Sunday 10 December 2023

The Cricket World Cups Of My Life

For the audio version of this story, click here (YouTube) or here (Spotify) or here (all other podcast platforms).

* * *

"What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?"

* * *

I don't get to pick and choose what I remember.

I don't remember many important moments from my past. The ones I do remember seem ordinary, if not random. These trivial memories are often the only ones I have, overshadowing my recollection of that day. 

When I look back on the World Cup final, I only remember Pat Cummins running in to bowl. 

2023 World Cup Final India vs. Australia Ahmedabad

I've been obsessed with a quest for magical moments for the last decade. Those moments in live music, comedy, theatre, art or sport when humans transcend. When they reach out in a moment that seems unreal and mystical. When you get a raw, indisputable glimpse of beauty, of the sublime, of the divine.

You desperately try to describe it with unworthy phrases like 'runner's high', 'flow state', or 'in the zone', but they all fall short. Those moments that make you pause midway through your reminiscences, struck with the epiphany that it's pointless and barely doing justice, accept defeat, and sigh remorsefully: "You just had to be there."

Tickets for live events are always insanely expensive. I can only justify this frivolous expenditure if I formally brand the experience as an attempt in my Quest. 

It was successful that day. 

We all felt it, even though some of us were more than 300 feet away, sitting high up in the nosebleeds. 

Pat Cummins charged in, sinuously, fluidly in rhythm, as he tore through the wind, head ramrod straight, staring the batsman down, almost too perfect, scarily perfect. 

He banged the ball short. 

Virat Kohli chopped it onto his stumps. 

130,000 people let out the loudest gasp you'll ever hear.


The emcee screamed into the speakers, and it resonated to stunned silence. It was surreal. There was no big visual or auditory blowup, but everyone felt a colossal explosion. 

Cricket was just an excuse.

* * *

23rd March, 2003: India vs. Australia, World Cup Final

I played cricket for years before I watched my first match on TV.

Everyone has a story of how they fell in love with a sport. Many discovered it on the playground, where they formed their sweetest friendships and childhood memories. Others stumbled upon it through a parent, sibling, cousin or friend. 

Maybe I'm caving into foolish romanticism, or maybe there's nothing to it, but the origin story is my favourite part.  

I'll wager that even fans who dissect games like science might agree that the purest form of that sport is in that romantic memory. The joy, the beauty, the seduction of what this sport can offer peaked on the playground or in those afternoons spent glued to the TV with their family or friends as they bonded over a common goal. The rest of a fan's life is spent in the elusive pursuit of those memories, chasing that joy, that beauty, that seduction, that euphoria in sport again.

I started watching cricket because of my grandfather, my nanaji.

We didn't have cable television at home. My parents believed it would affect my academic performance (I was in third grade, mind you) (jokes on them; my grades were somehow still affected). By a stroke of luck, after years of coaxing and cajoling, nanaji decided it was time he stepped out of India for the first time to come visit us in Oman. As a sixty-four-year-old, he was comfortably settled into his (self-admittedly) only remaining hobbies: 'TV aur biwi'. Every summer vacation in Agra, I watched him spend the entire day in front of the television. For hours, he flipped from the news to Office Office, cricket to Hum Sab Ek Hai to the news again, and then a movie to Kaun Banega Crorepati before ending the night with more news. 

I had no doubt about his devotion to his two hobbies, and clearly, one more than the other.

Alas, my parents must've forgotten this important tidbit. 

So, on a fine morning in the winter of 2002, nanaji moved into our house. 

But within a day, he was highly displeased. 

You see, despite our best efforts, one critical element was conspicuously absent in our hospitality: the television. Naturally, our house was relegated to 'unliveable'. With the cards against him, my father placed a call, grudgingly, to the cable provider. By the following day, we had the magical technology in our house. 

My introduction to cricket was also my introduction to television and, by proxy, to the limitlessness of the world.

That's when the seed was planted. 

Where was I on a given hour of a given day during that winter vacation, say 4 PM on 15th December? 

If you're ever asked to bet on it, I urge you to play the odds, even if you're not a betting man, and wager your house. Trust me, despite the infinite possibilities, I was always in the same spot: every hour of every day, I could be found a foot away from the television, sitting cross-legged or lying flat on my stomach, eyes wide, mouth open. My grandfather sat on a chair behind me, flipping channels at a whim.

I don't get to pick and choose what I remember about nanaji from my childhood. Involuntarily, those are my first memories of us spending time together. We spent days watching Doordarshan Sports as West Indies played India at home and then India played away in New Zealand. We cheered and grumbled in unison at every boundary and wicket. We were separated by an age gap of nearly sixty years, a lifetime of unshared experiences. Yet, we analysed cricket as equals, bonding over a shared purpose. 

Watching cricket felt familiar, like a sense of deja vu, an imprint of a previous life.

Ever since I can remember, I have played cricket in the streets. 'Sachin' was an adjective for any kid 'in the zone' that evening (it was also a curse because invariably that kid rode that wave of delirium into smashing a window or denting a car, and play would be abandoned after a severe telling off). Now, 'Sachin' was not just an adjective but a name with a face on the television. From 'Ganguly' to 'Dravid' to 'Kumble' to 'Harbhajan', every funny word was starting to make sense.

It felt like I was walking backwards and filling in the gaps.

Despite the presence of those stalwarts, something about Virender Sehwag and Zaheer Khan spoke to me, even at that age. I decided to worship them.

However, all good things must come to an end. After enjoying ninety days of our hospitality, nanaji decided to leave. 

