Monday, April 4, 2011

A fairytale ending and sometimes dreams do come true!

The winning feeling
Dreams do indeed come true. When they do they have the ability to make grown men cry and break into a jig at the same time. To use a cliché, this was a dream shared by more than a billion Indians. It probably meant more to the millions of my generation who weren’t born or were too young to remember the triumph of 1983.
 I started following cricket from the late 80s and the early 90s and grew up on a diet of humiliating away-losses and close games frittered away. I saw India gift away games to Henry Olonga in the 1999 World Cup, to Saqlain Mushtaq in the 1997 test vs Pakistan in Chennai, to West Indies in Barbados in 1997, to any damn Pakistani bowler in any match in Sharjah. The only consolation used to be watching Sachin Tendulkar play dazzling knocks and fight lone battles for the country in defeat.

Then along came Saurav Ganguly and John Wright. We still lost from winning positions but the frequency of those abject collapses reduced and we started winning more often than we lost, in a lot of cases from seemingly hopeless positions. Whether it was the Eden Gardens test of 2001 vs Australia, the chase of 325 at Lord’s in 2002 or the Adelaide test vs. Australia in 2003, we found heroes for the occasion and more often than not Sachin just played bit parts in these memorable victories. Still we continued to switch off our TVs or walk out of the stadia when he got out, not recognizing the change that our team was going through.

On 2nd April 2011 that change came to a full circle. Chasing 275 in a World Cup final we lost Sehwag and Sachin with just 31 on the board. The crowd went hush and you could literally see the defeat in most people’s eyes. It didn’t help that a large chunk of the crowd was made up of 30 year olds like me and older. All the old fears came rushing back. 225 was the highest score chased under lights at the Wankhede, 241 was the highest ever chased in a World Cup Final, no team with a centurion had lost a World Cup final. We knew all that but probably Gautam Gambhir didn’t. Neither did Virat Kohli or MS Dhoni or Yuvraj Singh. Even if they did, it didn’t seem to matter. History is there to be made, not to get bogged down by. Slowly but surely as Gautam Gambhir and Virat Kohli built the inning, the belief in the crowd came back. The dream was still alive.

MS Dhoni, in the company of Gautam Gambhir, took us close and finished it off appropriately with Yuvraj Singh, the Man of the tournament, on the other end. The six and THAT twirl (External link: Open in new window) of the bat has signalled the start of the era of uber cool and mentally tough Team India.

Since I decided to follow India for the World Cup, I had dreamt about the winning moment multiple times. Each time there had been tears but surprisingly on Saturday night it was pure unadulterated joy. I was jumping up and down, shrieking “India.. India” and high fiving complete strangers once the six was hit. Till they showed, on the big screen at the ground, a smiling Sachin run onto the field. A roar went up and I could feel the first few tears stream down my cheeks.

After the victory lap with SRT on his shoulder, Virat Kohli put it aptly when he said “Tendulkar has carried the burden of the nation for 21 years. It is time we carried him on our shoulders.” Looking at all the pictures of Sachin enjoying the win, it is clear what this win meant to him, but it is also apt that Sachin himself played a bit part in the final. By winning this match as a team, by showing the steel that they did, MS Dhoni and his team ensured that from now on there would not be any more Indian cricket fans, including those from my generation, who would switch off their TV sets or walk out from stadiums when an individual gets out.

Indian National Anthem
Dhoni hits the winning six
Sachin Tendulkar's lap on Kohli's shoulder
The day had started with another early morning flight from Delhi. I was quite apprehensive about my back holding up for the entire day where I would have to take a 2 hour flight, another hour in the taxi before queuing up for entry into the stadium and then 8 hours of jumping up and down from my seat hoping to celebrate an Indian victory. Turns out the pain killers and the muscle relaxants worked like a charm and not only was I able to do all that but was able to follow it up with another 4 hours of partying with friends late into the night.
I had sprained my back the previous Sunday and had been bed-ridden and immobile for the rest of the week. I was gutted about having to give up my tickets for the Semi-Final and there was no way in the world I was missing the final for anything.

