Saturday, April 9, 2011

The path to Cricketing glory - Part 2

The road to cricketing glory – Part 2
It was 11:30 pm on the night of 2nd April and India had become the reigning World Champion in the cricketing world. The term “World Champion” still sends a delicious shiver through my body and has me smiling like a nut every time I hear it. On that night, after the presentation ceremony, watched by millions of people around the world, I was drunk on adrenalin and excitement and was trudging out of the stadium, with no real plan as to where we would be going or what we will be doing. I felt a strong hand on my shoulder and turned to look at the concerned look on my husband’s face. I felt the roles had definitely been reversed and did not understand what was bothering him. He just gestured ahead and said, “In case we get lost in this crowd when we get out of the stadium; meet me at our favorite spot on Marine Drive”. Those words hardly registered, as I was in a flashback mode, going over every exciting second of the day in my mind.
I spent the first few minutes after the match started to get to know the various players on both sides. It was not easy because the team kept shifting positions after every few balls. When I expressed my frustration about this to my husband, he patiently explained why that was necessary and then even more patiently asked me to shut up and let him watch the game. Having hit a road block there, I decided to concentrate on a few balls. But the minute I did that a boundary was hit and I suddenly remembered my resolve to not see the pitch at all during the match if India had any hope of winning. So, I started watching the crowd, the fielders, the dressing room – any direction but the pitch and the ball. Which is why, if anyone to this day asks me how it was to watch the match and what I thought about some spectacular delivery or some outstanding stroke, I have a blank look because I did not see any of that. But yes, I think I gained a lot more than I lost owing to this weird decision. As I focused on the rest of the fielders, I realized the ferocious focus with which these young men played the game which somehow gets lost when we watch them on an impersonal television set. The Indian fielding contingent, led by Raina, Kohli and Yuvraj were literally breathing down the necks of the Lankan batsmen. It was the kind of feral intensity that may rob many great men of their courage and clear thinking. I could feel that these men were working with a single minded determination, cutting out the noise, the loud cheers and the music and focusing only on the ball and the bat. Nothing else existed in that moment and it felt like the only raison d’ĂȘtre for them was to stop the ball.
Every few minutes, I would try and see where some of my favorite cricketers were standing. It was easy to pick out Dhoni, in his keeper’s gear standing behind the wickets. But, to me Dhoni stood out more because of the absolute command on the game he expressed. Even from a distance, I could feel this bright young man’s mind ticking every second. Many people tell me how astute he is with field placements and plays the game with a street smartness that only exists in the small towns of this country. All this and much more is apparent in the way he planned the game and chose his tactics, ball after ball. But all this was done with a child like abandon, living completely in the now and not sparing any thought to what was and what will be. I think I fell a little in love then and was sure my husband would not mind when I saw him scream with gay abandon – “Dhoni, Dhoni”.
My eyes then searched for the man, to whom the stand I was sitting in that day was dedicated – Sachin Tendulkar. It is hard to miss Sachin because he is the most active player on the field.  If I fell a little in love in Dhoni, I fell deeply in awe with Sachin. It was amazing to me that this cricketing great, after 21 years of playing this game, still felt so involved and engaged in every aspect of it. Seeing him walk up to young and inexperienced players after every ball, giving them advice, pepping them up and just spreading a sense of calm in the team with his very presence made me realize why the millions in this country idolized him. If Sachin was all over the filed Sehwag stayed in his position, seemingly lackadaisical and uninvolved, but swooping in like an eagle for some of the most difficult matches, not missing a beat.