I didn't blame him. 

Sure, we had solved the absence of television immediately. Our life in Oman was not luxurious, but still quite comfortable by working-class standards. But nanaji had been away from Indian street food for three whole months. I don't care who you are; you could even be the Pope, for argument's sake, but once you've tasted the pethas or bedais or bhalla tikkis of Agra, after a certain amount of time away, it will start to gnaw even strongest of men. 

So, when he decided to leave, we understood and bid him a teary farewell. Bystanders might've been confused by my excessive anguish (I was only eight years old, after all). They didn't know what I knew: nanaji's departure also implied an instant farewell to the world of television. If I had to put a number to it, most of my tears were dedicated to the latter, but don't tell him that.

Astoundingly, in the most concrete example of a Christmas miracle, DD Sports remained in our house even after he left through pure inertia.

It remained long enough for the entirety of the 2003 World Cup until the day I wished we never got it.

With the tournament's arrival, I was thrown a new character and story in every game. The opening match coincided with a party at our house. I was the only one cheering for someone called Brian Lara. All my friends were eulogising Lance Klusener. 

I had never watched Lara play before. 

I don't know why I was passionately rooting for The Prince of Port of Spain. 

In India's first match against the Netherlands, I watched Sachin in wonder, transfixed but unable to rationalise. In the game against Australia and that match against Pakistan, I learned why the bowlers I feared most in gully cricket were often nicknamed 'Brett Lee' or 'Shoaib Akhtar'. 

By now, the seed was starting to sprout. 

A routine was set. Every morning, we would watch the match previews on the news as we (rebelliously) got ready. During school, we would scrutinise performances and formulate strategies, us third graders who understood cricket better than anybody else. We mimicked the previous night's match in PT class or during recess with a tiffin box as the bat and rolled-up aluminium foil as the ball. If caught and reprimanded by our supervisor, we would resort to hand or book cricket. 

Every afternoon, I jumped out of the school bus before the door opened. I ran home frenetically like I was shot from a cannon, bag and water bottle swinging wildly like pendulums. I jammed the elevator buttons repeatedly, believing the myth that it made the cart move faster (give me a break; at least I didn't believe in Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy). I rang the doorbell repeatedly, believing the myth that it made my mother move faster. I paced impatiently along the corridor. I barged in before the door was fully open, schoolbag flung to one corner, shoes flying to another, as a blur of colour whizzed past my mother. In a few seconds, it solidified into her son crashing in front of the TV.

Day-night games had another routine. Every night, we begged and pleaded to watch one more over, one more ball. Sadly, despite our most innovative bargains ("I swear I'll solve twenty math problems tomorrow if we can watch till the next wicket falls?") and well-practiced puppy-dog eyes, our nights ended prematurely. We always ended up on the losing end of optimistic obsession pit against pertinacious parenting, forced to go to bed while our team's hopes hung in the balance.  

On one of those nights, I went to bed, disgruntled naturally, praying that the Englishmen would show mercy. I woke up to the newspapers waxing eloquently about a certain Ashish Nehra and his heroic 6 for 23. 

We mimicked his airplane celebration for years.

I stole snippets of matches whenever I could. I remember running to my father's office on a Friday. On a day when the office was deserted entirely (Thursday and Friday was the weekend), I could be found next to the sole TV in the corner of the games room, watching Mohammed Kaif's rescue act against New Zealand.

You didn't have to look hard to find the numerous buds. 

India and Australia were destined to meet in the final. Of course. On the eve of the first semi-final, the Times of Oman ran a headline in a concerted effort to stand out: 'Forget Australia vs. India; what about Sri Lanka vs. Kenya?'

What about it? Well, first, Australia did to Sri Lanka what that Australian team was expected to do to any team. 

Then, Ganguly decided to hold up his end against Kenya. Despite a princely century, I only remember him chewing his nails and gesturing anxiously at the part-time spinners. India's biggest threat in that match was the rain. We stubbornly refused to go to bed until the 20-over D/L threshold had been breached.

Finally, it was set in stone, what we knew a week ago, probably even before the tournament, probably for years, but now for sure: India vs. Australia.

Sehwag, my hero, was in terrible form. His mother gave an interview on the national news on the eve of the final. She insisted that her motherly instinct told her that Sehwag would score big.

Now, a flower. 

On 23rd March, I went off the beaten track in our morning assembly. I wedged in an addendum for my team during the school prayer. I was convinced my little act of indiscretion was enough. 

Even today, I still like to believe it was enough. Possibly, it got lost in the daily deluge of prayers. 

I was restless in school all day. I was convulsing with excitement on the school bus. It was still screeching to a halt when I jumped out like I was shot from a cannon. I ran home, bag and bottle swinging like pendulums. I jammed the elevator buttons repeatedly. I paced anxiously. The door barely opened. I whizzed past, schoolbag flung to the left, shoes to the right.

I crashed in front of the TV. 

I pressed the remote with trembling hands. 

That day, I learnt a hard truth of life. 

Ricky Ponting was a tornado. Australia, a dynasty. Every boundary felt like a tight slap, and every shot sounded like a whip crack. 

For an eternity, Australia piled on the misery. 

I sank deeper and deeper and deeper. 

But we held hope. We had Sachin. As he walked out, I felt goosebumps. It was time to right the wrongs. It was meant to be: outdo the Aussies at their own game and write a script as heroic as Eden Gardens in 2001. 

It was going to be the ultimate underdog story; it was meant to be, it had to be.

Sachin hit a boundary. We were on track. 

Then, he skied a pull.

