Venkat Ananth

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I was there

I wasn't born in 1983. As an Indian, I never knew what winning a World Cup was like, pretty much like most of you, I guess. Now that I know what it feels like, given that I was at the Wankhede on April 2, let me also say, it's not yet sunk in. Yes, I went there to cheer for Sri Lanka (not because of a particular hate for the Indian cricket team, but a love affair that began somewhere with the romance of 1996) but came back home as a proud Indian, emotional as ever, witness to one of Indian cricket's tryst with history. Yes, I might have been vocally critical of this Indian team in my previous columns, but this was a win that transcended the best of cricketing skills on a stage which was elephantine, and had a symbolism of its own — the final word in the emergence of a new cricketing order in world cricket.

 
To witness that was nothing short of special, and even as I write this, I am struggling for words to describe that feeling. And, as a responsible and a hungry columnist, I have no qualms in having to eat humble pie and finally concede any doubts and cynicisms I had about this Indian team, for it sports an aura very few sporting teams in the world have, like it or not and by the looks of it, I hope it stays for a long, long time.

 
This team might never be the best team to lift the cricket World Cup, but even through its imperfections and flaws, there was much genius to appreciate. A bowling attack, probably the core of its fallibilities even as late as the end of the group stage took charge and came trumps in the next three games, knockouts no less, and importantly delivered. Might not have been an absolute, but when the occasion came along, they were there, almost craving to prove a point, and they undeniably did so, against Australia, Pakistan and Sri Lanka — three games in a row. Even the fielding for that matter, make no mistake — not yet world class, but compensated by a sense of  duty, commitment and of course industrious, willing to dive around regardless, closing down singles and twos, a refreshing sight to see, no doubt.

 
Just as I entered the Wankhede Stadium, now described by many fans as the "cauldron” of Indian cricket, much like the Ali Sami Yen in Istanbul, it was almost a welcome to hell, if you were a Sri Lankan fan. The atmosphere was something different from what I have witnessed before, a usually hostile and a partisan crowd, totally justified in their preferences, boisterous, noisy and all that. A wave of blue, all of 31,000 of them, a throwback from scenes at the Ibrox or Stamford Bridge for that matter, chanting slogans, singing along whatever the DJ played.

 
Of course, once the toss confusion was out of the way, and Sri Lanka won it for real, I thought batting first was their best possible chance of winning the game, and they did quite okay eventually, given that they stumbled at regular periods of play, be it at the start, through the middle overs, with only a delayed surge via Mahela Jayawardena's masterful hundred giving them a above-par total, which I would believe they could have defended on any other day, against any other side.

 
And even as the Indian run-chase began, there was confusion all around, less of belief than pre-match, given that they had to chase down the runs, World Cup final, pressure et al, and two quick wickets for nothing had even the likes of Anil Kumble (who was in our stand, by the by) worried. Yet, they persisted, applauding every run that was added to India's total, even sundries seemed like sixers that night — wides and leg-byes and all that, playing a significant role.

 
I thought, Sangakkara did a fairly good job before Virat Kohli got going — and I am hinting at the fact that he realized that he had a genuine bowling problem with both Thissara Perera and Nuwan Kulasekara leaking runs, not only though sublime batsmanship by Gautam Gambhir and Kohli, but the familiarity and an encore of loose deliveries, on both sides of the wicket, if I might add. Most importantly, just as Kohli and Gambhir got going, I was easily reminded of how Asanka Gurusinha and Aravinda de Silva went about their job at Lahore fifteen years ago. The former dropping anchor after the fall of the two important wickets — Romesh Kaluwitharana and Sanath Jayasuriya, while the latter batted through, a role masterfully played by Gambhir on this occasion.

 
Then, at 114/3, with World Cup most certainly in the balance, came a masterstroke, which few expected, and to be frank, left large sections of the crowd, including myself, astounded. The captain, perceivably struggling with form, invoking shades of his brilliance, often associated with his arrival on international cricket — an innings that summed up the game so beautifully, as only Mahendra Singh Dhoni could have.

 
I'd certainly put that down as one of the best one-day knocks I've seen live in a stadium. No chancy, risk-free cricket at it's best initially, which sublimely turns into one where the inhibitions of responsibility, often contained and commented upon as "maturity" in Dhoni's batsmenship off-late, let loose, the swagger of youth almost oozing out and almost going back on his statement of his batsmen playing for the crowd, that six, that six, that very six, with that twirl, to pull off that very moment, was just a special sight. Almost spontaneously, that air of a much deserved and a much awaited victory took over, never mind the fireworks and scenes that followed. What it told me was that cricket matches can be won by not just being ruthless and perfect, but by resolve, grit and a persona that summons these very traits in situations of self-doubt.

 
I was equally proud to be there, to witness one of cricket's legendary careers drawing to a close, Muttiah Muralitharan bowing out of international cricket, with respect intact and setting and resetting records that I believe will never be surmounted. It might have not been the perfect farewell for Murali, and knowing him, he must have felt it more than any other member of that team, but if there is anything as a consolation, it was the stage he chose to retire at — the World Cup final, which I am sure he would have bargained for the day he made the decision.

 
Of course, he had fitness problems, and as I met him before the game at the team hotel, he looked okay, but not quite the Murali we have come to know over the years, and sadly, a tame end followed the next day. More on Murali later this week, where I'll pay my tributes, but equally, this to me is an end of an era in Sri Lankan cricket. They can most definitely be proud of what they achieved during the course of this tournament — the quality of cricket they played, only to be outclassed on the day by an Indian side that showed more belief than them.

 
Saturday is going to be one of those unforgettable and proud nights to be an Indian (forget allegiances), and going by what followed on the streets of Mumbai, a spontaneous outburst of a joyous nation, it signalled India’s second coming, almost six months after the Commonwealth Games and that sense of confidence I've never been witness to before, having endured the frustration of being an Indian fan in the nineties. At least, 48 hours later, I have a little hint of what 1983 might have been like.

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