The images will stay with us forever. The Indian cricket team holding the CB Tri-Series Trophy aloft, while being showered with confetti and champagne. The players doing a victory lap, holding the Indian flag high as they did delirious jigs all around the park. Sachin Tendulkar hoisted on the shoulders of Virender Sehwag and Munaf Patel; Harbhajan Singh thumping his chest; S. Sreesanth shouting ‘Bharat Mata ki jai!’; Yuvraj Singh clambering on to Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s back in high excitement.
A highly acrimonious if keenly contested tour was over and India had won the final honours. Dhoni and his boys had defeated the much vaunted Australians in their own backyard. Two wins on a trot and the trophy was ours as was the glory. We had vanquished the world champions in a dream run.
But as the ecstatic players clustered around the glittering prize, it was clear that the Great Indian Dream was the game of cricket itself. And those who dared to dream it would have their lives transformed in the blink of an eye.
Take the find of this tour, Ishant Sharma, for instance. The lanky 19-year-old fast bowler, the son of an air-conditioner dealer in West Delhi, was a relative unknown when he landed in Australia. But getting Ricky Ponting out in successive innings and clocking the fastest ball ever bowled by an Indian bowler meant that he went for the fabulous sum of Rs 3.7 crore in the recent IPL auction.
He’s not the only one to go from middle-class obscurity to fame and fortune. The other big star to emerge from the Australia tour was Praveen Kumar, the Man of the Match in the second final. Born to a family of wrestlers in Meerut, his policeman father encouraged him to get a 9-to-5 job. But Praveen’s heart was in cricket and he followed it to find himself the latest pin-up boy of the nation.
Other examples abound in the new-look Indian cricket team led by captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni, the archetypal small-town boy who dreamed big. Irfan Pathan grew up playing cricket in the bylanes of Baroda, where his father is the muezzin of a mosque. Munaf Patel’s father comes from a family of cotton farmers in Bharuch who could not even watch him make his India debut as they did not own a television set.
The days when big centres like Bombay, Delhi and Bangalore dominated the cricket scene are over. Now small town boys like R.P. Singh (from Rae Bareli) and Suresh Raina (who moved from Ghaziabad to Lucknow to attend the Sports College in the city because of his passion for the game) are the new faces of Indian cricket.
In many ways, cricket has become the fastest route to social mobility. Virender Sehwag, who had to change two buses to get to cricket practice at the Kotla from his home in Najafgarh, where his father traded in seeds and grains, is now the toast of Delhi high society. Yuvraj Singh and Dhoni share the stage with Shah Rukh at events, with King Khan even teaching them a few good dance moves. Harbhajan Singh, who initially couldn’t follow what was said in team meetings because he didn’t understand English, can now hold his own against the combined might of the Australian media.
In fact, cricketers who grew up speaking English are a minority in the new-look Indian team. Gautam Gambhir and Yuvraj Singh are the only ones who come to mind apart from South Indians like Robin Utthapa, Sreesanth and Dinesh Karthik. But what they lack in linguistic facility, they more than make up in cricketing skills and the ability to grab every opportunity that comes their way and make it count.
There was a time when movies were seen as the dream route to success. When boys from small towns with big ambitions would arrive in Bombay, rough it out on the streets, eat one meal a day and dream of stardom. And as Dharmendra, Sunil Dutt, and later, Amitabh Bachchan proved, it could be done. You could come from nowhere and become a hero. But now that Bollywood is overrun by star sons and daughters, outsiders don’t have much of a chance of breaking into what has become a family business.
That’s why cricket has become the great leveller of our times. This is one area where it really doesn't matter where you were born or who your father is. If you’re good at what you do, you will make it; if you’re not, you won’t. Abhishek Bachchan may be forgiven 17 flops because he is Amitabh's son. But it took just one unsuccessful tour for Rohan, Sunil Gavaskar’s son, to be dropped from Indian ODI squad.
And perhaps that explains best why cricket is the game of choice for the new resurgent India where it’s not important where you come from. What matters is where you want to go.
Seema Goswami is an author and columnist. She writes the column, Spectator, for Brunch every Sunday.