Sunday, April 05, 2015

The Cup Of Misery

Are you still moping over India's loss at the World Cup? Here's something to add to that feeling smile emoticon While India has done well by winning to World Cups, the losses tend to linger. This is my write up in the Spark magazine, mirroring my cricket watching journey with India's losses at the World Cup over the years. Read on. 

The Cup of Misery

The 2015 cricket World Cup has wound down. There is a new champion in town. India kept saying ‘we won’t give it back’ until they did, to Australia. Some heartaches somehow stay longer and affect you deeper, like a breakup that refuses to leave you. Indian fans have had it good and Indian fans have had it rough in World Cups. This story is not about the successes. This story is about the quintessential Indian cricket fan’s heartaches.

1983 was when the World Cup appeared on the Indian horizon. This was a dream that was undreamt. An against–the-odds story of how a team with no dramatic presence in the one day international (ODI) sphere denied the all-conquering West Indians the chance to win a third consecutive World Cup. Kapil Dev’s catch off Viv Richards, running backwards, against the grain, summed up how an impossible task was suddenly made real. What this win did was to kick start a revolution in the cricket world. A billion people came onboard with a lot of passion. Kapil’s Devils raised expectations among an Indian populace that expected very little until then. Nothing short of a win each time would satisfy them now.

1987 was the first test of that expectation. It was a World Cup that was held in India and its neighbouring countries. India was a favourite to defend its title. The team gave an outstanding performance in the league stage against New Zealand with Sunny Gavaskar scoring his first (and only) ODI century and Chetan Sharma taking the first-ever hat-trick in a World Cup match, and the first one by an Indian bowler. Although I was witness to some celebrations during the 1983 World Cup, this was the first World Cup that I have strong memories of. India’s march to the semi-finals was strong and India was expected to romp through against England to meet Pakistan. It was hoped that Pakistan would beat Australia to setup a dream final. But Gooch and Gatting had other ideas. Gooch in particular swept the Indian bowlers out of the Wankhede dustbowl. The sound of Phil Defreitas’s delivery crashing into the off stump of Sunil Gavaskar in what turned out to be his final ODI innings deflated the crowd and India’s title defence. The dream lay in tatters.

If 1987 was a dream shattered, 1992 was a nightmare fulfilled. India wasn’t a favourite for the tournament and rightly so. They struggled throughout in the round robin format of the tournament (where each team met each other), and only managed to win two games, losing five (with one abandoned). Indian cricketers playing in the first World Cup with coloured clothing brought little by way of cheer. The only exception was a victory against Pakistan, never mind that they went onto win the World Cup. I remember throwing my hands up in frustration watching India lose to Australia by one run in one of the closest finishes at that time in a ODI game.

1996 brought the World Cup back to Indian shores and with it, buckets of expectations. India had, after all, a decent bowling line-up in their backyard, a strong batting line-up and a certain talismanic cricketer who by now was the best batsman in the world. What could possibly go wrong? Well, the pitch in Eden Gardens, Calcutta, for the semi-finals, had different ideas. After Sri Lanka had recovered their way to 251/8, it was always going to be tough. Tendulkar led the way with a quick half century, but once he got out stumped, the rest of the team fell like a rack of bicycles. This enraged the Bengali crowd so much that their anger boiled into a dangerous riot. It was also the day the results of my first semester of engineering were announced. Torn between my sense of loyalty to the Indian team and my desire to know if I had passed the exams, I had hung around till Tendulkar got out and then went to my college. By the time I called home to relay my score, effigies were burning in the stadium. Needless to say, India’s loss stung more than my below-par marks.

1999 was a blur barring Tendulkar’s little gulp-inducing return from India after cremating his father. The World Cup, held in cold England, had a bunch of good performances from India, including the now mandatory win over Pakistan. Their loss to Zimbabwe would hurt them later in the Super Sixes stage. Between the last World Cup and this one, I had gotten myself an engineering degree. India’s wait to regain the World Cup would be longer. At this point, having religiously followed the game for nearly 16 years, I suppose I could have looked at my firecrackers and asked “kab phodenge?” (when will I light them up?)

2003 was an uplifting experience. Recovering from a poor start to the tournament, team India discovered the kind of streak that they had never before encountered in World Cup cricket. They found strength within themselves, huddling and befuddling the opponents. Nothing exemplified this more than the upper cut that Sachin Tendulkar hit off Shoaib Akhtar, lifting all of India to a higher plane. All the promise of a second World Cup win, all the potential came down to a final hurdle: the Aussies. I remember watching that game in Seattle, along with a thousand crazy India cricket fans. A gentleman who accompanied me had not seen an Indian cricket game since migrating to the US in 1966. He had shown up to see what the fuss was about, particularly around Tendulkar. India would go on to lose badly. Nay, crushed, bruised, demolished, steamrolled, all in the course of a Seattle night. Till date, I blame my companion for India’s loss. Perhaps his exile from cricket would have served us well.

If 2003 was heartbreak, 2007 was heartache. Watching cricket in the US is never easy and I – and countless others like me – spent 200 dollars and some small change to buy the package for watching the World Cup. Little did we know that India’s challenge wouldn’t be worth a tenth of that money. Beat Bermuda, were shocked by Bangladesh and then lost to Sri Lanka in a must-win game. Nothing about the campaign was right. The Indian players were unhappy, the audience was unhappy and the whole campaign seemed out of focus. It was exemplified by the singular moment when I went to answer the doorbell to receive my renewed passport only to miss the moment when Tendulkar was castled by Dilhara Fernando.

2011 was the moment of truth. The crowning moment of Tendulkar’s career and Dhoni’s captaining mastery. But let me not dwell on the positives. After all, this is about the crushing distresses of the Indian cricket fan.

Which brings us to 2015, the last chapter in this series thus far. No one expected India to do well after the pounding in the Australian tour. The bowlers were bad, the batsmen were iffy and the chances of winning on Australian soil bleak. But they turned it around, shockingly well. Beat Pakistan, beat South Africa, gave rise to the Mauka jingle, and cruised into the semi-finals, taking 70 wickets in 7 games. And alas, just like the 2003 juggernaut ground to a halt against Aussie might, so did the 2015 speeding bullet. Everyone from Anushka to Dhoni was blamed, ignoring the fact that they were beaten by a superior team.

And so it is, the story of the Indian supporter. The agony and ecstasy of supporting a team that tries its best, raises hopes, occasionally delivers, but mostly leaves the supporter with a bitter sweet feeling after putting its hope in eleven men and a shiny object they call the World Cup. Here’s hoping that in the future years to come, there will be more chances for them to call themselves the World Champions.