The ball hung in the air longer than usual.

"No," I whispered weakly.

It came crashing down with all our hopes.

As Sachin walked back, shaking his head, I did the only thing that made sense. I switched off the TV and went down to play.

Going down to play was my panacea as an eight-year-old. It was the only escape from school, homework, parents, and, peculiarly, on that day, cricket. An hour later, my mother came down for her evening walk and informed us that the rain had stopped the match. Sehwag's mother must've wished on a monkey's paw because her son had finally come good, but everyone else had failed. I didn't want this bargain. We continued playing, hoping the game would be called off. We prayed to the same rain gods that we had cursed in the semi-final. 

It was not destined to be. 

By the time I dragged myself back home and switched on the TV, Sehwag was also dragging himself back to the pavilion. The match had resumed, and so had my misery. However, a young mind is endlessly hopeful. Even at nine down, when Nehra hit two consecutive boundaries, I nurtured a little fantasy of an incredible Nehra-Zaheer heist.

It was shattered in the next over when Zaheer offered a catch to Darren Lehmann. 

For months, I would replay India vs. Australia on PC games, trying to avenge that match. I had an aerial, God's eye view from cow corner on a game on I played God to that match, month after month, changing the ending, creating my version of history. 

I didn't know why I had this itch, a desire to right that wrong. I didn't know because I was too young. 

But I know now that ever since that day, I have carried a scar.

India vs. Australia 2003 World Cup Final

* * *

68 hours before the final

John F. Kennedy International Airport, New York

My eyes are glued to my phone, watching the semi-final between Australia and South Africa. 

I'm standing in the check-in queue at JFK. I'm about to commence the first stage of my multi-modal, three-day-long pilgrimage to Ahmedabad.

A Jamaican lady behind me in the queue taps my shoulder. "You're busy watching that cricket, but there's that famous black cricketer over there," she says.

I look up, and I see him.

In 2017, the unlucky Stuart MacGill met the added misfortune of being at the Sydney Cricket Ground the day I took a stadium tour. 

His career is a good test for separating the wheat of cricket lovers from the chaff who only look at statistics and scoreboards. Much like Dravid with Sachin, Amla with de Villiers, Herath with Muralitharan or Waqar with Wasim, MacGill was only allowed to be great when Shane Warne decided it was time. 

I walked up to this man who could personally verify that talent has no guarantee, who spent a lifetime in the shadow of a giant, who can vouch for 'life never turns out as you expect it to' better than anybody else. 

"Who was the toughest batsman you ever bowled to?" I asked him.

"It's not who you're thinking," he quipped with a twinkle in his eye. 

We shared a knowing laugh. I asked again, and he confessed:

"It was Brian Lara. He was something else. He was a nightmare to bowl to."

Brian Lara is another one of those anomalies, singularly great but destined to the shadows, one Tendulkar away from being hailed as the defining batsman of his generation. 

Yet, those who watched him, knew. 

His swagger was trademark. His springy bat lift was art. He was on the cover for all my PC games. His pitiless dismantling of bowlers, whether Kaneria, Peterson, McGrath or Abdul Razzaq, was legendary. His 375 was monumental. Hitting 400* a mere six months after Hayden registered a seemingly unbreakable record was spiteful. Lara was the sacred product of extraordinary style and genius. 

Despite that, despite his flourishing precision and suave footwork, despite his nobility and greatness, he was never the man.

At JFK that day, I wrenched my eyes away from the phone, looked up, and saw him. 

The Prince, here, in front of me, after a life of richness. After accomplishing so much, after giving MacGill so many sleepless nights, after all those heroics. 

Brian Lara, in the flesh, for this brief moment, from that day I rooted for him for no reason to today, when our lives converged from the most contrasting journeys possible.

A brief moment, and then he was gone, disappearing in the bubble of business class, his destiny deviating away from mine once again, possibly forever.

* * *

23rd March, 2007: India vs. Sri Lanka, Group B

Older siblings often say the younger ones have it easy. But they conveniently forget that we were forced to have it tough with them when they had it tough. 

For example, when my elder brother was writing his Grade 10 board exams, I was put on the same happiness detox as him, lest he be tempted. I couldn't play computer games. I couldn't watch TV. I was encouraged to be a team player. 

All sports channels had been removed from our cable TV package. We had relocated from Muscat to Dubai. I didn't play cricket in the evenings as I had no new friends. My parents didn't mind, lest I be tempted into a career in cricket. With Greg Chappell as the dictator coach, the national team had also stopped playing cricket, arguably. The final nail in the coffin was Sehwag's dismal season.

I was in my early teens, and the world was getting bigger and bigger each year. Cricket was getting smaller and smaller in relative proportion. 

I had moved on. 

However, the World Cup still felt important, so I convinced my parents to let me watch at a neighbour's house. 

I shouldn't have bothered.

In the first match, India surrendered meekly to Bangladesh. 

Like a blinded lover, like a fool, I went back two days later. Sehwag stroked a century (and Dwayne Leverock dove for an iconic catch), and I felt the semblance of hope again. 

Again, I shouldn't have bothered.

2007 Cricket World Cup India

On 23rd March, exactly four years from that day, I committed blasphemy. I left my neighbour's house in the middle of the game. I went home and, strangely, straight to bed.

A Sri Lankan family had organised a watch party on the floor above us. They cheered loud enough to wake the entire neighbourhood whenever an Indian batsman got out.

I lay in bed, staring at the ceiling, painfully interrupted by their hoots and chants. I thought of the next World Cup, pencilled in for 2011. Four years till the next one, four years that felt too long, too far in the distance. I would be seventeen years old and in Grade 11. So much could happen in between. All frightening prospects. 

