Saturday, April 2, 2011

We are the champions, my friends!

India, won the World Cup! We actually did it. One feels blessed to have seen this huge, monumental achievement by the Indian Cricket team.

This is a long long post, but I write this today on my blog, simply because somewhere down the line, a dream of mine has been fulfilled by a team which has my favorite cricketer as its batting mainstay and today the country as a whole can celebrate a dream come true.

My memory of cricket started with the Hero Cup match where Sachin Tendulkar bowled the over of his life to defend 6 runs against South Africa, but those were hazy memories, my real memories started from the 1996 Cricket World Cup, the India Pakistan Q/F match is etched in my memory, Ajay Jadeja hammering the hell out of Waqar Younis and Venkatesh Prasad showing Amir Sohail his place after the batsman lost his mind and gave TV channels, footage, which will embarrass his great grand children in the future.

But then I remember the 1996 World Cup Semi Final, against Sri Lanka. A brilliant fifty by Sachin and then the disaster that followed. I came very close to crying that night. I was too small to wonder, when India would get a chance to win the World Cup.

Post the 1996 World Cup, another major memory is of the 1998 Sharjah tournament. I remember being in Nainital on my summer vacation, watching Sachin Tendulkar create magical innings in two consecutive matches. He batted like a man possessed. He produced two of the finest innings one can witness. It was then that I became a life long fan of Sachin Tendulkar.

Then came the 1999 World Cup. It was one of the most lack luster World Cup performances by one of the most lack luster Indian teams. A team which had mostly mediocre players and a few budding greats like Saurav Ganguly and Rahul Dravid. Barring the victory against Sri Lanka and Pakistan, there was nothing much to talk about.

Then came the 2003 World Cup, India played some exceptional games, especially the one against Pakistan. One man stood out in the run chase, Sachin Tendulkar. He played the kind of innings, the greatness of which, cannot be valued in runs or the strike rate. Anyone who saw that match live, would know that the tag"Master Blaster" was owned by Sachin Tendulkar. That team was one of the strongest teams that India had in a long time.

Javagal Srinath was asked by Saurav Ganguly to come out of retirement for that World Cup and he did a fabulous job. I sincerely felt that India made a huge mistake by leaving out Anil Kumble from the 11 for the World Cup final. The bowling let us down that day, Sachin Tendulkar was dismissed very early and the run chase was just not on. Back then, it was already 4 World Cups for Sachin, the 2003 team was pretty strong, we just could not beat Australia.

Then came the 2007 World Cup, India went in with a team that promised a lot, but we got knocked out in the league stages itself. It was a shattering experience for Indian cricket fans. There is this footage of Sachin, Rahul and Anil Kumble; watching the proceedings; stunned as India collapsed and exited the World Cup!

What followed was carnage. People calling for Sachin Tendulkar's retirement. Ian Chappel famously wrote that "If Tendulkar had found an honest mirror three years ago and asked the question; "Mirror, mirror on the wall who is the best batsman of all?" It would've answered; "Brian Charles Lara." If he asked that same mirror right now; "Mirror, mirror on the wall should I retire?" The answer would be; "Yes."

As a Sachin Tendulkar fan and a supporter of the Indian Cricket team, I could not believe the things that people were saying at that time. Saurav Ganguly during that time said in an interview, when asked what he feels when people say that Sachin should retire he said "Log paagal ho gaye hain!" He actually said that.

Then came the turnaround of the decade, Sachin Tendulkar would go on to outscore all his contemporaries in terms of runs and centuries, the number of matches that India went onto win was insane. The ODI series in Australia being a fine example. It was our first ever ODI series win in Australia, one man scored a Century and a brilliant 90 odd in back to back finals. It was Sachin Tendulkar.

In 2010, the most unbelievable thing happened on a very normal February afternoon. The first ever double century in ODI men's cricket was scored, by, Sachin Tendulkar. The ardent fans, who had never doubted Sachin Tendulkar's greatness were vindicated. But even then, with 14 months to go, there was talk of whether he would retire without a World Cup medal in his cabinet.

It was a tough call, no host country had ever won a World Cup. The Indian bowling line up was not rated very highly, barring a phenomenally improved and brilliant Zaheer Khan and the not-in-the-best-of-form Harbhajan Singh.

