Being on the wrong side of the 30s, I sometimes wish that I was younger. Maybe have ten years shaved off my life clock. Yeah. That would be good.
And then I remember 1983. June 25. World Cup final.
Dancing about as the radio announced the demise of King Richards in front of India’s mighty flower-arrows of Madan-Dev, dying a hundred deaths as Dujon and Marshall soldier on, inching closer to the target of 183. And then those final moments of disbelief as Mohinder Amarnath starts running to the pavilion.
No I would not exchange youth for that experience, being born in 1985 would not have been worth the extra ten-years. Being old enough to be able to understand what we had seen in 1983 was like having been alive on August 15, 1947, a privilege few generations get. Not that we realized it then, but that day we had witnessed the start of a revolution, not just in the history of the sport but also in that of the nation.
Even today, I can barely manage not to feel something welling up in my throat as I watch on Youtube those golden summer moments of long long ago—–Damn, is it me or was the world just more young and innocent then?
If 1983 taught a seven-year old the power of prayer, 1987 taught the same young man the agony of disappointment. The Reliance World Cup was being held in the sub-continent and India was a firm favorite according to Sportsworld, Sportstar and Sportsweek. Which meant I was sure they would win, in a thrilling final versus Pakistan at the Eden Gardens, where I visualized Kapil Dev hitting a six off the last ball after coming to the stadium riding his trusty BSA-SLR. The campaign started off badly with a one run loss, when Maninder Singh would lose his head, characteristically, against the “death bowling” of an young Aussie making his name in the world. Someone called Steve Waugh. But then India righted itself, rolling through the preliminary matches with a new star emerging ( a man who we later realized had been mined in the depths of the “Mount Doom of the English language and humor”), a man who would be come to known as Navjyot Singh Sidhu, who was making a stunning comeback to the team after a horrible start in 1983. Unlike in 83, I was following other teams this time, reflecting my interest in cricket in general—appreciating David Houghton’s one-man show against New Zealand in an innings of matchless heroism, Abdul Qadir’s last-over pyrotechnics against “spirit of the game” Courtney Walsh ( my uncle kept repeating at my side “Of course they will win the close games. They eat beef you see”) and Richards blasting the Sri Lankan bowling like he was teeing off against the Dover Lane local team.
This was all well and good. But ultimately India ‘s winning was the most important. It was kismet. I was confident with the healthy optimism that pre-teens seem to possess. After all had I not prayed my team to a win in 1983? My faith was further strengthened when in the last prelims match against New Zealand, Sunil Gavaskar unleashed carnage against Ewen Chatfield and John Bracewell of the kind Yusuf Pathan would find tough to match with the mentor of the Chennai Super Kings and the patron saint of Murali Vijay also blazing away with solar intensity. This team rocked.
Even in the semi-final when Ravi Shastri kept getting swept by Graham Gooch (Kapil kept the field open so that Gooch makes a mistake—he never did) to a century, I was still sure we would win. After all, Ravi Shastri was the Champion of Champions, whose big poster selling Proline Tshirts plastered in front of “Amrita Bastralaya” (the official supplier of our school uniform) never failed to make me go wink-wink (He was dating Amrita Singh then–Amrita–Vastra…get it?) confirmed his all-round grooviness. The first sign of panic was when Phil Defreitas sent Sunil Gavaskar’s stump walking (his last international appearance). And then India imploded. Against the run of play, with the match in balance, Kapil Dev hoiked Hemmings straight down mid-wicket’s throat. When Azhar fell , missing one of his trademark paddle sweeps and then finally Shastri holed out, I remember sitting in front of my Telerama color set, my head in hands, weeping uncontrollably.
I learnt a few lessons that day. The world could be cruel. And God may not exist. After all, who but the Devil would have a England-Australia final at the Eden Gardens?