That was the first time I used a World Cup to measure my life and predict my future, and I've done it ever since. 

I heard the most deafening cheer at some point, and I knew it was over. The deed was done. 

I tossed and turned for hours in the darkness while the Sri Lankans loudly celebrated the night away.

* * *

63 hours before the final

Somewhere Above The North Atlantic

An hour into the air, Pat Cummins steered to point and set in stone the two teams for the final. We probably knew a week ago, probably even before the tournament, probably for years, but now for sure: India vs. Australia.

Of course.

I had this absurd feeling after India qualified the previous day. It's stupid to suggest it was, given I didn't have any solid reason, but it had to be cold feet. 

I felt something similar twelve years ago.

As the flight attendants served lunch, I browsed through the in-flight entertainment. Inadvertently, I landed upon a documentary titled ‘Two Nations, One Obsession’ chronicling the history of India and Australia in cricket.

I put it on and leaned back.

Of course.

Of course.

* * *

2nd April, 2011: India vs. Sri Lanka, World Cup Final

It's funny how perspectives work. 

For five days a week, at 5:30 AM, while it was still dark outside, we would be rudely woken up, then woken up again (and in the case of my brother, a third time) before we rolled off the bed straight onto the floor, and crawled to the washroom to get ready with resigned finality. Waking up was torture. As I brushed my teeth, every part of me wished school didn't exist. I wished I could go back to sleep. I kept hoping for divine intervention until I dejectedly boarded the school bus, the point of no return. I shared my sorrows with other grumpy students, yawning uncontrollably or dozing against the window with our mouths open as we headed deep into the deserts of Al Warqa'a. 

In contrast, at 6 AM on Fridays, we got up at the first chime of the alarm. Waking up was joyful. We got ready in a flash and rushed out, fresh and sharp, to play cricket. We played all day on abandoned parking lots across Bur Dubai, which were animated by the same dream that Mike Marqusee said cast its radiance on Shivaji Park, the basketball courts of Chicago's housing projects or the football pitches of Sao Paulo slums.

We would play, and play, and play.

I don't get to pick what I remember, and maybe this is trivial romanticism again, but some of my favourite memories are those early Friday mornings. The reasons go beyond cricket. Friday, a religiously significant, mandatory day off for offices, the first morning of the weekend, is a Dubai you don't hear about often. It had that blissful serenity, when the adults tried to catch some rest, when the city was mired in surreal silence. 

Dubai takes pride in its hustle and chaos. It was always apparent that Friday mornings were an anomaly, an aberration. That is the reason they were so special. It was the calm before the storm. It was ephemeral, and only if you were there, in that decade, in that Dubai, in those neighbourhoods, you will know. 

You just had to be there.

For some reason, I've always batted in an ultra-aggressive 'see ball, hit ball' style that would've made Sehwag tear up. Alas, despite my best intentions, I didn't possess the same talent as the Nawab of Najafgarh. I often got dismissed very quickly. I spent most of those mornings sitting wistfully in the corner, chastising myself for a reckless shot. I vowed to take it slow next time and work myself in with more of 'see ball, respect ball'. 

After an hour of regret, reflection and renewed determination, I walked out to bat again.

First ball, a rush of blood, and I was back in the pavilion, promising to take it slow next time.

I guess Sehwag would tear up for a different reason.

But that never stopped the desire to play. As temperatures soared above 45°C, we played. As sandstorms ravaged our eyes, we played. When cops arrived to confiscate our bats, we fled and hid in parking garages. We scurried back out after they left, and we played. We played long into the hellish afternoon sun, long into the best days of our lives, until one day, we unknowingly played for the last time and never again.

The school bus rides were for IPL debates. I would write long posts for Facebook groups late into the night, often at the expense of homework. Posters of cricketers peppered my bedroom wall.

Cricket was back in my life, and how.

Nevertheless, I was also in my late teens and, naturally, extremely busy. Sitting at home all day was offensive, if not a cardinal sin. I spent most evenings loafing at hole-in-the-wall cafeterias, Burjuman or some earmarked alleys in Karama. 

Despite my packed schedule, I caught the closing moments of the quarter-final at Bikanervala. For an hour, the regular operations of that restaurant ceased. Food wasn't served, patrons didn't care, waiters didn't move, and chefs leaned over the open counter as over a hundred people stared at the solitary screen in the corner. Another fifty gawked through the restaurant's glass windows from outside.

Yuvraj Singh stroked the winning runs through covers, sank to his knees and whipped his bat in anger. 

As he roared into the skies, so did we.

I was at Dubai Mall during the first innings of the semi-final, painting the tricolour on people's faces. I caught the second half at Bombay Chowpatty. Our entire table of eight had only ordered two smoothies. We sipped them slowly for three hours to keep the table, but no one bothered. When Misbah-ul Haq lofted a catch to long-on, we ran out and danced to music blaring from our phone speakers.

Before we revisit the final, we should address the divine elephant in the room.

Sachin Tendulkar wasn't just a player. He was a phenomenon. He shattered every batting record for over two decades and cemented his place at the top. Just one trophy was conspicuously missing from his long list of accolades. It wasn't fair. He had tried five times, often waging a solitary battle as the team crumbled around him. Cricket is a team game where the whole is always greater than the sum of the parts. Hence, it values World Cups way more than individual records. 

This would be his last attempt.

After a career of logic-defying knocks, he was at the cusp of 100 international hundreds, an unimaginable feat that will remain untouched for decades. 

