Growing up with the World Cup

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With the premier ODI world tournament looming over the horizon, this may be a good time to recapitulate the relationship we as individuals and cricket tragics have built with it over the years.

For a ’90s kid, the sheer excitement and hype that surrounded the India vs Pakistan rivalry served as an infectious spark to developing a lasting passion for cricket. | V.V. Krishnan

Personally, I have never really enjoyed weddings. I have, of course, grudgingly attended many hoping to find some reason to stay there a few hours. Almost always, I have returned vowing never to attend another. The monotony at south-Indian weddings is especially irritating — it is perhaps comparable to the dullness of a full day’s play on a placid subcontinent track. However, there is one reason why I continue to attend these — no, it is not the food. It is the sheer pleasure that I derive from having cricket conversations with folks who grew up watching the game through the 1950s to the 1980s. Yes, they may be biased in their opinions but then who isn’t? Their memory may be distorted but the narrative is still wonderful. When you spend enough time with one such cricket tragic, you can almost visualise how his views of the game changed as he grew older. From the innocent little boy who could tolerate no insult to the hero he idolised to the old cynic who detests everything the modern game brings, he has gone through numerous phases that he passionately recalls by citing loads of “I was there” and “I watched” moments. I have some way to go before I attain the “talkative Tam Brahm uncle” status but I can already see a pattern emerging. And what better way to observe how I have ‘grown up’ than to relive my memories of the World Cup. The game has changed significantly since the day I first watched a World Cup. I suppose I have, too. Let us go back to the start of the innings.

I am sure many of you were born in 1983, India’s World Cup glory year. Well, technically, I wasn’t born yet when India won. Nestled comfortably in my mom’s womb, I perhaps heard my parents listen to some commentary, talk some cricket and lapped it up, à la Abhimanyu. The next eight years passed by rather peacefully and my parents could be forgiven for believing that their son was going to be this perfectly well-behaved, studious kid with a passing interest in sports. By the time the 1992 tournament came along, I had just about begun reading about the game and started my Sportstar collection. Most of my memory from that edition is sketchy except that I was watching most of the matches with a patched-up nose that had taken a severe beating as I rammed into a basketball pole in the school ground while unsuccessfully trying to chase down a friend who seemed to get away from me like the ball does from fielders on outfields these days. I held on to my nose courageously and watched a teacher faint when she got one look at my bloody face. This, however, meant I had at least a week or ten days at home and I ended up watching India vs Pakistan over the ridge of my stitched-up nose. Although I was old enough then to know what was happening, I was too young to understand the value of what I was watching. The ’92 edition ended and my transformation into the cricket crazy version began.

The ’96 World Cup was seminal in more ways than one. It cemented India’s position as the global leader, especially when it came to its influence on the game’s commercials. The marketing and advertising before the tournament were unprecedented and for a high-school kid falling in love with the game, this was addictive. February-March was not exactly the best time to watch cricket all day given it was exam season. Day games were especially challenging to follow but a few of us managed to smuggle the special yellow-colored radio sets that had been launched just before the tournament. The commentary continued uninterrupted in the last benches and we sneaked out for a few minutes whenever we could to catch the action in the TV room. March 9 was also the date we moved to a new house, but this was not as important as India vs Pakistan. Unable to deal with my continuous pressure, my parents ensured that the cable TV was up and running even before we moved. On that unforgettable day, we settled down to watch the full game before unpacking. Funnily enough, I was not really an India fan and was quite disappointed when Pakistan messed up the contest after the excellent start to their chase.

I still laugh when I recall the Prasad-Sohail episode. My dad, who had stepped away to grab some water, missed Sohail’s part of the sledge but returned just in time to see Prasad hurling obscenities. He decided right then that Prasad was not the sort of cricketer one should aspire to be. As the tournament wore on, my parents grew increasingly worried about how I would fare in my exams. I couldn’t really care less about exams in that phase. West Indies had turned around their fortunes after the shock loss to Kenya and had stunned South Africa, the best team in the tournament until then. The first semi final between India and Sri Lanka ended in chaotic scenes at Eden Gardens with the match being awarded to Sri Lanka after the crowd ran riot. Again, this did not affect me much but what happened in the second semi-final certainly did. West Indies dominated the game in Mohali for all but the last few overs during which a combination of reckless batting, terrible umpiring, and not to mention, BC Cooray’s head, played a role in the terrible loss. I could not hold back my tears. My parents, who initially thought some exam was the cause for my dejected state, were unable to fathom how I had turned out like this. Little did they know this was just the beginning.

 

My first World Cup game itself was spectacular. At the end of a fascinating contest, the four of us stood transfixed, staring at the giant screen in the ground where the scores read India — 338, England — 338, game tied! Incredibly, this moment was captured in an official match photograph too although one can’t quite see our astonished faces.

 

Thankfully for my parents (and me), the 1999 World Cup started well after my 10th-standard board exams. After the 1996 World Cup had put paid to my chances of topping the class in the 7th grade (yes, I know I was a nerd!), my parents feared if cricket would mess things up again. However, this was a much more mature version of the cricket fan who could comfortably balance cricket-viewing with exam-preparation. Initial threats to cancel the cable subscription were soon nullified not by a demonstration of my academic excellence but by my threat to walk away from studies. Perhaps the stand-out memory from the 1999 tournament is watching the final few overs of the classic Edgbaston semi-final standing without yielding to the many calls of Nature (yes, I am superstitious too!) and hoping that Australia would sneak home. The last over was frighteningly thrilling and my parents and neighbours must have surely been terrified when I let out a deafening roar when Allan Donald was run out. Clearly, much to my parents’ annoyance, maturity and decorum took a back seat as soon as a big match was on. Not much changed through the next tournament in 2003 including Australia’s dominance. Supporting West Indies was not fun anymore, but I still tried. However, I certainly didn’t mind the total dominance of the boys from Down Under. In that one-sided final, I recall starting off watching the game at home with 15 friends only to find the attendance dwindling rather rapidly, finally leaving only me watching the second innings after Tendulkar’s dismissal. On a personal front, the next few years were filled with changes, mostly positive.

