Friday 12 July 2019

The Cricket World Cups Of Our Lives

* * *

23rd March, 2003

We didn't have cable TV at home. It had always been deemed a 'distraction' towards our academic performance. However, as luck would have it, my granddad, a devout cricket fan, had decided to visit us a couple of months earlier and my father had to, grudgingly, get Doordarshan Sports so that my granddad could track India's tour of New Zealand in 2002-03.

That was the first time I watched a game of cricket. I cannot remember the first time I played it, as it was much earlier. I had been playing cricket before I even knew what the game was, who played it and whether I was any good at it. 

I had watched Sachin Tendulkar in advertisements, but not on the field. 

But now, I was watching it. Something about Virender Sehwag and Zaheer Khan stood out to me in that series, even at that age, and I decided to worship them. 

My granddad left soon after that tour, but DD Sports did not. I had at my disposal a newfound cricket watching interest, two deified heroes in Sehwag and Zaheer and a functional sports channel. Suddenly, I was in with the times - the advertisements with Sachin and Ganguly made sense, the news reports made sense and the adult chatter made sense.

The advent of DD Sports into my house had somehow altered the zeitgeist. I was sold.

So amidst this hullabaloo to a highly impressionable mind, it all began. It began with a Brian Lara and Lance Klusener special. This sport was throwing greatness at me, one match at a time. It began with India vs. Netherlands, and with it the first Sachin straight drive that will remain eternally indelible. 

It began with running home from school to check the scores. It began with protracted, desperate arguments with my parents for the day-night games, as they went well past our bedtime.

Once, I went to bed (disgruntled naturally) hoping that the English batsmen would show mercy to my team. 

I woke up to the ballads of a certain Ashish Nehra, and his miraculous 6 for 23. We mimicked his airplane celebration for years when we played.

I woke up to a Sourav Ganguly heist against Kenya. Thankfully, (since it was a day game) I was wide awake for Mohammed Kaif's heroics against New Zealand.

Then, the hype. India and Australia were bound to meet in the finals - surely, no one expected Kenya and Sri Lanka to defeat these behemoths? The Times Of Oman, in a bid to stand out from the crowd, ran a headline along the lines of 'Forget Australia vs. India, what about Sri Lanka vs. Kenya?'

I guess it was destined to be. Against Kenya once again, Ganguly unleashed a barrage of sixes over midwicket, and there was a new threat to the Indian quest to the finals: rain. The clouds threatened to wash out Ganguly's efforts, and India would have to come back for a fresh start. India switched to spin options pretty quickly into the Kenyan innings, with Harbhajan, Sachin, Sehwag and Yuvraj all rushing through their overs at Ganguly's frenzied gestures. He had one eye on the clouds, one eye on the D/L (now DLS) score, and two hands frantically urging his bowlers to get to their mark quicker.

I went to sleep after India had satisfied the D/L quota of overs.

Sehwag, meanwhile, was having a bad World Cup. His mother was being interviewed on national news. She was describing the meticulousness of her prayers, and her motherly instinct told her that Sehwag would score big in the final.

On 23rd March, during our morning school prayer I decided to include an additional plea for my Indian cricket team. I was too young to calculate the importance of my little hurried wish; too young to be aware of the deluge of prayers that would emanate from India that day. The obliviousness of youth made me believe that, somewhere out there in Oman, one little kid's prayer would change destiny.  

I was restless in school. I was convulsing with excitement during the bus ride back home. I might have leapt out before the door was fully open and hared across to my building. I might have jammed the elevator buttons and paced around, urging it to go up faster. I might have rushed past my mother at the door, flung my schoolbag aside and switched on the TV, remote trembling in my hands.

I switched on to a disaster. 

Ricky Ponting had grabbed my little dreams and crushed them with alarming brutality.

He was a tornado; Australia, a dynasty. Every shot was like a whip crack, every boundary gesture was like a slap and every fist-bump was a puncture to my bubble of optimism. I was just sinking deeper, and deeper, and deeper.

But, we had Sachin. So we waited, clinging to our battered strands of hope. I watched Sachin and Sehwag walk out, and I had goosebumps. It was time to right the wrongs. Pay back the misery and the trauma in style. It would be the ultimate underdog story.

Sachin hit a boundary and then skied a pull. The ball hung in the air longer than normal. 

It came crashing down with our hopes.

So I did the only thing I knew. I switched off the TV and went down to play.