This was not just any attempt; it was one for the ages.

It was tailor-made for greatness: the greatest batsman in history reaching an unsurpassable milestone in a World Cup final in Mumbai, his hometown, a city Sunil Gavaskar once called the 'cradle of cricket'. Against the team that eliminated India at the previous tournament, at the Wankhede, not too far from Shivaji Park or the maidaans of Mumbai, guiding India to that elusive trophy in his final attempt.

This was a story you'd tell your grandkids. This was an epic for centuries. 

It was going to be folklore. It was going to be legendary. 

You couldn't have written a better script.

Lasith Malinga disagreed.

Surely, if we had the technology, we would've noticed a giant fluctuation on 2nd April, as a collective whoosh of air grounded a nation. Sachin edged to Sangakkara, leaving a billion people stunned, resigned to our fate.

As Sachin walked back, shaking his head, I remembered the same harsh lesson Ricky Ponting taught me eight years ago: life never turns out as you expect it to.


"Nanaji, aapne hi yeh shauk lagaya tha."

I got the opportunity to meet nanaji on this trip. Due to a confluence of unfortunate events, which included a worldwide pandemic and my travel restrictions in the US, six years had elapsed since we met. 

Over time, as I got older, the gravity of his life started to hit me. I constantly reminded myself that he was not just an endearing grandfather but, in his own way, a living legend, a national monument.

For instance, I still find it unreal that he was born before India existed as a country. 

Long years ago we made a tryst with destiny, and now the time comes when we shall redeem our pledge, not wholly or in full measure, but very substantially. At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom.

When Jawaharlal Nehru declared a tryst with destiny on a morning in mid-August, nanaji was at the Red Fort cheering him on, waving a small flag. 

He has firsthand accounts of India under every Prime Minister to date. He has rooted for every Indian cricketer in history, first on the radio, then on those black and white television sets, now in colour. He has watched Indian cinema evolve over the years. He has personally witnessed the bruises inflicted by the War of 1971, The Emergency, the Anti-Sikh riots and other momentous events in national history. He has observed countless political and cultural uprisings that first dented this nation, for better or worse, then caressed it down a new course, a new generation, a new era. 

He has seen it all: how a nation was born, how it blossomed, matured and reached out.

Once, at a wedding in Agra, an elderly gentleman sitting next to me leaned over and said, "Woh aapke jo bauji hai, bachpan mein hum saath mein cricket khelte the."

My ears pricked up, and he continued.

"Main apni team ka pehla bowler hota tha. Aur woh apni team ke opening batsman. Unka ek hi maqsat tha: har ball pe chakka maarna hai."

I looked at nanaji in wonder. 

We had never spoken about it, but somehow, by some divine intervention, I had inherited my batting style directly from him. 

There was still so much I didn't know about him.

So this time, I went armed with a truckload of questions. For three days, I sat next to him, watching the news. An eighty-five-year-old's temperament is volatile, so I chose my moments sparingly. I played the waiting game. I was richly rewarded for my patience, whether for his sporadic bursts of personal anecdotes or just to watch his face light up at the mention of Raj Kapoor, whereupon he gazed into the distance and murmured dreamily, "Raj Kapoor asli kalakaar tha."

One evening, after enduring the screams of a dozen news panelists for hours, I spotted him yawning and looking around. This was the opening I had been waiting for all day, and I pounced. I brought up Gavaskar to warm him up. He smiled and started reminiscing about cricket. At some point, I reminded him of his timely introduction of Doordarshan Sports into my life.

"Nanaji, aapne hi yeh shauk lagaya tha."

He peered at me intently, staring right through, almost like he was sizing me up.

Here he was, a man who had witnessed the impact of actions, events and ideas on a nation for nearly a century. He had seen multiple ripples swell into storms and then fade away. 

Here I was, at the other end of the journey, walking into his house after years and claiming his influence. 

Here we were, facing the consequences of a ripple from twenty years ago. This was a butterfly effect he had not just witnessed but a storm he had created, for better or worse. 

He peered at me in silence, and then said:

"Uss din ek paudha lagaya tha, aaj woh pedh ban gaya hai."


Mahendra Singh Dhoni launched Nuwan Kulasekara into the sky, finished it off in style, and time once again stood still. 

I stared at the screen, unable to process. Ever since India qualified, I had an absurd feeling, almost like cold feet: a loss was a world we understood, no, we belonged in. 

But what happens if we win? What happens if we reach the world's end?

The room erupted around me as people shrieked, laughed and sobbed. They jumped up and down, threw things, whooped and hugged. We could hear similar eruptions in the neighbourhood.

But I stared at the screen. The scene around me was a blur.

For a rare moment, I was motionless, speechless and, oddly, thoughtless.

Despite the impending pandemonium, the impending thunderstorm, I was completely blank, at peace.

2011 Cricket World Cup Final India

What is it about sport?

It's just a silly little game. 

It's an imagined reality. It's a giant waste of time. 

Football is just 'people running behind ball'. Cricket is just 'people hitting ball with stick'. You don't have to dig deep to spot its undeniable pointlessness. Every sport is the pursuit of a worthless object or target, bound by made-up rules with made-up consequences for meaningless trophies.

What's the point?

Even if you could muster some far-fetched purpose, would it justify the incumbent jingoism, violence and hostility? Would it justify the mimic warfare that George Orwell called war minus the shooting?

I say no, it doesn't.

What then? Why bother at all? 

To an extent, I agree. It's just a silly little game.

But this puts me in a precarious position. 

