The 2nd of April, 2011 will remain a landmark date, not only in the history of Indian Cricket but also in the history of the nation for time immemorial. To merely say that ‘Cricket is not just a game in India’ is grossly understating the impact that this sport can have on the public sentiment. That glorious day will forever be etched in the memory of every Indian Cricket fan, for the per capita joy it brought was unparalleled in recent history. Throughout the one and a half month tournament, even living under a rock wouldn’t have saved one from its buzz. The World Cup is the pinnacle of the sport and a home World Cup just took things a notch higher.
Not since 1983 had India lifted a World Cup and never before had the Indian Cricket Team gone into the tournament as favorites. Yes, the wait had been 28 long years, most of India’s population was under 30 at the time and that meant that a large number of fans weren’t alive to see that magical moment of Kapil Dev lifting the Prudential World Cup at the Lord’s balcony, 28 summers ago. Last time India won the prestigious tournament, Indira Gandhi was still India’s Prime Minister, License Permit Raj was still prevalent, Amitabh Bachchan’s Coolie had just released and Kishore Kumar’s ‘Neele Neele Ambar Par’ was the number 1 track. In other words, the wait had been long and after a heartbreaking Eden Garden’s semi-final loss in 1996 and getting blown away by a much better Australian team in the 2003 World Cup final, the nation was desperate to cross the line in 2011.
One man was probably more desperate than anyone else, he, by 2011 had already achieved more than any other cricketer in history. Just a year ago at the ‘young’ and ‘tender’ age of 36, Sachin Ramesh Tendulkar had become the first cricketer to score a double hundred in ODI’s and not since the generation of India’s freedom fighters had such a unifying and universally adored Indian come to the fore. He had every record in the book, yet he didn’t have the one thing that had originally inspired him to shun the John McEnroe dream and pick up the bat as a 10-year old in 1983. Geniuses sense things better than mere mortals and a young ‘Sachu McEnroe’ ( A name given by his colony friends due to his love for Tennis & McEnroe in particular and also his curly hair that resembled the Tennis Superstar) had sensed what the 1983 World Cup win meant for the 36-year old democracy. In the build-up to the event in 2011, there wasn’t one member of the Indian squad who hadn’t gone on record to say that they wanted to bring the Cup home for Sachin ‘paaji’. The fact was that on 5 previous attempts after twice becoming the highest-scorer in the event, Tendulkar had failed to win the World Cup and this was going to be his last shot at glory. If it was Sachin’s dream then it had to be India’s dream. ‘Sachin Tendulkar could stop time in India’ is a very famous quote by one of the all-time great cricket writers, Peter Roebuck, but the fact was time was running out and 2011 had to be the year or else it was all over.
India isn’t historically a great sporting nation, but someone rightly said that the ‘British invented an Indian game called Cricket.’ It was no surprise that the Maharajas were the first ones to take up the game. The bowlers had to run in 20 meters and the batsman stood there to hit the ball with 9 fielders being present to chase the leather. This was perfect for Maharajas who invariably were batsman and the bowling and fielding generally was left to the servants. Thus, the game has the feudalistic culture of pre-Independent India to thank for its growth in the country. It has been some journey for the Sport in the sub-continental country from those days to the days of IPL and professionalism, somewhat similar to the journey of India itself.
When in 1991 the Narsimha Rao government decided to open up the economy, India changed and with it, Cricket changed. It was a no-brainer for brand consultants and advertisement Gurus to cast cricketers in advertisements and there is no doubt that the television revolution had a huge role to play in making Brand Tendulkar, much like the social media revolution has helped shape Brand Kohli. BCCI suddenly dominated the revenues of the game and thus called the shots. This was a young India and confident India where the likes of Harbhajan and Virat Kohli didn’t mind ‘giving it back to the opposition.’ Therefore, unlike the 1983 World Cup where the odds for India to win the cup were similar to that of Leicester City winning the English Premier League; India went into the tournament with the pressure of expectations. Historically, very few teams have worn that tag well and the fact that no team had won a World Cup at home was proof of that. One anecdote narrated by senior journalist and author, Rajdeep Sardesai best describes the mood of the nation at the time. The famous Anna Hazare and Arvind Kejriwal led India Against Corruption’s movement at Jantar Mantar that basically got lakhs of ordinary citizens to come out on the street was initially supposed to be held in March 2011, but was postponed by a month and held in April 2011 because of the fear of no crowds coming out due to the World Cup. So basically that’s India and its relation with cricket in a nutshell. A couple of days after the largest spontaneous mass celebration in human history, (Post winning the World Cup) the countrymen were out to show how aggrieved they were with the prevalent corruption in the country. They didn’t care about it when the cricket was on, it’s almost like the game is a balm to all day to day struggles of the common man.