This seemed to have encouraged the fielding trio of Raina, Kohli and Yuvraj to have a healthy competition amongst them of who will stop the maximum number of runs. To me they signified the essence of this team that played for each other. When any one of them would stop a single or field exceptionally well, the other two would run over, pat the person on the back and praise him for a job well done. I was glad that I was watching all this happen in the sidelines of the game because these are visuals that the TV cameras would never beam into my home. It is sights such as this that made me understand the deep rooted tenet that these men played for. When I watched all the post match interviews and heard each team member say again and again that they played for Sachin and each other, I knew exactly what they meant and how they had gone about it.
I drowned myself in the atmosphere of the stadium that smelled of chips, Pepsi and the soaking sweat of all the supporters. Every wicket was celebrated with frenzy. Every boundary was danced for. Every run was cheered with such abandon that the batsmen became confused if they had taken a single or hit a boundary. I don’t think I sat for the nine hours that the game was played, remaining on tenterhooks and going mad with the cheering and the shouting. It is this sound of “Jeetaga bhai jeetega Hindustan jeetega” that reverberated in my head as I made my way down the staircase, drunken with the joy of winning. It turned out that my husband was unnecessarily concerned. I realized, only in Mumbai will people line up to not just to enter but also to exit the stadium. I think I was jostled between a crowd of close to 1000 people trying to get home, but not once was I scared or touched inappropriately. Everywhere I looked, I saw happy, excited faces who had enjoyed the day’s cricket and carried with them the memory of a lifetime. I was also surprised that in a country as diverse as India, the crowd that I saw at the stadium seemed like a largely homogenous set of upper middle class, educated, well behaved, working men and women and I realized with the base price of the ticket itself being at INR 35,000 the common man could have never been able to afford watching the match live.
But, it was not until I stepped out of the stadium did I realize the common man would not be left out of the party of a lifetime. The night that India became a World Champion, Cricket became the greatest unifier in the country. As the crowds from the stadium spilled out on to Marine Drive, they met the crowds of people who had been watching the match at home or on the big screen TV set up on the promenade and had decided to dance the night away, marking the moment history was made. I saw young boys and girls with the tri color in their hands, sitting on the bonnets of their cars or riding on their bikes, shouting with joy, telling anyone who would care to listen that India had done it. I saw older couples, walking hand in hand across the promenade taking in the scenes of this impromptu party, their faces shining with excitement and tears brimming from their eyes. My husband and I joined these crowds on the promenade, walking along with them, waiting to catch a glimpse of the team bus, hoping to see the men who had become heroes and champions in the space of a few hours. I have no idea for how long we walked or how far we got, because we kept getting stopped every few minutes by complete strangers who wanted to hug us. It felt like we had won our independence all over again. People had suddenly become large hearted and all the differences that kept us at each other’s throats seemed to have dissolved in a well of emotion and happiness. A taxi driver found us walking along some of the alleys beside Marine Drive and offered to give us a lift home. He refused to take any money from us when we reached saying that today the trip was on him.
All along the route, we saw people from every walk of life, out on the streets celebrating this victory like a war had been won. Only time will tell if a war had actually been won, but I feel a true awakening happened that night. India came to realize that 15 men, from ordinary backgrounds and nothing much to their name but tremendous confidence and self-belief had achieved a feat that no one thought would be possible. This filled the rest of the nation with the hope that if they can why can’t we. I feel it is this confidence that has driven Anna Hazare and his men to fast unto death fighting for corruption. I am not sure how this fight will end, but it surely is fuelled by the sentiment that was awakened in the Indian populace the night we became World Champions. I only hope that we are able to hold on to this feeling of invincibility, euphoria and utter confidence, because like the Men in Blue, we don’t have much more than this to fight with, but like they proved to us, these might just be the right weapons to make us World Champions in the truest sense of the word.