If it is a silly little game, if it is so pointless, then there are some things I simply cannot explain.

I cannot explain why we ran down the roads of Bur Dubai on 2nd April, whipping off our shirts, pumping fists at the heavens above, beating our chests, and screaming our lungs out. 

I cannot explain why our screams turned into giddy laughter. I cannot tell you when they turned into tears. We flitted involuntarily from laughs to sobs, from hoots to howls. We were in transcendental limbo between peace and chaos, on the brink of insanity, and for one night only, we gave in. 

I cannot explain why, as we ran, people poured out from every corner and ran with us, everyone afflicted with the same madness, laughing and crying at whim. 

We ran, we ran, and we ran, and we never looked back.

We ran until the horde was so large that we couldn't run anymore.

I cannot explain why we swarmed every street. I cannot explain why we danced all night. People hung perilously from balconies, waving banners. We climbed on top of jeeps as they honked through the mob, singing at the top of our voices, leading the chants. We hugged people we didn't like, didn't know, or would never meet again. No one had sent a memo. No one was in charge. But somehow, dhols and horns were played, colours were thrown, and flags were waved, all in unison. 

No one had rehearsed, but our movements were in harmony. 

We celebrated in Dubai, our adopted home, an Arab city in an Arab country. Every year, we become too Arab for the Indians but remain too Indian for the Arabs. We were the exiles, the vagabonds, who find it harder and harder to answer the questions: 'Who are we?' and 'Where is home?'.

That night, it didn't matter.

Whatever we were, whatever we had, it was our own little world, just ours. The next day didn't matter; office, school or university be damned. It was our night; we owned it, nobody dared snatch it from us, and we would decide when and if it would end.

What is it about sport?

If it is just another silly little game, I cannot explain why insanity was embraced with open arms that night.

I cannot explain why we didn't feel alone; for once, we didn't feel lost.

I cannot explain why magic was not just in the air but also in our hearts.

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

* * *

62 hours before the final

Somewhere Above The North Atlantic

I leaned back in my seat.

Of course.

Genuine cricket rivalries are endangered. There is always a furore about the Ashes, even though the home team never loses. India vs. Pakistan always overpromises but underdelivers. 

For those reasons, I've never cared much for either. 

For me, the rivalry of this century has always been India vs. Australia. 

India vs. Australia Adelaide 2003

It's easy. You can start with the Final Frontier and Border-Gavaskar 2004. You can move to Monkeygate, then to that quarter-final in 2011, then to that series of run heists in 2014, and then to that semi-final in 2015. It goes on and on. That eliminator in Mohali in 2016, where Kohli completed his transition to superhuman. Every recent Border-Gavaskar series, whether in 2015, 2017, 2019, 2021 or 2023, exhibitions of the highest calibre.

England and New Zealand haven't always been competitive overseas. Pakistan rarely justifies its potential. South Africa is choking on internal quotas. Sri Lanka, Zimbabwe and West Indies are dying. Only India and Australia have been consistently competitive; only they have sustained success and formidability in every playing condition. 

Since the turn of the millennium, they have fought so many notorious battles and blazed a history trail so dominant that it was foolish to expect anything else.

Of course.

Cricket is no longer a constant in my life. I barely watch or play anymore. But I owed myself one World Cup final. I had to cross this item off the bucket list, regardless of who made it there and regardless of the outcome, based on a promise I made in 2015. I've always measured my life in four-year chunks, and now it's too late. I cannot help but create a lifelong memory during every World Cup; it's inseparable from my story.

So, I embarked on a three-day journey from New York to Ahmedabad.

Twenty years from that final, that match that must not be named, from the beginning of my fandom to the dying years now, life had come full circle. 

India vs. Australia, destined to do this forever. 

* * *

5th July 2014: Lord's Bicentenary Celebration

I had watched cricket for twelve years before I got the opportunity to attend my first live game.

For some reason, I believed my involuntary asceticism would be rewarded one day. I just knew.

I was right.

Lord's was hosting a bicentenary celebration. An exhibition match between bonafide cricket legends would mark this special occasion. As far as first live games go, I couldn't have asked for a bigger payoff than all my childhood superheroes playing at the home of cricket.

So, on the morning of the celebration, I opened the website to buy a ticket to my dream match.

Later that day, I saw my heroes. 

Did I cry that day?

They materialised before my eyes, looking just like their images on my posters. They ran in the same manner as they did on the television. I watched Sehwag and Gilchrist blaze away. I watched Tendulkar and Lara join forces. I watched Afridi, Warne and Muralitharan walk out at the Mecca. 

So it is an appropriate question: did I cry that day?

I didn't.

I didn't cry because I wasn't there.

You see, I made the mistake of watching Good Will Hunting that year.

So, just when I was about to buy the ticket, I was innocently charmed by the caresses of first love and blissfulness of youth, and I closed the browser immediately. 

I didn't go to the match, because I had to go see about a girl.

But unlike Robin Williams, I've regretted it ever since.


26th March, 2015: India vs. Australia, Semi-Final

I'm hunched over my laptop at 4 AM. 

It's been raining in Cambridge all night. I haven't slept a minute, and I don't intend to.

Something about this match felt eerily similar. Something about the way the Australians decimated the bowlers on their way to a mammoth score. Something about the way we pegged our hopes on another prodigy, another run machine, another master. Something about the way we felt anything was possible as long as he was out there.

Something about the way he skied a pull off Mitchell Johnson, much like his idol did off McGrath twelve years ago. Something about the way that ball hung in the air, willed by a billion people to stay up, stay afloat, never land, never fall down.

