India lifts the World Cup and this time history was not followed by hysteria. Instead there is a sense of entitlement, a business-as-usual attitude. Could the sense of self-worth and power that comes from victory be fuelling the movement against corruption, asks Suresh Menon. Has the event and the accompanying feel-good factor kickstarted the nation to expect the best in everything?
Quite the remarkable thing about India's World Cup was what came after. For once, history was not followed by hysteria, although all manner of politicians did jump on the bandwagon and announce all manner of awards, from land to cash to unto half the kingdom they do not rule anyway. But that is what we expect from our politicians, and there would have been great disappointment if they didn't seek the limelight thus.
No, what was remarkable was the business-as-usual attitude. The players changed into even more colourful clothing (suggesting that the more colours you wear the lower the grade of cricket, from Tests to one-dayers to T20), and took guard at the IPL, pausing along the way only long enough to shave a head or pay obeisance to assorted gurus.
The fans too took guard at the IPL if you went by one of the many names given to Anna Hazare's movement against corruption. This one, called ‘Indian People's League' was the same demographic as those who cheered India's progress through the World Cup. Although logicians talk about the danger of assuming that ‘B' is caused by ‘A' simply because B follows A, there is something about the timing, the effervescence of the Citizens Against Corruption movement that seemed to suggest it was riding on the feel-good factor generated by the World Cup win.
Recent researches have indicated that the feel-good factor gives the economy a boost; they have also indicated that the effect is negligible. The concept is so attractive that England's 1966 World Cup soccer win was credited with the landslide re-election of Harold Wilson as Prime Minister – although the elections took place three whole months before the soccer final!
To say that Mahendra Singh Dhoni influenced Anna Hazare might be far-fetched. But what cannot be denied is that sporting success makes people feel more optimistic. Germany knew this in 1936 and Argentina when they won the World Cup soccer in 1978. Some sports work better than others in creating this national wellbeing; nothing works like cricket in India.
In another context, the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins said that the springs of sorrow are the same; perhaps so too are the springs of joy. It is possible to imagine the confidence and increased self-worth that comes from a sporting success being translated into a movement against exploitation. The power that comes from victory is the opposite of the powerlessness in the face of government corruption and a system that has to be endured because the alternative is too horrible to contemplate.
Other things have to fall into place too. After all, the Lok Pal Bill is some four decades old, and it might be argued that Kapil Dev's winners of 1983 had the same opportunity to inspire a nation. Let us just say the climate was right, and Dhoni's victory was not unhelpful. We are too close to the event to judge.
This was a tournament that was necessary to restore faith in a World Cup that had floundered in the West Indies four years ago, easily one of the most poorly organised of the 10 editions so far. The average fan struggled to watch a match as much due to the high price of tickets as to the various dos and don'ts he was subjected to. Stands were often empty. In the subcontinent, by contrast, there were healthy crowds even for the minor games, and Bangladesh in particular brought to the grounds a spectacular mix of excitement and sheer energy.
Yet there were complaints from various centres in India that the public – now called ‘civil society', thanks to the anti-corruption movement – was denied access to tickets, thanks to an outmoded system of patronage, the greed of the local politicians and bureaucrats and the corruption among the officials. You either got the tickets early or had to wait till an unshaven, often flag-bearing tout called out his wares thus: “Flag, flag, black, black, flag, black....” The co-operation between the cop and criminal in this endeavour might have been touching in another time and place.
By common consent (not so much among the Asian supporters, though), the 1992 World Cup in Australia and New Zealand is seen as the best held so far. The emerging racism in Australia – pointed out by Imran Khan alone among the players – did embarrass friends in the media, one of whom came up to me in Melbourne and apologised for the boorish behaviour of his countrymen saying, “When we visit the subcontinent you look after us so well; I am sorry we are not large enough to return the hospitality.”
Now 2011 is the new benchmark. It was the best World Cup played, even if the quality of some of the matches wasn't inspiring. An amazing tie in the India-England encounter early on hinted at the possibilities, but in the end both the semifinals were disappointing cricket-wise. Mahela Jayawardene's century – surely the innings of the tournament – raised the tone of the final, but there was little tension once Dhoni took control.
And that final six must count as the iconic moment of the World Cup. Television captured Dhoni in a superb close-up, and the eyes had it. Like great poetry, there were layers of meaning in that expression, and stories that could be written separately about each emotion so nakedly present – the focus, the pride, the sheer joy, the self-confidence, relief at the conclusion, relief at having done it his way and succeeded, and much more. Powerful human emotions, but there was, too, something almost non-human in that look.
Kapil Dev holding up the World Cup in 1983 is one of Indian sport's iconic images. At the other end of the emotional scale is the most telling picture of the 2007 World Cup – India's senior batsmen looking devastated.
There's skipper Rahul Dravid, hand on face covering one eye, possibly wiping away a tear. Sachin Tendulkar sits to his left, hand over mouth, in intense shock. Behind them is Virender Sehwag, face cupped in hand. In each case the eyes tell the story. A combination of disbelief, personal loss, shame, ruin, disillusionment, horror and self-pity.
“I cried then, I cried now, but this time they were tears of joy,” said Tendulkar simply. The sight of one of the great batsmen blubbering at the end of an exhausting tournament suggested just how much it meant in his 22nd year of international cricket. Tendulkar might not have notched up his one hundredth century – the biggest non-event of the World Cup – but that will come with time. This, meanwhile, was his sixth and possibly last chance to get his hands on the trophy, and he had played a significant role in getting India there.
The most rollicking century might have been scored by Ireland's Kevin O'Brien, the most courageous by an Australian captain under siege, Ricky Ponting, the most combative by Andrew Strauss, but the most instructive, even scholarly, was Tendulkar's against England.
Sport is about upsets, it is also about the inevitable coming to pass and leaving fans with the feeling that god's in his heaven and all's right with the world. The two best teams met in the final and the better team won. Pakistan were rewarded for moments of brilliance (which they alternated as usual with moments of sheer panic); no one could begrudge the semifinal berth. Their bowling came together nicely, and if the batting looked weak, there were enough men who came to the rescue. Shahid Afridi whose child-like habit of putting things in his mouth – the cricket ball, his foot – is not very cute. But he still managed to inspire a team and a nation. New Zealand have been in half a dozen semifinals and gone no further. That is becoming a cliché on the same plane as the one about South Africa's habit of choking.
India breathed new life not only to the World Cup which was beginning to look like an exclusive Australian preserve since 1999, they revived the format itself. The 50-over game, threatened by the glitz and money of the T20, was in danger of being forgotten if the World Cup had gone wrong (and, let's face it, if India had not won).
For his runs and wickets, Yuvraj Singh was the Man of the Tournament, but the player with the biggest impact on it was skipper Dhoni. He took the pressure, took the criticism, took the defeat against South Africa, with a maturity and understanding that was other-worldly. He had the weakest bowling combination of all the semifinalists and the weakest fielding side when the tournament began. Yet he moulded the combination into a unit that played above itself.
On spin-friendly wickets, medium pacer Zaheer Khan was the star; after runs had leaked through porous fields in the league, the team suddenly got a grip, and sparkled in the final. Dhoni and coach Gary Kirsten had got the difficult matter of getting the timing right – the team peaked when it mattered.
“I don't mind repeating everything,” said Dhoni when asked about future ambitions. It's not something Anna Hazare might have said, but it is a sentiment his countrymen can identify with.