Like many others, I am also excited about the ICC World Cup. We may not have the best of combinations, but, as Rahul Dravid says, India just need "three good days" to defend the title. We may actually win. But there is something unusual about this campaign.
For those of my generation, this will be the first World Cup without Sachin Tendulkar. I know he quit ODIs two years ago. But he was to continue playing the longer format. When he retired from Test cricket, World Cup was still several months away.
Now that it's happening, it hits me again. It's not only the cricketing brilliance that I'm going to miss. Virat Kohli, for instance, is doing as much, if not more, as you would have expected the little master to do. However, it's different. It's about memories, personal history and the times we grew up in.
My grandfather was an avid follower of the game. So were my father's peers. In the mid 1980s, ours was one of the rare households with a television set in the backwaters of Bihar. People would gather to watch matches. Those were the initiation ceremonies.
Ravi Shastri driving the Audi with other players seated at the front, back and top of the car is one of the earliest cricketing images to have stayed in my head. Maybe the famous victory lap, repeatedly shown on TV, is what I actually saw. In '85 I was a little too young to watch it live.
In 1992, I was aware that Pakistan had won the World Cup, but the first tournament I properly followed was Hero Cup in 1993. The last over going from Kapil to Sachin was a brave decision but also symbolised what lay ahead for all of us.
By the 1996 World Cup, I was well and truly mad about the game, practising for hours, worshipping Sachin like millions of others. I skipped my intermediate exam, failed in the next attempt, but couldn't shake the madness off.
My uncle once warned me that those who followed cricket with such madness ended up achieving much less than they were capable of. Maybe he was right. But I didn't really care. Sachin remained a hero even as Rahul, Sourav and VVS, and later, Sehwag burst onto the scene.
People talk of cricket and they talk of joy. Some say when Sachin scored, India slept well. Some found it a source of national integration when India won. But for those torn between warring parents, suffering neighbourhood feuds, fighting unemployment, the good results - though very few then - helped them pull on.
Cricket also gave me a career. I did not quite cover cricket as a journalist, barring for a brief period in Ahmedabad. It helped me earn a living in a different way.
I listened to AIR's running commentary that came alternatively in Hindi and English. Trying to make sense of the English bit was, perhaps, the toughest thing I then did. But I had to know the scores at all costs.
Later, I developed a liking for Radio Pakistan, ABC and the more classically produced BBC commentary. For better pictures and graphics, I slowly switched from Cricket Samrat to Sportstar. With some heartbreak, I dumped my favourite writer Charanpal Singh Sobti for the likes of Peter Roebuck. But all this needed a helping hand. Sahni Shabdkosh (from English to Hindi) made room for (English to English) Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary.
I was surrounded by people who didn't understand English well. Even I passed Class 10 exams without English - it didn't feature as a subject, thanks to Lalu Prasad's magnanimity. Since I picked it up to some extent, I stood out when HT was looking for a reporter for our area in 2001. But that's a different story, for some other time.
We had our mini-battles in the neighbourhood. Initially, fights happened to prove Sachin was better than Kambli. When this became ridiculously irrelevant, we kept fighting for years to prove there's no connect between Sachin's centuries and India's defeats.
I began ignoring cricket as I got busy with work, which I got to do because of cricket.
I kept changing cities, my interest going up and down. But, Sachin kitna banaya remained a constant query. And praises for Rahul's solidity, VVS' selfless service and Sourav's captaincy were never hard to come by.
Slowly, they started leaving the scene one by one. The void being felt is not only because Sachin has retired, it's also because all the greats I grew up watching have called it a day. It's more because the game that meant so much is suddenly not that important to me.
Unlike many others, I never was consumed by the question: "After Sachin, who?" I knew players, with even half of his greatness, will come on the scene, and the show will go on. My problem was: After Sachin, what? I wanted him to play on forever!
But for me and many of my generation who saw the blitz and the poise from the mid-1990s to the mid-2000s, the fun is surely gone. I coped on the two earlier occasions when Sachin announced his retirements. And though it's difficult to imagine the momentous event without the master, I will again find the heart to carry on.
Growing up in a sleepy town, Darpan picked up cricket early, walking long miles for tuitions with a transistor set hanging around his neck. The 'Santosh' radio remained his constant companion for long, as he kept changing cities to earn a living. Finally able to deal with the bitterness of not succeeding much in his attempts at professional cricket, he is back to watching the game, and looking back at his life through the journey of Cups.
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