Saturday, April 2, 2011

Of Defiance and Fairytales: 2011 ICC Cricket World Cup

"Sachin Tendulkar has carried Indian cricket on his shoulders for 21 years. So it was fitting that we carried him on our shoulders after this win…"
Virat Kohli

Unlike my fellow billion plus countrymen I got my perfect fairytale ending to the 2011 cricket World cup. My fairytale was not contingent on the Little Master getting his 100th International century, but on MS Dhoni rightfully taking the mantle from Sachin Tendulkar as India’s next great cricketer to enter the pantheons of cricket history. I am sure if you ask Tendulkar, he will say that this personal milestone is inconsequential and pales in significance to his being able to finally hold the only trophy he has coveted but did not have on his mantle or on his twenty-one year long list of superlative achievements.

In many ways this was the perfect World cup, not just because India won on home soil or that it was the first for a host nation to ever accomplish this feat. It was just a perfect world cup all around in my view. Even the losing teams were able to walk away with their heads held high. First, India vanquished the last title holders, Australia, in the quarter-finals. One did not feel bad for this team in so much as one felt sad for the way his countrymen had started to treat the Captain, Ricky Ponting. It was as if Australia had forgotten how many years they have dominated every form of the game under him, including winning 3 consecutive World cup trophies. However, Ponting scored the century of his life to single-handedly lift his team out of trouble and save the reigning World champions the ignominy of a humiliating defeat. So while Australia exited the tournament, being vanquished by the favourite, Ponting got to silence his critics and walk away with the last laugh, head held high.

Next India faced Pakistan, the black horse of this cup. The match was billed the “match of all matches” based on rivalry between these two teams and animosity between these nuclear armed nations, who have fought 3 wars. Pakistani fans are as passionate and jingoistic about their cricket as Indian fans. The backlash for players can be as severe as it is in India, from the press and fans. So it is pretty amazing to me that even though they lost to India in the semi-final, the Pakistan team managed to win the respect of every Indian.  Not just because of the heart and passion with which they played, but more so due to the actions of their captain, Shahid Afridi, who demonstrated on the greatest stage in the world that he is a true sportsman, a gentleman, a spirited opponent, a leader and great ambassador for the sport. I think his actions in defeat even managed to placate otherwise heartbroken Pakistani fans, many of who turned around and started to root for India in the final. Perhaps, it also had something to do with the olive branch India’s Prime Minster offered to his Pakistani counterpart by inviting him to watch the match, in what would be their first meeting and thaw in relations since the Bombay terror attacks on 26/11 derailed peace talks. At the end of the day all of us off the field, especially our leaders, need to remember that the most important thing about this sporting rivalry is not the violent days of partition, the extremist elements that support terrorism, the wars we have fought over territory or the other things that divide us but the fact there are many more things that unite our nations and people’s – much like our passion and fervor for cricket.

This brings us to April 2011. Another day that will no doubt now be etched in the same spot reserved in all Indian memories as 1983 was. The last time India won the World cup by shocking the world and beating the mighty West Indies. In fact, 1983 is so deeply imprinted in the nation’s memory that survey-takers in the 2011 Census were told to ask people who couldn't provide a birth date whether they were born before or after that last World Cup victory! So it was again today but this time India were the favorites’ from the start, perhaps a much greater burden to carry than the team in 1983 that was not even expected to make it past the qualifying rounds. A team that has been touted as the greatest in a few generations of Indian cricket, if not ever. A team that has already won the 20/20 World cup and reached no. 1 in the ICC rankings in test cricket by dominating the last few years. They were no. 2 in ODI rankings behind Australia coming into this World cup and had only one thing left to prove. In the end, this fairytale victory is a testament to Gary Kirsten who has coached India for the last four years and this was his last day. He has turned the potential we Indians have always said our teams have on paper and brought that to life in the field, in every department. It is equally a validation of Mahindra Singh Dhoni's fearless leadership. If Kirsten has helped the Indian squad realise their on-field potential, then it is Captain Cool who has made them believe in themselves in a way I have never seen with any Indian side before. Dhoni never looks rattled on the field, no matter how dire the situation. He never loses his cool and he never panics. This has clearly rubbed off on the boys, who seem to take the lead from Dhoni’s fearless and selfless leadership and his never say die attitude. In fact, it is the only ingredient I felt was missing for years from numerous great Indian sides. It was the same X factor that the Aussies had; that self-belief and attitude that a match is never lost, over or won until the last ball has been bowled.

We should spare a thought for the Sri Lankans, who were also looking for a fairytale send-off for one of the greatest spin bowlers the game has ever seen. Sadly, Murali’s farewell on the International stage was both wicketless and as part of the runner up team. However, it is also true that he is the only member who was part of Sri Lanka’s 1996 World cup winning squad that became the first team in history to bat second and still win, defeating the team that would dominate world cricket for the next decade; Australia. Murali got his send-off and honors in his home ground in Sri Lanka after they dispatched England with a 10 wicket annihilation. The team performed brilliantly and carried themselves with great √©lan in this World cup and was after all the underdogs. Again Sangakkara and his lads can walk away with their heads held high and proud of the fact that they are a young team with tremendous potential.

So I believe we all got our fairytale today in a number of different ways. Kirsten leaves with the knowledge that he shepherded his herd to the greatest triumph any coach can. Tendulkar can retire as the greatest cricketer ever, along with Sir Donald Bradman, and hold every record in the game until he dies, or much after. And Dhoni demonstrated today, to his many critics, that fearless leadership involves making decisions, some that turn out to be correct and some that go horribly wrong; that if one has the courage of one’s convictions, steely resolve, a never say die attitude and the coolness that would turn a cucumber green with envy, then it is possible to dream really big, carry the burden of 1.2 billion people on your shoulders and deliver…Jai Hind!

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