"No," I blurted to an empty room.

Virat Kohli walked back, shaking his head.

I sighed and promised to decouple my love for cricket from India's success from here on.

It was the only way.

India vs. Australia 2015 Cricket World Semi Final

I wrote articles for cricket websites every month. I played club cricket on the sprawling meadows of Cambridgeshire on the weekends. Cricket was a regular part of my life.

But that didn't mean it would stay.

I've always measured my life in four-year chunks between World Cups. It was easier to predict where I would be in life when I was in school: moving from Grade 3 to Grade 7 to Grade 11 was daunting but had some semblance of familiarity.

Now, at the age of 21, at the end of my student life, I faced a veil of darkness and uncertainty for the first time.

It was frightening to think of 2019 when I would be the grand old age of 25. What happens next? What happens when I leave university and step out into the 'real world'? 

I was at the event horizon, at a singularity, and life would never be the same again. 

* * *

32 hours before the final

Dubai International Airport

“Excuse me, aapka naam kya hai?”

I had just settled into my seat on my flight to Ahmedabad. Before I could find my bearing, the man in the seat across the aisle tapped my arm. 

I turned around and raised an eyebrow questioningly. He ogled with suppressed excitement. I spotted his wife peeking over his shoulder.

“Main cricket bilkul nahi dekhta, par meri wife jaanna chahti hai ki kya aap Indian team ke liye khelte hai?”

I can understand the confusion. I'm wearing the jersey. I look (hopefully) young enough and (hopefully) lean enough to pass off as a professional athlete in his eyes (he clearly doesn't watch any sports). I was loudly discussing the match with my friends at the boarding gate. This gentleman's wife may only have heard misleading parts of the conversation. She didn't know my parents had squashed that dream sixteen years ago.

“Agar main Indian team ke liye khelta, toh main iss flight mein toh zaroor nahi hota,” I replied sardonically. 

We both looked around. 

We were squeezed into the tiniest economy seats. We were in the last row of a budget airline that will charge you for everything, from food to a blanket to more than three sneezes.

It was clear that no cricketer, not even the drinks boy, would be found within five miles of this aircraft.

“Baat toh sahi hai,” the passenger mumbled sheepishly. 

His wife's face fell. She stopped peeking over his shoulder and leaned back into her seat in disappointment.

* * *

9th-10th July, 2019: India vs. New Zealand, Semi-Final

I took leave from work to watch the match. I pushed a client meeting to the following day. 

But rain postponed the game to the next day. I faced the unpleasant prospect of going to work when the match resumed.

The hour I spent locked in the meeting room, absent-mindedly nodding along, coincided with the infamous 45 minutes of bad cricket. After the meeting, I rushed to a shisha cafe to inspect the ruins, trying to make sense of Dhoni's tactics, yet not surprised. 

I had preemptively requested the day off on Sunday (a working day in the Middle East back then) to watch the final. My manager replied to my email request: 

"Approved - but what if India doesn't make it to the final? :S"

I took the leave anyway. 

I had made a promise.

India vs. New Zealand 2019 Cricket World Cup Semi Final

* * *

19th November, 2023: India vs. Australia

The Final

It took me seventy-one hours to get to the final. 

In a way, it also took me twenty years.

As I sat high up in the nosebleeds at Motera, the nation's epicentre, the eye of the storm for a night, I couldn't help but muse at the convergence of multiple timelines.

I saw Steve Smith. 2017 was the last time we were in the same spot. His hands were aloft after scoring a pristine century at the Gabba during the Ashes. The 'Summer of Steve Smith' was the peak of his prowess. He was on autopilot towards becoming the greatest Australian batsman and captain in history. 

Six years later, after the ignominy of ball-tampering, scorn, and ridicule, after being sacked as captain and finding his spot in limited overs in question, things are different now.

I saw Narendra Modi, the 14th Prime Minister of India, in the stadium he humbly named after himself. 2015 was the last time we were in the same spot. I was one of 25,000 people giving him a standing ovation at a speech at the Dubai stadium, believing his promise of a new India, a proud India, a great India. We wanted to be part of this political and cultural uprising that promised to caress this nation into a new course, a new generation, a new era. 

Eight years later, with a rise in bigotry, censorship, communal violence and sectarianism, things are different now.

I saw Virat Kohli. 2014 was the last time we were in the same spot. His head was hung in shame as he dragged himself to the pavilion at the Oval. They said Kohli had been exposed by James Anderson. They claimed the hype train had been derailed. It was the death of his career. It felt like they wanted him to fail, wanted him to be ordinary, as if his prolonged success made them uncomfortable.

Nine years later, he's the most prolific batsman, the greatest ever, the king of the world, and things are different now.

Pat Cummins banged one short. 

Kohli chopped it onto his stumps. 

130,000 people let out the loudest gasp you'll ever hear.


For weeks after the final, people have asked me: did you cry that day?

There is merit to the question. There will not be many instances, if ever, when you collectively feel the sadness of 130,000 people. When anguish was not just an emotion but an aura. It seeped out, morphed into a black cloud, and weighed on us every second, choking, suffocating, blocking all the light.

I should've seen it coming. 

Not just because Australia also had a story to tell. In the 1996 World Cup, they forfeited their group match against Sri Lanka. There were whispers that they were scared of playing spinners in the subcontinent. In the final, they were unpleasantly paired with their biggest fear. In eerie similarity, they clawed their way to that spooky score that has plagued multiple World Cup finals, 241. 

