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The start of an affair

That victory at Lord’s a quarter of a century ago began to irreversibly push cricket from the margins to the centre of our popular culture and national consciousness. Just a game? Oh, no, it isn’t, not any more, writes Soumya Bhattacharya.

india Updated: Jun 24, 2008 21:29 IST
Soumya Bhattacharya

Remember the grins. It’s one of my most memorable images from that heart-lurchingly happy Saturday afternoon from 25 years ago. There he was, with a smile that can’t quite make up its mind about whether to take seriously what was happening, his large hands wrapped around a trophy that no Indian had ever believed he would get his hands on. (And hasn’t since.) Kapil Dev: India’s captain with the 1983 Prudential World Cup. And there they all were, on that glorious London summer’s evening, as the night deepened in India: Kapil’s Devils, world champions.

Every Indian cricket fan (well, every Indian almost) remembers how he watched that magical final on June 25, 1983. It is a sort of Kennedy moment for Indian sport. I watched it on my bed, propped up by pillows, on a new black-and-white TV set in my parents’ south Kolkata home. My mother had allowed the curtains of the bedroom to be lowered so that a couple of dozen boys from the slum down the road could clamber on each other’s shoulders and watch the game. And then it arrived, that moment, after hours of white-knuckle excitement, with the West Indies, the reigning champions, on their knees: Michael Holding swivelled and turned away and Mohinder Amarnath was running down the pitch and there were Kapil and Yashpal Sharma and Sandip Patil all in a mad scramble for the stumps as thousands and thousands poured into the ground and the players weaved in and out, afloat in the sea of people, on their way to the pavilion. I remember this too. Do you? The spray of champagne from the balcony, the droplets catching and refracting the sunlight; and a group of men smiling as they had never smiled before.

How did it happen? I have wondered about this so many times. And why has it never happened again? India was certainly not the most talented side in the 1983 tournament. (And we’ve had several better teams since.) It did not have a decent track record. It had had far less practice in the abbreviated form of the game than teams like, say, England or Australia.

So how did we do it?

We had great players like Kapil and brave, committed ones like Amarnath. They were lucky. They were plucky. (Remember, India beat the world champions not once, but twice.) But more than anything else, everything came together for India that summer in a way that things sometimes do in team sport: when all the units in a side weld together, when one player inspires the others, when the cliché of one for all and all for one becomes a demonstrable reality.

That triumph should not be savoured merely for its own sake; it triggered many things. If I were to somehow pin down the instant when India’s love affair with cricket took a turn for the passionate, overriding, nation- and nationalism-defining obsession that it has become, I’d go back to that final at Lord’s. The World Cup victory changed Indian cricket for ever. It gave us the confidence to believe that we could compete, that we could actually pull off the improbable.

It also made one-day cricket the more popular — and often the more important — version of the game to fans in India. Previously we’d been pathetic at the one-day game. With victory, we discovered that we’d hated limited overs cricket not because we were purists but because we had been so hopeless at it. And it began something that the arrival of satellite TV later made irrevocable: the emergence of the superpower that is Indian cricket today, the shift of the game’s financial nerve centre away from England towards India. The manner in which India has made cricket its very own in these past 25 years — in terms of the money it generates, the frenzy it engenders and its intrusion into every aspect of public life, from pop culture to politics — is a signifier of India’s post-colonial present and new-found poise and confidence.

Like the English language, cricket was a game made popular in India by the British. And like the English language, Indians have over the years appropriated it in a very Indian way. It is not merely that cricket touches more hearts in India than in the land of its birth; the pitch and tenor of the unbridled enthusiasm India has for it is very different from what you see in, say, England or Australia.

That victory at Lord’s a quarter of a century ago began to irreversibly push cricket from the margins to the centre of our popular culture and national consciousness. Just a game? Oh, no, it isn’t, not any more.

I suspect no one quite knew then just how big this change would be. And in some ways we are still grappling with it. Cricket defines India today like few other things do. And however many teenagers follow keenly the English Premier League (and however much some of us might try to insist that there has been an overkill of cricket) there really is nothing quite like cricket in India. If there is ever to be something like that, it will have to be some version of the game as we know it now.

And to think that it all started taking shape in quite this way that evening at Lord’s 25 years ago.

Soumya Bhattacharya is the author of You Must Like Cricket? Memoirs of an Indian Cricket Fan.