Friday, April 8, 2011

The road to Cricketing glory - Part 1

I am not a huge Cricket Fan. I am not even a Sports enthusiast. But I have enjoyed watching the Men in Blue play once in a while in a sporadic manner until they start losing games like a stack of bowling pins that come down all at once or until another scandal hits the game. When the ICC Cricket World Cup 2011 started I knew that the men in my life would become veritable strangers to me overnight. My husband would work from home more often. My Dad would come back home by lunch time. But all this would not convert into more quality time together because the TV would always be on and would perennially be tuned to either cricket related news or to the pesky commentators giving their own version of what should and should not have been done even though they had never even held a bat in their entire lives. It was when I heard Sidhu repeat another trite Sidhuism about the team needing to be as “cool as a ball of ice in an oven” (seriously, does he stay awake at night thinking these up) once again before India’s first match that I switched off. I decided to shut myself off completely from anything to do with cricket. God seemed to be on my side when I had to travel to Philippines during India’s quarter and semi final skirmishes. Luckily Philippines does not even know the ‘C’ of cricket so I was spared having to discuss India’s chances of winning the cup and how a host country has never won it so far.
Regular calls from home kept me updated about how well the team was doing. I refused to think too deeply about this or get excited about it because I believed I was jinxed when it came to sport. Any team I supported or got emotionally attached to tends to lose in the crucial matches. In a way, subconsciously, my decision to not watch any of the matches was also so that I don’t jinx India’s chances in such an important tournament. I know – illogical and insane but then that’s how it panned out. However, when India did beat Pakistan and thank God I was not in the country to see the madness and euphoria that ensued that clash, my husband proudly announced to me on an expensive ISD call that he had managed to get two tickets to the World Cup Final match between India and Srilanka in Mumbai’s Wankhede stadium and he had graciously decided to take me along with him. I was stumped. I could not believe my financially astute and risk averse husband had spent a bomb on getting those tickets in the first place and what was worse he wanted to take me, Ms. Jinx with him for such an important match. I hemmed and hawed and even suggested that he should probably sell those tickets in black and make a pot of money. But then a visual of my husband, behind bars, dressed in the grimy black and white prison uniform and looking forlornly at a battered and bruised food vessel made me stop in mid sentence and not mention that idea again.
I tried to ignore the hollow feeling in the pit of my stomach every time I thought about going to see the Final and mercilessly stopped myself from thinking about anything to do with Cricket. I felt that by the time I landed back in India, just the day before the final, better sense would have prevailed and my husband would have either sold the tickets or found a friend to take with him. In fact, I had already started day dreaming about the spa appointment I would book for myself during the time of the match and all the well deserved pampering I would get. But, God was not on my side this time. By the time I landed back, my husband had already picked out matching Team India t-shirts that we would be wearing for the match and had also convinced another 4 couples to join us for this all important tournament. He was perplexed that I was not excited about this once in a lifetime opportunity that we could tell our kids and grandkids about. I tried to tell him about my theory of being a jinx but he just rolled with laughter for a long time and said I had given him a stomach ache.
Anyways, the morning of 2nd April saw us having a hearty breakfast as if we were going out to play ourselves and set out of home with the best wishes of the entire family, like we were warriors going on to the battlefront. While I wanted to keep this whole thing quiet, thanks to my husband’s penchant for face book and twitter, it felt like the whole world knew about what we were up to. I was amazed at the wishes that friends from across the world sent. Everyone wanted us to cheer on their behalf and ensure Indian won. When I read the message from my Dad that he wished that we would bring India luck, I silently thought, not if I am anywhere in the stadium. I decided I would just keep my eyes closed. I would not look at what was happening on the pitch and then, we might just have a snowball’s chance in hell to win. (Now I know where Sidhu gets this from J).
With my new found resolve, we lined up outside Wankhede and realized we would have to stand out there for almost 2 hours to get inside. The line was so long that we were standing on the promenade of Marine Drive, almost 2 kilometers away trying to get in. The site that greeted me was bus loads of supporters alighting on these majestic promenade, some with face painted, some dressed in the tri color and some wrapped in the National Flag, all chanting “Indiaaaaaa, Indiaaaaaaa”. On one side I saw 2 elderly gentlemen supported by their teenaged daughters raring to enter the stadium. I overheard one of the girls tell her father “It is a historic day. I am holding my country’s flag for the first time and I am so happy”. She was not more than 15 years old but she taught me a lesson with the simple sentence. To her this occasion was not about winning or losing. It was about showing solidarity with a bunch of men who were playing for a cup that had eluded us for decades. It was an occasion to revel in being an Indian irrespective of whether we won or lost. She inspired me enough to want to have my own picture clicked with the national flag. I turned to a gentleman standing on one side with his friend and requested him if he could shoot a picture of me with my flag. He shook his unruly mop of curls and said, “Not with that flag. Take mine. I had it with me when India won the T 20 World Championship in London. It will be lucky for you.” That felt like an omen to me. I felt that somewhere God had understood my fears and sent a bout of good luck to cancel my own bad luck. I took the picture with his flag and reluctantly parted with the lucky flag.
I always believed that Indians were a taciturn bunch. But that day it felt like the hundreds of people with whom we were jostling to get into the stadium were long lost friends. I heard free flowing conversation of what the batting line up should be, why Sreesanth was playing at all, what should we do if we lose the toss. I also heard some good hearted banter that a few Indians were having with the handful of Srilankan supporters in the crowd. The sense of excitement for a good match was palpable and then the floodgates opened and we all rushed in.
We were late and had already missed the toss. Owing to my new bout of nationalism, I did not want to miss the national anthem. As I bounded up the steps, with my perplexed husband who did not know what had happened to change my aversion to such boundless enthusiasm huffing behind me to catch up, I caught my first few glimpses of the stadium through the small, open gateways on each floor. The sun was shining brightly and I could see the patches of the green grass and stands filled with people and several Indian flags flying high. But when I finally broke through the final floor and entered the stand where our seats were, I was hit by a site so majestic, I could only stand and gape. Around me were 35,000 excited, cheering Indians surrounding a ground so green that one could not see even a speck of the brown earth under it. The sunlight bounced off the little droplets of water that shone on the grass and shone every little nook of the ground, brightening not just the earth it fell on but the faces of all the cheering audience around. Just when I thought nothing could beat this site, both the teams walked onto the crown to loud cheers in preparation for the National Anthem.
I felt proud of my city, when every soul on the ground irrespective of whether they were from India, Srilanka or from a totally different nationality (I also saw a few South Africans supporting India in the crowd, no doubt showing solidarity with Gary Kirsten, our South African coach) stood in respect for the Srilankan anthem. And then came the Indian anthem. As I heard the melodious words written by Tagore so many years back, break through the public address system, I saw a crowd 35,000 strong join their voices to the melody. It was a moment after such a long time that made me proud to be an Indian, standing in my country, lending my voice to an anthem that fills our heart with a deep love and gratitude. By the time we finished, I had goose bumps on my skin and tears in my eyes. And then the game to beat all other games began.