by Subash Jayaraman
I ran around, got in group hugs, high-fived anyone and everyone. There was a feeling of euphoria washing over me, as if, I’d done the hardest thing that I have ever done, or will ever do. A sense of relief, a sense of accomplishment. The cool night breeze filling up my lungs further accentuated my feelings. Spending 8 hours stuck in a room of 200 boys, sitting in the same spot, not even taking a bathroom break can do that to you.
It was a critical quarterfinal clash in the ’96 World Cup. India vs. Pakistan. The winner goes on to play Sri Lanka in the semifinals. There were severe undercurrents of nationalism amongst the people watching that game, including yours truly. It isn’t just a game. A nation’s pride seemed to be riding on the outcome - A faux war.
In retrospect, a false sense of patriotism; the perspective nineteen year olds are not blessed with.
Having lived in a land far, far away, as removed from the passion of my childhood – Cricket, as possible for more than 10 years, I returned home for a visit. I tried desperately to stay in touch with the sport as much as I could during these intervening years. In the early years, it was scorecards and match reports that let me re-construct the matches in my head. Similar to how it used be in the 1980’s living in a household without a TV but a radio and a newspaper subscription.
The Philips short-wave radio was the constant companion for my older brothers. My mother would turn it on 5.30 A.M. every morning and it was only turned off in the late hours of the night. The close of radio play depended on the ability of the radio to pick up ABC or BBC and waft cricket commentary and news bulletins through our little courtyard.
I was strangely amused, but mostly surprised, when my eldest brother (he has about 20 years on me), turned the television off. It was after all a series involving two of the top cricketing nations, India and South Africa, in India no less. The bragging rights for the number one test team in the world were at stake. I was entertaining some house guests who had come to see after nearly 10 years, so I was paying only cursory attention to the TV. When I enquired my brother why he had turned the TV off, pat came the sad response (in Tamil), “Chha poda… Tendulkar out ayittaan, inimela enna irukku parkkaradhukku…?” [Tendulkar is out. What else is there to see now?].
I know that feeling. So do many millions of Indian cricket fans. Sachin Tendulkar stood for us. He fought for us. He made us believe we can win; sometimes, against the odds. As long as he was there, hope had a reason to stick around. The superior quality of the opposition to the Indian team didn’t matter. McGrath didn’t worry us. Neither did a Warne. We had a chance. As long as he was there.
I was six when India made history at Lord’s on that summer afternoon in 1983. I was still learning my off-side and on-side of cricket. From the joy on the faces of my brothers and neighbors, I knew enough to know that something big has happened. Something I couldn’t wrap my mind around.
It was splashed across the newspapers. I saw the images. I saw Kapil Dev holding the trophy aloft. My English was pretty limited, so I couldn’t read the stories. My brothers told us kids about the exploits of Kapil’s Devils and their pride in narrating the stories filled us with it too. Impromptu cricket matches broke out on the streets and backyards. They let us kids hold the “Sunny Tonny” bat and play with it. I was hooked. For life.
The late 80’s and the 90’s were a tough time to be a fan of Indian cricket. Only the most sadistic of them all stood by the team, or the ignoramus. There was way too much heartburn in following the team, that wasn’t offset by the few highs. One of the icons of Indian cricket, Sunil Gavaskar, one of the early ones that provided the country the belief that they can compete, had retired and the other, that led a team of honest triers and rag-tags to the highest mountain, Kapil Dev was on his way out.
I have heard stories from my family elders about the general bleakness and hopelessness that surrounded the Indian society in the 70’s and 80’s. The economy wasn’t going anywhere. The promises of the fledgling nation were unkept, and the people were disillusioned. An honest man did not get the returns he would’ve expected from a hard day’s work. I remember my own family going through some tough times but there was always cricket that gave us the respite from the hardships. Once in a while, we could forget the real world and immerse ourselves in this beautiful game - playing, listening or watching.
The dawn of the 90’s saw the doors of Indian economy thrown open. The promises of this great nation were renewed. There was a spring in its step. And on its cricket horizon, arose a new star. A wunderkind. A genius beyond his years. Sachin Tendulkar.
As any fan of a middle-of-the-road team can tell you, the night before a big match is the worst time. You just can’t wait for the game to start so that you don’t have to deal with the anxiety and the thoughts of “what if?”