I was too young to be given a chance to watch a match live in the stadium when the Cup was held in India in 1996. However, in 2007, I was in the United States, pursuing my Master’s. My friend, Karthik suggested that we make plans to watch some matches in the Caribbean. Endlessly fascinated by the history of Caribbean cricket, I knew this was a no-brainer. In a frenzied three-hour session, we booked the match tickets as well as the flights, hotels and Visa application for good measure. We had planned to watch India-Pakistan and Australia-Pakistan in Barbados while secretly hoping to add an inter-island cruise to the plan. During Spring Break, I was on a travel spree covering Miami, New York and Dallas. A friend who heard about my plans said he was jealous and hoped my trip wouldn’t happen. I laughed it off. To my horror, our plans suffered a serious blow when India and Pakistan lost to rank minnows Bangladesh and Ireland respectively. With our hopes hanging on a slim thread, we, the eternal optimists, still believed that India could beat Sri Lanka and make it to the next round. Our prayers and backup plans (hotel bookings in Antigua) were crushed as India slumped to another defeat, leading to their elimination. With Karthik quite certain that he was not going to travel to the Caribbean for Bangladesh-Ireland, we cancelled the plans and lost a sizeable amount in the process. While I did follow the rest of the tournament, the experience was mostly tinged with disappointment and a feeling of “if only…”. Was I ever going to watch a World Cup game live? Only if I was going to be in India in 2011. That didn’t seem possible in 2007 but the Recession and lack of an H1-B Visa sponsorship made this a reality by the beginning of 2009.

I knew I had to do something about my craze for the game. While I certainly didn’t have the batting or bowling skills to press for selection in any half-decent team, I had a penchant for cricket statistics and could (mostly) churn out a readable piece. Persistence, luck, and support from the ones who mattered meant that I was writing for Cricinfo starting April 2010. While this was certainly a dream come true, it was also a fantastic opportunity to watch World Cup games live at the stadium. This time, the cricketing gods smiled and decided to help out. With Eden Gardens not ready in time, the marquee India-England clash was moved to Bangalore. As expected, getting tickets was going to be near impossible but we were ready. With expectations high, four poor souls (including yours truly) decided to go sleep overnight outside the Chinnaswamy stadium so that we could be first in line when the KSCA would begin issuing tickets the next morning. The police, however, had other ideas. The crowd was asked to leave and come back at 4 a.m. Unhappy, but left with no choice, we made our way to the café at the Chancery hotel on Lavelle road. When we returned at 3.30 a.m, we were stunned to see thousands queued up. From pole position in the queue, we were now in a fairly precarious state. Things turned from bad to worse as some skirmishes in the crowd led to a lathi charge. I rushed back to the office terribly disappointed at how things had transpired. My account found its way into a news write-up which embarrassed the Karnataka State Cricket Association. To make up for their shoddy arrangements, they had decided to release a few thousand tickets online a little later. Again, I needed some luck and this time, the information came to me quickly through my Cricinfo colleagues. I had logged on and booked the four tickets in a flash, and just as quickly, all the tickets were sold out. My first World Cup game itself was spectacular. At the end of a fascinating contest, the four of us stood transfixed, staring at the giant screen in the ground where the scores read India — 338, England — 338, game tied! Incredibly, this moment was captured in an official match photograph too although one can’t quite see our astonished faces. We watched the rest of the games, including the India-Australia quarter-final and the India-Pakistan semi-final as a large group. After MS Dhoni hit the mother of all sixes to seal the remarkable triumph at the Wankhede, I recall listening to dad’s incredible whistle and wondering how the game has an amazing knack of transporting one back in time. Could World Cups get any more eventful? Judging by what happened during the 2015 tournament, certainly!

In between 2011 and 2015, I had gone on to complete my MBA and had begun working as a consultant. While the job was infinitely more boring than my time at Cricinfo, I held on since I needed the money to pay back my loans. In parallel, my mom had decided that it was about time I took the next step (read: get married). While she was quite open to my options if I had one, she quickly realised that my chances on that front were worse than my chances of winning Wimbledon. With time running out (according to my mom, at least), I was forced to create profiles on multiple websites. As I sat watching India-South Africa on February 22, I was in no mood to be distracted. So, when some details were read out to me from this girl’s profile, my brain perhaps registered about 20% but I said yes, let us go ahead. I sent a message that most girls would have perhaps never responded to but the exceptionally sweet one, soon to be my wife, was thankfully different. She soon got a glimpse of the cricket tragic in me when I invited her home for a couple of match screenings, including the final. Given how I was (and am) when it comes to cricket, my wife deserves some serious plaudits for putting up.

With the 2019 edition just a few weeks away, I wonder if I will be a very different person this time around. A lot has changed since the last tournament. I have been married four years now and am in a fairly busy job. History, however, suggests otherwise. While my current personality is poles apart from that of the little boy falling in love with the game for the first time, the ‘cricket tragic’ element is virtually indistinguishable after all these years. Perhaps, this is what I saw and relished during those conversations at the otherwise boring weddings.

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