1992 the World Cup went to Australia. My board exams were on. With parents leaving to go somewhere, I cheated on studying to watch India vs Australia. What a game it was, Azhar playing an amazing innings in a losing cause, a match that concluded with the amazing Srinath dancing thinking he had hit a six, when in actuality the ball had hit a headwind, not crossed the boundary, fallen down with the catch being also dropped. If only he had run. If only. But India did not deserve to win. New Zealand did, unleashing a totally new strategy that took everyone by surprise—-opening the bowling with the slow spin of Deepak Patel and the batting with a more sober version of Jessie Ryder—Mark Greatbatch with the genius of Martin Crowe beefing the middle. A New Zealand team with flair. Now isnt that a four leaf clover?
But alas New Zealand would miss the bus. On the day of a board exam was the semi-final between them and Pakistan. Around the thirtieth over, Pakistan was finished, being neutered by New Zealand’s dibbly-dobbly medium pace attack. As I was leaving for the exam, putting on my shoes, I remember still unable to concentrate on my studies. Who was this tall Pakistani man batting? I have never seen anyone hitting like this, shots murderous in their relentless intensity. The camera focused on the face. What a strange dude—- boredom writ large on his face, as if he just wanted to go to sleep. Not that I realized it then but a legend was being born in the cauldron of the World Cup, the Samuel Beckett of Pakistan, Mr. Potato-Head. For an Indian, it is always painful when Pakistan wins but the “lover of cricket” side of me applauded Pakistan —–there would be rarely a team that combined talent and madness all together like these people did. And 1991 was their greatest hour. You had to stand up and applaud.
1996 marked the birth of the modern one-day game. Jay and little Kalu set the standard of scoring in the first fifteen overs—-whereas 75 would be considered an excellent start, they made 105 the norm. The rest of the world was caught in the hellfire of their passing.
In Jadavpur University, I had become a pragmatist. It was that or becoming a Naxal. I chose the more difficult option.
I knew India had a good chance but I had come to believe that the side would let me down. After all it depended too much on one person. The man was in sublime form while the rest of the side was at its flimsy worst. No. I did not give them much of a chance. Did I tell you I was in college then? Yes I did. Which is why I wanted to think of myself as less of a “partisan fan” (that was sooo high school) and more a connoisseur of “good cricket”. Which is why I enjoyed Brian Lara’s sublime assault on Pat Symcox (one of the most genius innings one could see) that knocked South Africa out, Shane Warne’s ability to lift his team up when they needed him the most (in the match against West Indies) and Aravinda De Silva’s stunning strokeplay.
My heart was in control. Till the Bangalore quarter-final when Ajay Jadeja lit up the sky with fireworks. The crowd roared as the game became a gladiatorial spectacle. All pretense of being dispassionate was gone. I was seven again.
One of my geeky friends called me to ask a question while the game was on. I said “What’s wrong with you? Aren’t you watching the cricket “. He said “No”. Then as an afterthought, asked me “What’s the score?”. I said something like “238 for 6”. He asked “All out?”. I hung up the phone. I knew then and there he would go onto become a bigshot in the software business. He did.
Then of course the match started going bad. Just as Pakistan were psyching out India as they had done for a decade ever since Sharjah, an unlikely hero stood up. After Aamir Sohail pointed his bat at the crowd, Prasad charged in, sent his stumps flying and ran towards Sohail, pointing to the crowd. At that moment, Prasad would have won back PoK from Pakistan with just leg-cutters, so pumped up was he. So was I. It was a game no one, not even the man from Ghajini, could ever forget. Neither could they forget the next match. The Eden pitch was known to crack up under lights. Yet Azhar won the toss and fielded. The most devastating opening attack of the world was dismissed in an over. From that position, India blew it. Then the crowd did. Possibly the worst World Cup memories ever, made even worse by the fact that it followed the heady rush of Bangalore. Damn. One should never get behind India. Never. I thought.