India started the World Cup campaign with a big bang, taking down Bangladesh comprehensively and thus completed the revenge of the shock loss to the less fancied neighbors in 2007. Post that game India looked a bit rusty, tying the game with England and losing to South Africa. They weren’t at their best even against minnows Ireland but did enough to cross the line and make it to the quarter-finals. The quarter-finals, purely in terms of the quality of opposition was the toughest match of the tournament. The Australians under Ricky Ponting were a team with an elite mentality and always rose to the occasion in big games. India with the help of Yuvraj and Raina completed a tricky chase and thus took a massive step towards the achievement of the dream. Semi-finals, purely in terms of pressure was the biggest game of the tournament and to this date remains one of the most viewed sporting events in history. It was India vs Pakistan in Mohali and in attendance were high profile dignitaries including the Prime Ministers of both countries. India continued the trend of beating their arch-rivals in World Cups and had Sri Lanka waiting for them at Wankhede on 2nd April 2011.
This was it, Tendulkar’s home ground, the World Cup final, two host nations in the final, the script couldn’t have been better. After a mild controversy at the toss, there was a re-toss and Kumar Sangakkara got it right on the second attempt. Sri Lanka opted to bat first and that is generally a huge advantage in the finals. Zaheer Khan, who started the 2003 World Cup final with an abysmal over and gave the early advantage to the Aussies, this time started with 3 straight maidens and snatched the momentum India’s way. Mahela Jayawardene went on to make an all-time classic hundred and helped Sri Lanka make a challenging total of 274. India had to start well to cross the line, but unfortunately, they started the chase poorly. Sehwag out LBW in the first over and after hitting a couple of characteristically pleasing shots, the big fish fell to Malinga. When Tendulkar walked back to the pavilion the silence was deafening, had a pin dropped in the choc-a-block stadium, the sound would have been as clear as the sound of a Sony LED TV. In the 1996 semi-final against the same opposition, the Master’s wicket had meant the end of the game, but this was a different India and in walked a young Virat Kohli to join his Delhi teammate, Gautam Gambhir. Could there be a more passing-of-baton moment in the history of all sport, probably not. The Delhi duo struck a crucial partnership and acted like morphine to help calm the nerves of the crowd.
When Virat Kohli got out at the team total of 114, everyone expected the player of the tournament, Yuvraj Singh to walk in, but in came India’s talisman captain MS Dhoni. It turned out to be a tactical masterstroke as the left-hand and right-hand combination made it hard for the Lankan spinners to settle down. Both players played the innings of their lives and scored 90’s. Gambhir played one on to the stumps at 97 and missed a well-deserved century. MSD wasn’t going to throw it away and finished proceedings fittingly with a humungous six towards long-on. Ravi Shastri’s voice will always reverberate and remain etched in every Indian fan’s memory as Dhoni hit the shot. “Dhoni finishes off in style. A magnificent strike into the crowd! India lift the World Cup after 28 years!”. These words will be a part of Indian folklore forever and with that, the dream was fulfilled. It was surreal, one had to pinch themselves, it was euphoria, it was nirvana, it was a feeling better than any ‘Beatles’ song, it was a more goosebumpy moment than any live Coldplay concert could ever evoke.
Sachin Tendulkar and the mild-mannered coach Gary Kirsten were lifted on the shoulders of young members of the team and there were more tears that rolled out during the victory lap than while watching Will Smith’s ‘Pursuit of Happyness’. It was all good though, these were tears of joy and the countrymen weren’t far behind. The public took to the streets, be it India Gate in Delhi or Gateway of India in Mumbai and they celebrated like there was no tomorrow. Yours truly was also one of the celebrators at India Gate and the scenes there were unseen and unbelievable, One could see, the policeman dancing on car rooftops and that day India’s only religion, only cast, only gender, the only creed was Cricket. Apart from the army, there is no singular force that gives us Indians the feeling of oneness like this great sport. Yes at the end of the day it’s just a sport, but is it though?