My friend Sudhir with Merv Hughes
I reached the stadium at around 12noon and was only able to get into the stadium by 1:45pm. Everyone in the queue though was good natured and surprisingly there was absolutely no pushing and shoving. I was also surprised to find Merv Hughes in the queue behind us. Merv was leading a contingent of around 20 odd Aussies who were travelling around India watching the knock out phase of the tournament. The entire group had travelled to both the semi-finals in Colombo and Mohali so that they could be sure of watching the Australia semi-final but for a change had ended up being disappointed. Not many people recognized Merv but there was a literal stampede as Gilchrist was escorted past us into the stadium.
Wankhede Stadium, Mumbai
The Wankhede was completely rebuilt for this tournament and the designers have done an excellent job. The design is very modern and spectator friendly as there are absolutely no pillars in the top tiers. There are a few pillars in the lower tiers but the design is such that there is hardly any obstruction of view for the spectators (DDCA please take note!!). The stands rise steeply over the ground and the stadium gives the impression of being larger than the quoted capacity of 33,000. The media stand enclosed by glass looked amazing till the high humidity in the evening coupled with the air conditioning inside fogged up the glass completely. For the last 15-20 overs of the match, two men were permanently positioned hanging in mid air to keep clearing up the glass from the outside.
Surprisingly for Mumbai, the food and drink situation was as bad as all other venues. There was no proper food other than samosas and sandwiches which also ran out within the first 15 overs of India’s batting. The same was the case with the soft drinks, all that remained after 8pm was the free water provided by the organizers.

Observing the celebrations first-hand
The atmosphere inside the stadium was somewhat flat for a World Cup final but to an extent I would put that down to being spoilt by the fantastic atmosphere in Ahmedabad and the nerves that all of us in the crowd were also feeling. In spite of the enormity of the occasion, Jayawardene was given a standing ovation when he reached his century. I have heard many people comment about the fact that Indian crowds don’t applaud the opposition. It has been my personal experience at all the games that opposition centuries and good performances have been always applauded by one and all with standing ovations. Even Ricky Ponting was given a standing ovation after his century in Ahmedabad even though he is clearly not popular with Indian crowds and booed throughout the game.

The contrast between the “shout yourself hoarse” cheering that accompanies an Indian 50 or 100 against the English style applause for opposition good performances probably gives the impression that Indian crowds don’t appreciate opposition performances. Probably if we in India tone down our cheering for India the contrast won’t be as obvious but I for one don’t see that happening in the near future.

During the innings break most people thought Lanka had got too many but were quietly optimistic about India’s ability to chase down the target. The stadium was eerily quiet after Sachin’s dismissal but the noise and the belief gradually built up during the Gambhir and Kohli partnership. Singles and doubles were cheered raucously and when Dhoni started hitting Murali for boundaries the crescendo built up. The crowd exploded with THAT six and the party began in true earnest. Not one person left the stadium till the presentation and victory laps were completed. Some 20 odd spectators actually jumped over the fences into the playing area and were chased around by the police. One spectator raced down to the pitch and bent down to kiss the turf, only that he had mistaken one of the practice wickets for the main pitch, not that it mattered to him.

The roads outside the stadium were jammed and we took the train to Bandra before meeting up with friends to celebrate long into the night. Wearing my India t-shirt, with the flag and painted face I was stopped by numerous people on the road for pictures.
The happy ending made the journey that started on 19th February in Dhaka all the more worthwhile. Along with Johannesburg in 2007, I have now seen India win two World Cups in 4 years and am completely hooked to this experience. While I make my plans for the T20 World Cup in Sri Lanka next year and the next Cricket World Cup in Australia-New Zealand in 2015, I would like to put on record the fact that given the right perks, I am open to offers from the BCCI for being India’s official lucky mascot at ICC events :)

The World Cup maybe over but I will try and make sense of my experiences at stadiums across the country starting with a post on the good, the bad and the ugly of this entire campaign next week.