Pallekele is a small, quiet town, just a half-an-hour drive from Kandy, the second largest city in Sri Lanka dotted with tea plantations. The locale is so quiet that even the chirp of a bird could wake you up in the morning. Perched on the hillside, tourists flock here to unwind and soak in the greenery, with a cup of tea or a swig of arrack with ginger ale by their side. But since Friday morning, the town, with a population of only 1,11,701, has been buzzing, witnessing something new, with the inflow of cricket tourists from the Bandaranaike International Airport in Colombo, bringing some parts of the town to a standstill.
The occasion thus is set for the first of the six potential encounters in the next two months, from Asia Cup to the World Cup, between rivals India and Pakistan on Saturday. The tickets for the World Cup fixture between the two sides in Ahmedabad are difficult to secure and much more expensive, travelling fans are headed to Pallekele since this is an affordable option.
“Going to Ahmedabad had more complexities because tickets for the game are yet to go on sale and there is no surety whether we will get it. Even if we bought a ticket, flight tickets are on the expensive side to travel during the World Cup. So this option looked safe and affordable and since it is Sri Lanka, even the cost has been manageable,” says an India fan, who has flown in from Singapore.
With both sides almost full-strength, the contest promises to be closely fought, although it is not as fiery as the one it used to be a while ago. There is a visible bonhomie between players of the two teams. As Pakistan arrived for their training session soon after India landed, some of the players greeted them with warm hugs. The most memorable was Pakistan fast bowler Haris Rauf shaking hands and hugging India batsman Virat Kohli, who had clobbered him for two successive sixes in Melbourne during the T20 World Cup last year.
With matches between these two teams coming at a premium, their meetings, of late, have resembled a mutual admiration society where players lavish praises and support each other in public forums. If Babar Azam backed Kohli when he was enduring a prolonged lean patch last year, the Indian played a glowing tribute to the Pakistan captain, calling him the best all-format player recently.
On Friday, Babar touched upon Kohli again. “When I met him in 2019, he was at his peak. He’s still at his peak. I wanted to take something from his game. I learnt a lot from him. He gave a detailed explanation to all my questions. That helped me and there is always good respect between us and it is good to keep it going. When you do such things for each other, it feels really good,” he said.
An engrossing contest brews. Although India had an upper hand over Pakistan for the majority of the last decade, the tables are showing signs of turning. At the last Asia Cup meeting, played in a T20 format, Pakistan floored India first up, from where India hardly recovered. Though India did manage to beat them in the T20 World Cup, it took a special knock from Kohli. This time around, Pakistan, being the No 1 ranked ODI side, are coming into the fixture with a good preparation, having played Afghanistan in Hambantota last month. India, on the other hand, start as underdogs and unless they bring their best game into play, beating Pakistan will be difficult, particularly given their recent performances in multi-nation events.
But India-Pakistan games are not just about the contest in the middle but about the mood around it too. Pallekele is feeling what it is to host an India-Pakistan game. The narrow roads, which descend and ascend and take numerous turns and home to the numerous tuk-tuks, are getting used to traffic jams. On local FM stations, RJs are filing constant reminders of the congestion and suggesting deviations to avoid heavy traffic. On Saturday, a couple of popular schools in the city will wind up their classes early so that students don’t face any hassle to get home. And if they want to watch the game, they needn’t bunk the classes either.
The whole hysteria and madness that they have witnessed from the numerous arriving fans is so hard to miss that even the locals are waiting eagerly to know what an India versus Pakistan duel actually feels like. On Wednesday, even when hosts Sri Lanka got their Asia Cup campaign to a winning start against Bangladesh, many of the locals didn’t turn up to even sit on the grassbanks, instead preferring to save the cash for Saturday’s contest that brings both India and Pakistan to a standstill. And on this occasion, the quaint town of Pallekele too.