1999. I was just getting ready to leave for the US to do my PhD. When would I see cricket next? (Remember this was the pre-Sopcast days) In that gloomy state of mind, I sat down to watch the tournament, to see cricket for one last time. No mercy. One got to witness India’s capitulation to first South Africa (another peerless performance by the matchless Agarkar) and then the highly suspicious defeat to Zimbabwe, which I would like to believe was fixed because the alternative explanation, that they were really that bad, is even more painful to accept. India was disappointing throughout, and not even a victory against Pakistan alleviated the sense of gloom. Sure there was the Dada-Dravid jugalbandi against Sri Lanka, one of their finest moments together, and Debashish Mohanty (Orissa’s Sourav Ganguly—an Oriya man would beat up Chappell in 2007 for not playing Mohanty) giving the English a piece of his mind for two centuries of colonialism. But such priceless slices of time were too few.Way too few.
Disappointed, I again became the dispassionate aficionado waah-waahing over Shane Warne’s spell against South Africa, Gilchrist’s assault on the Pakistani bowlers in the final and slapping my forehead at South Africa’s moment of brain-frozen madness in the semi-final, reminiscent of Gatting’s ill-advised reverse-sweep in Eden Gardens twelve years ago.
In 2003, I was in Stonybrook. It was cold. Beastly cold. We Indians stayed on campus and we could not get Dish, the only people broadcasting the tournament. An application was made to the Stonybrook university cable to get the World Cup games. No luck. One of the graduate “dorms” had a dedicated room for “parties” where Dish could be installed. An application was made to the University to be able to use it. But the games started early in the dawn and the “room” was not available for booking then, as per Stonbrook regulations. In our application, the Indian graduate students said that “cricket was a religion for us” and US authorities are very worried about impinging on people’s religious rights. So permission was given.
In a room whose legal occupation limit was 60, there were often 100 people squeezed in. Impassioned cheering. Hush hush said everyone. The cops would come. They didn’t. Three Pakistanis came though for the India-Pakistan match. They left at the end, in tears. I had never seen cricket in such a large group and it was an amazing experience, marred only by the lady who stepped on my knuckles (I was sitting on the floor).
An amazing experience because Far away from India, I was back home, with people who were as crazy as I was, united through a common madness. What would you call a bunch of “mature” graduate students, who at a freezing 4 am in the morning, go outside, and burst a coconut on the iced footpath with one person, wearing a white towel, reciting a small prayer. Yes we did that. Just before the finals. It was another thing that the finals were a disaster of Titanic proportions. Zaheer Khan lost the plot in the first over itself, Srinath started bowling spinners and Ponting at one stage started laughing, his eyes squinting into that arrogant bully expression, as if he had tripped the lame kid on the sidewalk and was kicking away his walking stick. I could not finish the match—-there was a paper due and the very presence of the silent crowd made it unbearable. You could have scooped out the grief with a spoon. I left once Sehwag got out.
Things couldn’t get worse.
I was wrong. 2007 came. Greg Chappell, the Vishkanya of international cricket, did to the Indian team what mining companies do to tribal land. I paid USD 120 for the cricket package from Dish, applied for leave for the Sri Lanka game. I was lucky. I didnt go to the Caribbean, I had seriously wanted to.
What a loss would that have been.
But wait. Am I not old enough, finally, to go beyond this jingoistic fanboy-dom and appreciate the game just for its sake?
Naah. Not for the World Cup. When it comes along, once every four years, I become as partisan as I can be. Because , for me, it is not just another cricket tournament, one of the many the ICC imposes on us.
It is a thread woven in the magic loom of the mind which connects emotions and experiences, from the past to the present and out to the future in one continuum of punch-drunk warm fuzziness.
And so for a month I will chuck away my cynicism and put my lot behind the multi-billionaires who wear the blue uniform today. Yes they are as far removed as they can be from the amateurish simple men who won the Cup in 1983, as far removed as a thirty-five yearer can be from a wide-eyed seven-year old
But yet, at their very heart, they represent the same thing their predecessors did.