India made it through the league stages, with more questions than answers, some disastrous collapses against England and South Africa, cost the team a win in both games. Zaheer's brilliance against England, resulted in a tie and his heroics against South Africa did not save the game, but gave a lot of hope to his fans for the remaining games. Another thing in common in both games was that one man had scored brilliant centuries, Sachin Tendulkar. In many ways, Zaheer was the bowling spear head and Sachin, nearing 38 years of age, was still our batting main stay.

Then came the most amazing 3 matches that India has played. The Quarter Final, the Semi Final and the Final of the 2011 World Cup. India on the back of some great bowling and significant batting contributions from the famed Indian batting line up, overcame the Australians. Ricky Ponting's century went in vain.
The win against Australia resulted in an epic Semi Final, India versus Pakistan. India had a record of winning all World Cup matches against Pakistan, one man was involved in all those games, Sachin Tendulkar. That man was dropped 4 times and survived the closest LBW review you will ever see followed by an extremely close stumping chance to score 85 runs, which turned out to be the highest score in that match. One would wonder if the good karma Sachin earned by walking in the previous games had caused so many lives to be granted to him in a semi final innings. India overcame a brilliant 5 wicket haul by Wahab Riaz to post a fighting total to defend. As was the case in all the past World Cup games between India and Pakistan, India won.
Shahid Afridi was extremely gracious and warm in his presentation ceremony talk. It was a nice touch to a closely contested game.

There was a lot of irritating talk of match fixing etc after the India Pakistan game. The lives given to Sachin and then Misbah's slow scoring rate during the run chase etc.

But all that talk was put to rest during the final of the World Cup, between India and Sri Lanka. People talked about Sachin's 100th International century. I worried about the result. Memories of 1996 haunted most of the fans of my generation.

What followed was one of the best World Cup finals ever. Sri Lanka scored 274 and India needed to chase down 275 to lift the World Cup at home. Only 2 times out of 9 had a team won the World Cup chasing. Never had a host team won on home soil. Sehwag got out without a run on the scoreboard. Hopes of millions sunk. Then came a flurry of runs from the blade of Sachin Tendulkar, hopes started to rise. Those hopes were short-lived, he made a mistake and got caught behind. At 31 for 2, there were very few who can claim not to have had a passing thought of a nightmarish situation, where India folded up for less than 150.

Then came some rebuilding by Gambhir and Kohli, just when things looked like they were settling, Kohli fell. Such was his disappointment that the man did not remove his pads and stood in the player's balcony for the remainder of the match, whether it was out of superstition or whatever the reason was, it showed how crucial victory was for even a member of the team, whose part in the game was effectively over.

Then came, Mahendra Singh Dhoni. I will be honest, I always had some issues with MSD. I felt that the man was simply lucky and got more than his due. I also was mad at him because Chennai Super Kings beat Mumbai Indians in the IPL final. But I sincerely swear, I have not seen a more commanding and critical knock by any captain in my lifetime than the one played by MSD. And man, if you are reading this by some miracle. I apologize for every thought in which I wrongly criticized you. You are truly a legendary captain and an all time great player. The man basically came in with a look on his face that personified determination. He looked more determined to win the World Cup, than he did during the T20 final or the IPL final, both of which he won.

There was a moment in the game, where someone commented that the game was basically boiling down to a face off between two wicket keeper captains. The big difference was the determination. MSD fought like a man who would wrench victory from fate's grip. Just by looking at him, one could sense that India would go onto win. In the course of an hour and a bit, he played an extra ordinary innings under pressure to eventually give India a comfortable victory in the World Cup final.

There was no swan-song for Murali, neither the 100th century for Sachin in a World Cup final. But there was a World Cup medal for him and World Cup for a billion. Against all odds, this team defied history, statistics, Sreesanth's bowling and a host of other challenges to win a World Cup.

Sachin Tendukar, aged nearly 38 in his 21st year of cricket can claim to be a member of a World Cup winning team. The man still ended up as India's highest run scorer in the World Cup. One quote sums up the feelings on an entire generation of Indians -
"Sachin carried the burden of the nation for 21 years. Now it's our turn to carry him!"
- Virat Kohli


This photograph, is one of my favorites. It has two legends, Sachin Tendulkar and Anil Kumble. These two men, held up Indian cricket's flag high, during the darkest periods in the 1990s. Their heroics are worthy of song and one feels privileged to have witnessed the 10 wicket haul by Anil Kumble against Pakistan and the 200* by Sachin Tendulkar against South Africa, two of the most monumental individual achievements by any Indian bowler or batsman.

Kudos to MSD, blessed are we fans to have had the privilege of having a legendary batsman and a legendary captain of the World in the same cricket team.