Flashback to the year 1996: For someone who had started watching cricket only days earlier at the age of 8, this was a must watch game. The extreme euphoria of beating arch rivals Pakistan in the quarter finals at Bangalore was yet to subside. Those were the days when beating Pakistan was akin to winning the cup. When Mohammad Azharuddin walked out for the toss with Arjuna Ranatunga on 13 March 1996 at the Eden Gardens for the semi-final of the 1996 World Cup, India were the clear favourites. Sri Lanka had a fair share of luck with two walk-overs due to forfeited matches but were playing a fearless brand of cricket and were the dark horses for the tournament. Azhar won the toss and surprisingly decided to field first and Sri Lanka were reduced to 1 for 2 at the end of the 1st over.
And then it all went downhill from then onwards for India. Aravinda De Silva batted imperiously for a knock of 66 of 47 balls with a strike rate of 140.42. With a few lusty blows from Chaminda Vaas, Sri Lanka managed to reach 251 in their 50 overs.
It was a stiff target considering chasing under lights at the Eden is always difficult but in came Sachin who seemed like a man on a mission. Despite the early loss of Sidhu, Manjrekar and Tendulkar plotted India’s recovery and India were well on target at 98 for 1 when the unthinkable happened. Sachin stepped down the crease to Jayasuriya and was stumped by Kaluwitharana for 65 out of a team total of 98. The collapse that followed was apocalyptic and India were tottering at 120 for 8, when the crowd decided enough was enough. Bonfires raged in the stands forcing the match referee to call of the match and Sri Lanka went through to the final and the rest as they say is history.
As Vinod Kambli cried, a fan in me wept. For someone who had just been introduced to the boy wonder named Sachin Tendulkar, this was a tragedy. For I had never doubted for a second that we wouldn’t win the ultimate cup that year. 523 runs during the tournament and it looked like he could carry the entire team on his own shoulders. But for once, he couldn’t. And his teammates were to be blamed, Azhar was to be blamed for not batting first after winning the toss, the curators were to be blamed for that square turner which made Jayasuriya a dangerous spinner and finally, God had to be blamed as my hero was denied justice. This was supposed to be his cup.
Move forward to the year 2003: A much more mature cricket fan now, the 2003 World Cup was a battle between the mind and the heart – the mind said we had just lost a one day series in New Zealand by a huge margin and every batsman had struggled – we didn’t stand a chance. The heart said – Come on India!
And the tournament started disastrously for the team. A struggle to beat minnows Netherlands and dismissed for 125 in the second match against tournament favourites Australia. There was outrage back in India with black flag demonstrations in front of the players’ houses. What followed was the resurgence of Himalayan proportions.