April 4, 2011

One For The Infidels

Mumbai had surely asked for more. The one thing that could have made the night perfect, even magical for an overtly partisan crowd got snubbed early in the Indian innings. For a world cup victory fashioned by a century from the bat of Sachin Tendulkar was the ultimate treat. It was not to be. But in a way, it was just as well.

A Sachin & Sehwag powered victory would have been more befitting the 90s. This young team we were cheering for yesterday was anything but that. And yet, the funereal atmosphere in the crowd after the exit of the maestro was deafening. It gave away the fact that the famed average Indian fan was still not convinced of this change. Amir Khan & Nita Ambani could well have been accompanying a hearse. For an entire country, it was as though Good Friday had turned up three weeks early, and that too, on a Saturday!

But for this Indian team, a circle was being completed. A circle that began to be penciled even before 2003. It actually began with a world cup victory a couple of years before that.

Even while the country was mourning cricket’s loss of credibility in the match fixing scandal of the late 90s, and India was shown to be its epicentre, an Indian team, comprising of players below the age of 19, and led by a lanky UP boy Mohammad Kaif brought home the Youth World Cup. A certain teenager, who answered to the name of Yuvraj Singh was the Man of the Tournament that time. Sounds familiar?

Two years later, one June evening, we switched off our TV sets and went to sleep at bed time, after India were reduced to 145 for 5, chasing 325 in a final against the English at Lords. There was only so much two inexperienced middle order batsman and a five-strong bowling tail could accomplish, we told ourselves.

The late city editions of the next day’s newspapers however had a different story to tell. The two youngsters, Yuvraj and Kaif, had refused to buy that theory and dropped anchor, guiding the team to victory. This wasn’t just another tournament victory. It was an announcement that the Indian cricket team of the new century was a far cry from the whimpering infidels of the 1990s. Captain Saurav Ganguly, if you remember, immortalized that day by taking off his shirt even while standing in the inner sanctum of cricket, the pavillion at Lords. As in-your-face as it could get!

Then in 2003 came that epic run upto the final of the world cup. From an opening that saw the team struggling to beat debutants Holland, and crumbling in front of Australia in their first two matches, India went on to win the next eight matches on the back of sheer mental strength and team work. But at the final frontier, the team caved in against Australia again, after Sachin Tendulkar was dismissed cheaply. It was almost as if we were not willing to believe we were worth it.

And again, on Saturday, an entire country was lulled into silence on that early wicket of Tendulkar. It was déjà vu, after the 2003 experience. Capitulation was imminent. Lasith Malinga celebrated like a footballer who scored a match wining goal. Sri Lanka would have already been seeing their reflections on the winners trophy.

Except that the Men in Blue were all set to prove a point. That matches weren’t lost until they all were beaten. That India never won in the 90s because they were just so willing to embrace failure before it’s due. The infidel had no place in this team. A billion infidels were to be taught the cricketing lesson of their lives.

This Indian team had arrived, and how. Sachin was still making his runs, and perhaps even better than any other time in his career, the records just kept flowing in. But the team was no longer a one-man army.

This world cup victory is made out to be for Sachin Tendulkar. And rightly so. For no one individual has carried on his pair of shoulders the weight of so many sporting dreams for so many years. And no one could have done it the way the great man did. But it was just as well that, on Saturday, India won without the Tendulkar Ton!

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