would have travelled to the United Kingdom to watch their team play.
“Every time India plays, the Bharat Army have between 5,000 and 6,000 fans in the stadium, which is sometimes around a third of the total crowd,” said Patel.
Much of this increase in popularity has taken place since India’s 2011 World Cup triumph, with the Bharat Army going from a mostly amateur setup to a full-scale commercial enterprise with 20 full-time employees based across three different countries.
Patel believes the spike is due to a combination of the team’s success over the past decade as well as India’s rapidly expanding middle class.
— The Bharat Army (@thebharatarmy) June 12, 2019
“Twenty years ago, very few people in India had money to spend on sports leisure trips. Now, with the country’s economic growth, that’s changed,” he said.
“And since MS Dhoni took over as captain, it created a real impetus in Indian cricket, because every time he’s led us in a tournament, we’ve got to at least a semi-final or final. That whets the appetite of fans to spend more money on cricket and travel around the world.”
One such fan is Toronto-based Rishi Chhabra who grew up in Dhoni’s hometown of Ranchi, and has spent more than $6,000 on travelling to this year’s World Cup.
Such is Chhabra’s devotion to following India with the Bharat Army that he even quit his job to ensure he can be in the UK for the full tournament.
“I started a new job last November, and because I’d only been there six months, they wouldn’t allow more than a week off,” said Chhabra. “So I told them I was quitting. I’m currently unemployed. It’s Dhoni’s last World Cup probably and I couldn’t miss it.”
The community spirit offered by the Bharat Army is also attracting Indian expats across the globe to the idea of experiencing international cricket for the first time, even those who have grown up in parts in the world where cricket has little presence.
“This World Cup is the first time I’ve watched India play live,” says Roshni Chasmawala, who lives in New Jersey, US. “Being able to cheer India with fans from all over the world is a great way of connecting with my roots.”
This Sunday, Manchester’s Old Trafford stadium, the venue for the clash 20 years ago, will see the return of both sides in the latest instalment of one of cricket’s most enduring and storied rivalries.
But beyond the boundary ropes, the singing, dancing throngs of blue of the Bharat Army will come across their green counterparts: the Stani Army, Pakistan’s largest supporters group, which was launched in 2008.
While not quite on the same scale as their rivals – the Stani Army has 3,000 Facebook followers compared with more than 190,000 for the Bharat Army – the Stani Army still indulges in some good-natured ribbing of their counterparts, whenever the opportunity arises.
— Stani Army (@StaniArmy) June 1, 2019
“The Bharat Army actually tried to change their name a few years ago to the Swarmy Army,” said Stani Army founder Hamza Ahmed. “But it didn’t take off because we got right back at them. So they went back to Bharat Army, which I don’t think sounds anything as good as Stani Army.”
While the Bharat Army has ballooned into a fast-growing global company, the Stani Army is still a part-time enterprise comprised entirely of British Pakistanis. While they arrange trips to Test matches and ODIs whenever Pakistan tour the UK, Ahmed still works full-time as a project manager for an education consultancy.
“We have a few plans in the works, but it’s more difficult to make it happen because unfortunately the Pakistani passport is a difficult one for getting into a lot of countries,” said Ahmed.
“And while Pakistan is the world’s fastest growing retail market, with a huge middle class that’s grown in the past 10 years, it’s still not the same size as the Indian middle class. Pakistan is a big country but it’s not one billion people.
“But for 2020, we’re looking to organise tours to the UAE to watch the Pakistan Super League matches. We think that could be a good way of getting things off the ground.”
— Stani Army (@StaniArmy) February 28, 2014
Ahmed remains hopeful that within the next five years, the security situation will improve enough for Pakistan to be able to host international matches in their own country once more. This would open up the possibility of Stani Army tours to Lahore and Karachi, and growing the brand within Pakistan.
While the Bharat Army’s success has surpassed Patel’s expectations, it has left him with some dilemmas of his own, most of all trying to retain the image of a supporter’s group, rather than that of a commercial brand.
“There’s a balance between being an Indian cricket supporters’ group whose core objective is to support the team, and being a business,” said Patel.
“Indian people are the most cynical people in the world. If they feel that your core objective is making profit, then their perception of you changes. So what money we make is a consequence of what we do, rather than the other way round. “
But for its many dedicated fans, their minds are already turning to future tournaments, even before this one is over.
“Quite a few of us have already begun our planning for the next World T20 in Australia,” said Chhabra.
“I’m probably going to get married that year, but I’ve already made it clear to my family to make sure the wedding doesn’t happen during the tournament. I’m not missing it for anything. That’s the kind of commitment a lot of people have in the Bharat Army.”