Sachin Tendulkar dismissed by Glenn McGrath, India vs Australia 2003 Cricket World Cup Final

This was the only antidote that came to my mind, the only escape mechanism. At the age of 9, going down to play was a panacea. My mother came down for a walk at some point to inform us that Sehwag had finally come good, but India hadn't. I didn't want this bargain. It was raining, and we were hoping for the match to be called off. The same rain gods I was against a match before were the ones I looked up to that day.

But alas, when I finally trudged back home, Sehwag was trudging back as well, having just been run out.  The match was back on, and so were my miseries. But a young mind is fairly optimistic, and even at 9 down when Ashish Nehra hit two consecutive boundaries I envisioned him scoring a brisk century to engender the upset of the millennium.

The chimera was shattered by Darren Lehmann. For months after that match, I would replay India vs. Australia on EA Sports cricket games on my PC, trying to avenge that match. Trying to wash away those memories. But I never could.

I was scarred.

I just didn't know it then. I was too young to know it.

* * *

23rd March, 2007

By 2007, I was once again alienated from cricket. Sports channels in my house had long disappeared, and this time no relative could bring them back. Indian cricket was in tatters with Greg Chappell blatantly chaperoning us off a cliff. Sehwag was struggling, on the brink of being dropped.

Somehow, I had managed to convince my parents to let me watch the World Cup at a neighbour's house. I shouldn't have. India crumbled to Bangladesh that day. Despite that, I went back the next match to watch a Dwayne Leverock dive and Sehwag special.

Bangladesh upsets India in 2007 Cricket World Cup

That India would crash out was never a conceivable notion. But as they collapsed to a Sri Lankan charge, it was foolish to assume otherwise. I went to bed that night in the middle of the match. Somewhere, on some floor in my building, a Sri Lankan family had organised a watch party. Their deafening cheers and music signalled the fall of every Indian wicket.

I heard them all, lying in the dark in bed, exactly four years from the day Ricky Ponting was relentless in his mauling. Tossing and turning, trying to sleep it all away. I wondered what life would be like in 2011. I would be in Grade 11, a shuddering prospect. 

At some point in that darkness, the loudest cheer broke out followed by unending music and I knew the deed was done. I don't know at what point I dozed off, drifting away from my misery as the Sri Lankans celebrated the night away.

* * *

2nd April, 2011

By 2011, cricket was a defining personality trait. 

My bedroom walls were peppered with posters of cricketers, wrestlers and rappers. Sports channels were still non-existent in my house, but these were the rebellious teenage years of torrents and illegal streams. 

By now, I was already a pseudo-cricket analyst. On Facebook groups, online forums, Cricinfo comments and school bus discussions. The social media age was truly upon us, and it accentuated the scrutiny, hype and criticism. I was starting to comprehend the true magnitude of humanity.

Despite my cricket fanaticism, I was, like any other teenager, extremely busy. A 17-year old often deems it offensive to sit a full day at home, and so did I. I caught snippets of matches whenever I could. I caught the ending of the India-Australia quarter-final outside a restaurant in Karama, gazing through the window display at the TV screens. As Yuvraj Singh roared into the skies, so did all the visitors at the restaurant. 

I caught the ending of India vs. Pakistan at another restaurant in Karama, this time inside it (thankfully). We ran outside at the dismissal of Misbah-ul-Haq and danced away to the music of our phones. 

The stage was set for a moment in history. Sachin Tendulkar, one knock away from a hundred international 100s, due to play his last World Cup final at his home ground in Bombay to win the coveted trophy that had eluded him his entire career. 

You couldn't have written a better script. Someone out there had planned it all out, detail upon detail, to create a story that would last the ages. 

Lasith Malinga tore it into pieces. 

Life isn't a movie, or maybe we were watching Sri Lanka's movie, I mused as Sachin dragged himself back to the pavilion in deafening silence at the Wankhede. Thankfully, Gambhir, Kohli and Dhoni decided to interrupt the Sri Lankan cinema reel and create their own, and we inched closer to a dream.

As Mahendra Singh Dhoni launched Nuwan Kulasekara into the sky, time once again stood still. It had been eight years since I watched a ball just hang in the air, defying gravity and bending time. The room erupted around me with shrieks, laughter and sobs. The scene at the corners of my eyes was a blur, as friends jumped, hugged and celebrated. 

But I just stood there, transfixed to the screen. For a rare moment, thoughtless, speechless and motionless.

MS Dhoni Hits A Six and India wins the 2011 Cricket World Cup Final Against Sri Lanka

What is it about sport? 