When your past is littered with moments of immense disappointments and sadness, it is quite natural to dream of the scenarios when your favorite team is going to slip up because the tortured history becomes your frame of reference. The transition from being a pessimistic, negative nancy fan to one that expects his/her team to win, is not just a mental evolution of the fan, but also comes from the confidence of the team having succeeded in tight situations, time and time again.
The 1990’s were filled with several instances where the Indian team snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. Each one of them, scarring me deeper. One defeat after another, from seemingly winnable positions, only to be turned away at the threshold.
The renewed rivalry between India and Pakistan off the field amplified the significance of the on field results. Every single loss to Pakistan felt like a slap on the face of the nation. Nothing epitomized this more than the lack of returns in Sharjah. The Miandad six off the last ball sent hoards of Indian fans in to despair and provided the mental superiority to Pakistan. They knew they can win from any seemingly impossible situation and we knew we could lose from any position. That hurt. This blow to the psyche would take many years to heal.
India’s tours of England in 1990 and of Australia in 1991-92 were exercises in futility. The Azharuddin-Wadekar combination did provide us with a fleeting era of glory and mirth but that had a lot to do with home cooking. India was thrashed whenever they chose to step outside the subcontinent, but through it all, we saw the diamond in the rough. A beacon of hope. When everyone around him was falling apart, not able to withstand the heat of the battle, Sachin Tendulkar kept waging the lone fight. It was a good fight. There were moments of magic and miracles such as the one witnessed during the ’93 Hero cup. It kept us believing. Sachin can do it. For us. For me.
The peak of Tendulkar’s powers seemed to coincide with my time in a college in the northern parts of the country, thousands of kilometers from my home. He was a run machine. It was as if he had decided to take it all upon himself. During the period of ’96-’98, it looked as if he would single handedly will India to the Promised Land.
The magnificent win over Pakistan in Bangalore in the world cup quarterfinal was quickly erased from my memory by the abject loss to Sri Lanka in the semifinals. Only Tendulkar scored. Nothing new. This was the story of the ‘90s. No wonder my older brother turned the TV off in 2010 when Tendulkar got out. My brother had been mentally broken too much. His belief in the Indian team began and ended with Tendulkar. The Tendulkar feats of 1998 must have further reinforced my brother’s belief as Tendulkar singlehandedly beat the best team of the time, Australia in test matches and in ODIs (Sharjah and Dhaka). At the end of this great run, I packed my bags to go to a Cricket-less land, across the oceans for higher studies.
The late 90’s and the early 2000’s saw the emergence of internet and with it, the long unheard voice of the Indian cricket fan. It helped me keep tabs on the only sport I loved, and the only team I ever rooted for from the depths of my heart. The ’83 World cup win and the ‘90s saw the Indian cricket fan bankrolling the game. Now, he had a voice. It was sometimes loud, brash, crude and crass. He will be heard, nevertheless. The axis of the cricket universe had shifted.
This coincided with the mantle of Indian captaincy going to an aristocratic young man from West Bengal whose on-field demeanor was anything but. Sourav Ganguly didn’t bat an eyelid when facing his opposition, was always up for a fight, a lot of the times he was the instigator and personified the “in your face” attitude; The sort of behavior that comes usually with someone that has a chip on their shoulder, someone that had a thing or two to prove. India as a nation wanted to play ball with the big boys. India wanted to show the rest of the world that she belonged.
The epic India-Australia test series not only stemmed the march of the Aussies but also showed me that India has recovered from the throes of match-fixing and is entering a new era, with a team of match winners in the form of Dravid and Laxman (along with Tendulkar, Kumble and Ganguly). I was ecstatic. Now I had a team of very capable players led by an aggressive leader who does not pull his punches.
When the winning runs were scored at Lord’s in 2002 during the final of the NatWest trophy, and Ganguly took his shirt off, I knew we were getting off the beaten path. The victory made possible by a younger generation of players in Harbhajan Singh, Yuvraj Singh, Zaheer Khan and Mohammad Kaif. This new India is unlike anything we had ever known. The fan in me doesn’t have to wait for the sky to fall down, any more. Here is a team that can win.