Travis Head and Marnus Labuschagne just had to replicate the perfect template Aravinda De Silva and Arjuna Ranatunga created against their own team in a World Cup final.

Even the captain had a template; once again, an Australian captain was a tornado. Australia, a ruthless dynasty. 

On the other hand, India walked in like they knew they would win, like it was meant to be. The moment it went slightly off script, they had no idea, left helpless, shellshocked, like a fish out of water.

The crowd booed the lack of intent in taking singles in the first innings. We booed the lack of intent in restricting singles in the second. We were confused. Arms crossed, hands in the air, some shouted advice, some cursed in anger. We were frustrated. Temba Bavuma had shown us how to defend a low score against this team in the previous match. Why weren't we aggressive with our fielding positions? 

From my vantage point high up at cow corner, with God's eye view of another India vs. Australia match, it was obvious what was happening. 

This wasn't a one-off. 

It went back decades.

If you're an Indian cricket fan, you're probably accustomed to losing tournaments we should've won. South Africa is slandered unfairly because it’s India that’s really been choking, choking to less skilled teams for decades, choking to favourable conditions, choking when it mattered.

We should've seen it coming.

It hurt more because you knew Australia didn't need this win. They will go home with smiles. They will brush it off as another game. It will be praised for a day, and then they will move on. Their sporting culture is different (some would call it healthy). The perception of athletes is different (some would call it healthy).

For us, we needed it. 

We needed it because it goes beyond sport, and always has.

"Like all the poor nations of the third world, both India and Pakistan find the field of sports a cover-up for their backwardness in all other modern fields," wrote a columnist after the '96 quarter-final. 

If you're an Indian, then you're probably accustomed to being looked down upon despite your merit. It means contending with a country still behind in literacy, poverty, governance or discrimination. India is still 'developing', still in the shadows. 

You must understand, in this country, cricket is a cultural phenomenon, if not a religion, more than just a silly little sport, because it is where we feel ahead, on top, above the rest of the world. It's where we finally display our true potential. It’s where we feel strong. 

This is why Virat Kohli represents more than athleticism. He is to Indian cricket what Sachin was earlier, what WG Grace was to England, Victor Trumper and Don Bradman to Australia, Viv Richards to West Indies, and Imran Khan to Pakistan. They represent the zeitgeist, the spirit, the future, the embodiment of a national identity.

Cricket is a rare escape. 

It's an excuse. It always has been.

Marqusee described it as: “Impatient with and sometimes disgusted by many of the realities of Indian life— corruption, poverty, inefficiency—they still desire to assert themselves as Indians, and cricket has allowed them to do this. But defeat exposed the hollowness of this compensatory cricket nationalism.”

This is why we succumbed to the dread. This is why it always hurts more than it should. Winning a World Cup is a harmonious national celebration that comes once in a lifetime. 

That day may come again. If it does, it'll be glorious, euphoric, a day when cricket will only matter till a certain point, then brushed aside. That's what I went chasing after, in a journey of both hours and years. A desperate attempt to recreate when the night was loud but my mind was calm, when I was home.

Or, that day may never come again.

This is why it hurts. This is why it will hurt for years. This is why we stood in silence, not speaking, not clapping, looking but not seeing. This is why it felt like a funeral, like we were all mourning. At some point during the post-match presentation, after the fireworks, drone show or medals all felt like daggers to the heart, I looked up at the VIP box. 

I spotted Anushka Sharma, forlorn, gazing into the distance, resigned to a thousand-yard stare.

India vs. Australia 2023 Cricket World Cup Final

This is what Brendon McCullum said after the 2015 final:

Y'know, I got back into the dressing room, sat down and just laughed. 

All my life I had dreamt of that moment. As a child, I played it out against mates day after day, and as a man I practiced for it with an almost eerie certainty that one day it would come.

I mean, the World Cup final, against Australia, at the MCG on a hot and sunny day and I was captain of my country. It cannot get any better. I was more ready for this than anyone outside my closest circle of friends and family could begin to understand. 

After a lifetime of dreaming about exactly that moment, I messed it up. 

So I laughed - otherwise I'd still be crying.

So it is an appropriate question: did I cry that day?

On 19th November, I was reminded of the lesson Ricky Ponting taught me all the way back in 2003. The same one that reverberated in our minds when Sachin walked back at the Wankhede in 2011. 

The same one that laughed in the face of India dominating a home World Cup, going undefeated, breaking records:

Life never turns out as you expect it to.

But I didn't cry.

I didn't cry because I was there.

I was there despite all the obstacles in getting to Motera, despite the exorbitant costs, and despite a hellish journey.

I was there that day, marinating in the 'ontological pleasure of being witness to history' when everyone I grew up watching converged into a modern-day colosseum and shared the same hope.

If it is just another silly sport, just bat and ball, then it’s all I needed for those ten overs under the lights when 130,000 strong screamed, danced and sang in unison. When our raw, primal instincts were on display. In that moment, despite my awareness of the brutality of sporting jingoism, it was absolutely, without any qualification, man vs. man, life vs. death, war minus the shooting.

It took me years to realise this, but it's not cricket I was addicted to. 

In that hour, I was back at the parking lots of Muscat and Mankhool, back again in the meadows of Cambridgeshire, back again dancing on the streets of Dubai, back again in front of the TV on a winter night, watching cricket with nanaji

I was there when we felt every emotion possible, and I felt it with them. 

For an hour, I was one of them, one of the nation, one of its people, and our hearts beat as one. 

I didn't cry because I was finally not lost, I was accepted, I had a tribe, I belonged. 

* * *

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