It is, after all, an imagined reality. Every form of sport can be fragmented into mindless running, pointless chasing of something worthless and conforming to rules that represent no tangible barriers. What is cricket if not a silly 'hit-ball-with-stick', football just a 'kick-ball' or basketball a 'throw-ball' game that holds no tangible value?

What is it then? What about sport drives us?

If it is just another silly little game, then it cannot explain why we ran - ran with no purpose and destination on the streets of Bur Dubai on a sultry night in April. It didn't matter who we were, where we came from or what we were doing. We just ran, and ran, until we couldn't run anymore. Some of us screaming our hearts out, others laughing and others weeping.

It cannot explain why all around us, people swarmed out of the concrete jungle, draped in flags, tooting horns and smeared with face paint. Why did cars block all the streets, with absolutely no intention of going anywhere, honking to the beats of the dhol being played in every corner?

No one had scheduled a mass congregation after the World Cup final. No invitations, no event pages, no flyers or announcements for a street after-party. Yet, here we were, denizens of the same soil, swarming in revelry. We were hugging strangers, dancing, singing and chanting. We were climbing on cars, hanging off Jeeps driven by unknowns. We escaped for a night, and it seemed the night wouldn't end ever. Schools, universities, offices and daily routines be damned. Alarm clocks and early mornings be damned.

This was our night, and we would decide when, and if, it would end.

What is it about sport? What is it that got us all together that night - living, breathing, singing, dancing as one? 

If it is just another silly little game, then how did it, for one night, unify a nation?

* * *

26th March, 2015

The Sydney Cricket Ground was ready for a spectacle. I was hunched over my laptop screen, in the middle of the night. It was a cold, typically rainy British night and I was pulling an all-nighter to watch the match scheduled in broad daylight in Australia.

But another skied shot to an Australian pacer, and it seemed 2003 was back to haunt me. Another ball that hung in the air, this time from the blade of Virat Kohli, not Sachin. Delivered by Mitchell Johnson, not Glenn McGrath.

Virat Kohli ambled back to a silenced crowd, and I had another scar. 

By now cricket was a peripheral part of me. I was playing club cricket in picturesque college grounds that populated the meadows of Cambridgeshire. I was a part-time glorified pseudo-cricket analyst at SportsKeeda

Yet, I was lost.

For the first time, I couldn't foresee my life by the next World Cup. It was easier while I was in educational institutions. Easy to predict my 4-year increments in school or university years. But in 2019, I would (hopefully) be a young professional, aged a daunting 25 years old. I had no idea where I would be, what I would be doing and even who I would turn out to be.

My reliable metric of measuring life by World Cups was starting to crumble, and my future was in darkness.

Mitchell Johnson Dismisses Virat Kohli in 2015 Cricket World Cup Semi-Final

* * *

July 2019

Amidst this darkness, I now reach out to you, my reader.

I've always casually measured my life with cricket World Cups. I've always tried to imagine my life, age, status and circumstance by the next event.

In 2003, the first one I remember watching at the age of nine, I tried to imagine myself in 2007. I would then be 13 years old, a big number to my 9-year-old mind. Probably in 7th grade ('probably' as I wasn't optimistic about my middle school grades) - what would life be like at the age of 13? Would I have too much homework? Would I be more serious, more studious and less playful?

In 2007, I laughed at the thought of my nine-year-old worries. At the same time, I shuddered to think of 2011. While my questions and their answers changed with every World Cup, one fact that was apparent, in fact inevitable, was that my childhood was disappearing.

In 2015, I was left stranded in my prognosis. Life became impossible to predict from thereon. Of course, if you are reading this piece today, then it means I have made it in living colour to 2019. But this pattern of unknown, of darkness, has now clung to World Cups.

Where would I be in 2023? What would I be doing? Would I be married? Kids? All shuddering prospects, but they are unavoidable. 

Yet, as I have done every single time, four years later I would look back and smile at the worries of my younger self. But would I smile at the memories itself? What would I remember July 2019 by?

I cannot help but create a lifelong memory this World Cup - it is an unavoidable circumstance at this point. Such is my love for the game, my history with it and its attachment to my life story.

I cannot choose to not have this eternal memory. It is now up to the players, luck and maybe destiny to decide whether this memory would be a good one, or whether I would etch another scar into this life story.

Whether I would go to bed that night reliving the horrors of my childhood, or dancing, singing, hugging and chanting with my people, for one night only, lost in oblivion and unified once again. 


10th July 2019

Naturally, I wrote that ending before the events of Tuesday and Wednesday. I guess I must leave it to 2023, when I would indeed be 29, and lost in this impenetrably dark abyss that is my future. 

For now, however, I add another scar.

* * *

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