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At USC, Indians and Pakistanis unite for cricket

USC students from India and Pakistan watch at campus gatherings as their countries play a 2011 Cricket World Cup semifinal. For eight hours, any inkling of international strife gives way to mingling, cheering, chanting, dozing — and a uniting love for a sport.

March 31, 2011|By Abby Sewell, Los Angeles Times
  • Ajai Thandi, left, and Jag Singh celebrate India's win in the Cricket World Cup semifinal against Pakistan. USC students gathered on campus to watch the eight-hour match, which began at 2 a.m. Los Angeles time.
Ajai Thandi, left, and Jag Singh celebrate India's win in the Cricket… (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles…)

As their countries headed toward victory and disappointment in the final hour of the much-anticipated Cricket World Cup 2011 semifinal match, Waleed Ishtiaq and Nikunj Jajodia were dozing side by side.

Wearing their respective countries' team colors — green for Pakistan and blue for India — the 20-year-old USC students had nodded off in their chairs at an on-campus screening of the game. Not even the intermittent cheering of their compatriots could rouse them.

It was past 10 a.m. Wednesday in Los Angeles when India took the prize, after a nail-biting eight-hour contest. The few Indians left at the screening in the lobby of the University Gateway Apartments screamed and danced, while the Pakistani students who had organized the gathering filed silently out of the room.

A few blocks away, about 75 students celebrated on campus at Tommy's Place, where a screening had been organized by the Association of Indian Students. Hundreds had lined up, jostling and blowing noisemakers, more than an hour before the 2 a.m. start of the match.

The Indians leaped onto chairs and screamed; one girl banged on a pan excitedly as stars like Sachin Tendulkar showed off their skillful bat work. A handful of Pakistanis countered with chants of their own.

Hour after hour, as the game wore on, some chatted or did homework on their laptops. Most, however, sat quietly, eyes fixed on the screen, watching the fortunes of their favorites rise and fall.

Many student cricket enthusiasts said they cared more about the outcome of the India/Pakistan match than the winner's upcoming match against Sri Lanka in the World Cup final.

"It's bigger than the Super Bowl for us," said Tarun Sandhu, 29, an international student from India and president of the Trojan Cricket Club. "… Here, instead of two rival teams, you have two rival countries facing off against each other."

USC has about 1,500 Indian international students and 30 from Pakistan, according to fall enrollment figures. The school has consistently been listed as the top institution in the nation in the number of international students enrolled. And in February, USC President C.L. Max Nikias led a delegation to India in a bid to develop further ties with the country.

Despite their countries' long history of political and military strife, and the bitter rivalry between their cricket teams, the young Indians and Pakistanis in Los Angeles have common ground in their love for a game that most of them played as children on the streets of their neighborhoods.

For many, Wednesday was the first time they had sat down with citizens of the rival country to watch an India-Pakistan match. It was an echo of the sidelines diplomacy in Mohali, India, where Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh invited his Pakistani counterpart, Yusuf Raza Gilani, to watch the game next to him.

USC Indian and Pakistani student associations set up separate viewing parties, partly out of fear of confrontations stemming from the high-running emotions.

Sandhu said Indian and Pakistani players on the university's cricket club roster had taunted each other on Facebook in the days leading up to the match.

Fears run deep in some cases. Indian student Subal Mehta, 23, said when a handful of chanting Pakistanis showed up in line for the screening at Tommy's Place, "For a minute, my heart shut down."

But students from the rival countries attended both screenings and mingled with nothing more than run-of-the-mill heckling.

The Pakistani students even made the goodwill gesture of sending late-night grub to the Indians.

At the end of the night, the winners and losers paid homage to a historic game.

"Such a thing happens once in a lifetime, and I was here to experience it," said a jubilant Abhimanyu Bishnoi, 22, an electrical engineering graduate student from New Delhi and captain of one of the campus cricket teams.

Pakistani creative writing graduate student Hamza Khalil, 27, draped in his country's flag and wearing face paint to represent its crescent moon and star, dropped in on the Indian viewing before the match with a loud group of his countrymen. After the game, he was one of the last to filter quietly out of the Pakistani viewing party.

"I would not have missed it for my life, even if I knew this was going to happen," Khalil said. "… There are so many bad things happening all the time. Cricket is one thing everyone loves, regardless of whatever."

abby.sewell@latimes.com

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