Old habits die hard. When India, on the back of a lackluster tour of New Zealand entered the 2003 World Cup tournament, notwithstanding the hype back home, the pessimism was rearing its head. When Australia delivered us a crushing blow, one man stood up to the challenge and it was the ‘90s all over again. Tendulkar calmed the emotionally frayed nation and carried the burden all the way to the final, where a team that was still coping with its new found brash attitude lost its focus and was sent packing.
During the course of this tournament, a significant development happened to me as an Indian fan. On March 1, 2003, with Kargil still fresh in everyone’s mind, India took on Pakistan. It was time for payback. I had set up a satellite dish in my home, along with my roommates to watch the world cup and unexpectedly, Pakistani fans showed up to watch the game. So, 40 Indian fans watched the match that night in my home along with 40 Pakistani fans and at the end of the match, no one had died. We shook hands, exchanged compliments on a very good match and parted ways. The age-old rivalry had lost its sting for me, that night. Here on, any India-Pakistan would just be another match for me.
A different cricket rivalry was taking shape. Although Australia had been the most dominant team for more than a decade, they had not beaten India in India (in a test series) and now India was traveling down under. We may have been lower in the rankings but I knew we almost always got up for a scuffle with Australia. I knew we had their attention.
When Sourav Ganguly scored a counter-attacking 144 in a rainy Brisbane, my heart was filled with joy and pride. This wasn’t the team that came home with its tail between its legs in ’99-’00. We were there to fight for every inch - None asked, none given. On the backs of superlative efforts from Dravid, Kumble, Tendulkar and one afternoon of unbelievable swing bowling from Agarkar, India drew the series. The 2003-04 was played without any significant on-field incidents but the 2007-08 more than made up for it. The Sydney test of 2008, among other things, brought to light the considerable might of the Indian cricket – off the field, and as India fans, we were very proud of it, a quid pro quo for the days when cricket was run by the Anglo-Australian overlords.
In many ways, my evolution as an Indian cricket fan has mirrored the transfer of captaincy from the hands of Azharuddin to Tendulkar and all the way to the current days of Mahendra Singh Dhoni. Under Azharuddin, I expected us to lose more often than not (how much ever unfair that is to him) and with Tendulkar on the scene, I had hope. Hope for something superhuman. With Ganguly at the helm, I was more bullish of my team’s chances and the Dravid era brought a sense of calm. This current period under Dhoni since 2008 has brought about a sea change in my outlook. I’m more self-assured and quite aware of the team’s strengths and weaknesses and have tremendous confidence in the lads’ abilities to secure a win from any situation – just like my captain.
Dhoni in more ways than one has been the bizarro Ganguly. He is quite composed and reserved on the field, which belies his very moderate background and the rough and tumble place he hails from, Jharkhand. While Ganguly comes from a well to do family and a silver spoon, he was the scrappy fighter you find in your back alleys. You won’t see Dhoni waving shirts in the Lord’s balcony – He just doesn’t have to.
I’d been having frequent chats with Ahmer Naqvi, a blog contributor to Dawn.com during the recently concluded world cup. During one of these conversations, I told him that I do not worry any more about the results of the India matches. It does not bother me whether the only team that I ever truly loved wins or loses. I told Ahmer, a staunch Pakistani die hard, that I am not worried about the India-Pakistan semifinal result. He said, “You have loved enough to let go. I haven’t. I’m still sucked in.”
I have reached a mental space where I am thoroughly confident in the abilities of this team and its stewardship that I have the belief that they are going to win more often than not. I know they are not going to give in without a fight and they usually never beat themselves – core characteristics of a champion side.
Once the knock out stage of the tournament was set up, I had a quiet confidence about this Indian team that they were going to win it all. Anyone that followed me on my twitter feed could attest to that. When Ponting scored that magnificent century and India lost five wickets for 170-odd, or when Sri Lanka knocked off a flurry of runs and priced out Sehwag and Tendulkar, my reaction when some fans started recounting their horror times of 1996 semifinals, “People, calm the f**k down. We are winning this.” I don’t turn the TV off when Tendulkar gets out.
When Indian fans questioned every single move that Dhoni made, on various social networking platforms and vented their anxiety driven anger, I ended every match with this tweet: “Dhoni knows what he’s doing”. And now, I do too.
Subash Jayaraman is a US based ultrasonics engineer who writes about cricket to forget the body blows and sledges he received from his elder brothers when he was 7, while playing backyard cricket. Follow him on twitter @thecricketcouch