GREATER NOIDA: Like home, the streets here are dotted with food carts selling chhole bhature and lassi in the morning and nihari, kebabs and paya for dinner. The greeting of “haanji Sir, boliye” and the friendly smile that comes with it is exactly the same as well.
The Pakistani team participating in the Equestrian Tent Pegging World Cup qualifiers in Greater Noida hasn’t had much time to soak in the sights and sounds of India. But in the four days they have had to venture out, the highlight for them has been the friendliness and warmth of locals, which has reminded them of home.
“We are just borders apart, else the city feels exactly like Lahore. The language, the culture, the food…. We had gone to the local market to buy socks the other day, and everyone seemed so friendly and familiar. The next time we come here, we plan to spend a little more time,” Irfan Mahmood, one of the players, told TOI on Thursday.
The four-member team and a reserve player will leave India on Friday. When they come next, a visit to Ajmer Sharif and Agra is on their wish list.
The familiarity with India also stems from the Bollywood movies they have grown up watching. Salman Khan, Sanjay Dutt, Shah Rukh Khan, Ajay Devgn… name any Bollywood actor and they are most likely to have watched their films. Coach Haroon Bandial is a lover of the stage.
A seasoned player, Bandial admires Naseeruddin Shah. Shah’s performance as Mirza Ghalib is his favourite.
There was some uncertainty over the Pakistani team’s visit to India, initially. Their visas got approved just four days before the event was to begin on March 16 and they rushed to join the competition along with India, Nepal, the US and Belarus on March 15.
They were also officially the first sporting team from Pakistan to visit India after the two countries announced a ceasefire in February.
Once the visas came through, their journey was smooth, despite Covid restrictions. “From the airport to the hotel in Greater Noida and the field, everything was smooth. At the airport, an official checked our papers and took us around to get all the formalities done. We didn’t have to wait for anything,” Bandial smiled.
The tournament ended on Thursday, with India emerging winners with 515 points. Pakistan came second with 482.5 points.
“Tent pegging is an audience sport. It’s very simple to understand and liked by all. It just needs to be promoted through better social media coverage, more sponsors and international meets,” said Amer Munawar Siddiq, the secretary-general of the Equestrian Federation of Pakistan and a seven-time world champion himself.
Captain Safdar Ali Sultan echoed him. “All the players in the Pakistani team own horses and have grown up riding. They have played several matches at home and there are thousands who are competing for international matches. The quality of horses in India is very good. We came here for the first time. We hope more players will be involved in the sport,” he said.
The Indian federation thanked the Pakistani team for agreeing to participate in the tournament when others had backed out because of Covid restrictions.
“Many countries were not willing to participate because of Covid cases. However, the Pakistani team supported us and was ready to join in. This sport is such. It’s a small, connected world and we support each other,” said Brijesh Mathur, a member of the organising committee.