It’s lunchtime on the second day of the fifth Test between England and India at The Oval.
Some spectators dig into coolbags the size of ocean liners, others queue for overpriced Pimm’s and Prosecco. The hum is of the latest Jos Buttler-inspired England fightback.
At the back of Block 7, underneath the posh seats and in front of a tandoori stand, the Bharat Army are having a proper knees-up.
The India supporters, most of them dressed in pink charity shirts, have formed a ring around a drummer and a saxophonist. The ones at the centre of the circle sing, chant, clap their hands and whistle. The ones on the outside stand on chairs or walls to get a vantage point for a video or a selfie.
The noise is deafening. The atmosphere is wonderful. The Army cares little that their side has had a difficult morning and they are so engrossed in their music that, when play resumes, it takes a good few seconds for them to realise that KL Rahul has taken a blinding catch to get rid of Stuart Broad.
From the throng, clad in the pink and behind shades and a cap, emerges Rakesh Patel, Raks to his friends.
It was almost 20 years ago, at the 1999 World Cup, that Raks and three other British-Indians formed the Bharat (meaning India) Army in response to the India fans being outnumbered by their Pakistani counterparts at a game in Manchester.
“India fans love noise, they love the passion,” said the 43-year-old from south London.
“Everywhere we go, we have drummers. Before the Women’s World Cup final last year, I wrote to the MCC and said we would love to take one drum in to Lord’s. They had never allowed musical instruments inside the ground before, but they signed this off. It creates a great environment.”
Comparisons between the Bharat Army and England’s Barmy Army are easy to make. Both started as a gathering of like-minded supporters and have grown into official travel companies.
Offering fans the chance to watch cricket all around the world is big business and Raks consulted with the Barmies’ Paul Burnham when getting the Bharat Army off the ground.
More important, though, is the atmosphere both sets of fans bring to international cricket. On that Saturday at The Oval, it’s not hard to imagine the Barmies in Australia, congregating on the concourse at the MCG or the Gabba, singing of taking the urn home.
“We’re massively inspired by the Barmy Army,” said Raks. “We want to copy what they do, and why not?”
A key difference, however, is that the Bharat Army were formed outside of the country that they support.
At first, their membership was mainly UK-based. Now, they have a strong presence in India and draw members from nations with a strong ex-pat community. To cope with demand, they employ 18 members of staff, mainly in India, fielding calls, curating their website and running their social media. The Bharat Army even has its own television channel.
“We had 3,500 members attend each of the Champions Trophy matches in the UK last year, coming from 22 countries around the world,” said Raks. “The biggest number of those came from America. Our reach is growing.”
Not only that, but Raks believes that the Indian population is “waking up” to the idea of following their beloved team abroad.
“Twenty years ago, there would be maybe one or two fans staying in the same hotel as the India team. Now you can’t get a room. That is because the country is developing.
“Before, there was a super rich and a super poor, now there is a middle-class developing. They want to spend their disposable income on sports travel.”
The atmosphere, noise and colour that the Bharat Army have brought to the English summer, particularly during the limited-overs matches, has been inescapable. At times it was more Mumbai than Manchester, more Nagpur than Nottingham.
Raks explains that for the India fans who do not live in India, the shared experience of watching their team play cricket provides a cultural connection.
“I’m proud to be a British-Indian. I’ve followed England to three football World Cups,” he said. “Cricket gives Indians something to connect and relate to. We create a community.”
That is a pertinent thought for the England and Wales Cricket Board, who this year launched its action plan to better engage with south Asian communities in the UK.
“It’s quite simple,” said Raks. “If you want to connect to the Asian community, you have to give them what they want.
“For many years, watching cricket in England has been a reserved experience. To create our kind of atmosphere was difficult, it wasn’t easy to get drums inside a stadium.
“There is criticism of the IPL, but it has brought a different audience to the game in India, one that wants razzmatazz. If you give them that, they will turn up.”
Raks works as a partner in a recruitment company, but has still managed to see all but two days of India’s international matches this summer – and those were only missed because he was at his cousin’s wedding.
He says he will be at some part of every series India play, wherever it is in the world. The presence of the Bharat Army has been recognised by the India players, even if their megastardom has prevented the sort of personal relationships that the Barmy Army enjoy with some of the England team.
“We try to give them space,” said Raks. “They are aware of us and we know they value our support – they tweet us and thank us.”
Shikhar Dhawan is certainly one who engages with the Bharat Army. When he was fielding in front of Block 7 on the first evening, he granted their request for a Bhangra dance. Later in the game, England trio Adil Rashid, Moeen Ali and Sam Curran were less keen to oblige.
“I believe that the India cricket team should have the biggest and best supporters’ group in the world,” concluded Raks.
“My vision is towards the 2023 World Cup in India. If there’s 60,000 in the stadium, I want them to all be members of the Bharat Army. To be that voice, the team’s 12th man.”
At that point, he went back to the centre of the circle and returned to leading the singing.
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