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Why India loves cricket World Cup

The attraction of ODI cricket may pale beside the wham-bang of Twenty20, but the place of the World Cup in the fan's heart is secure, inviolable. Why it is more than just a game?

cricket Updated: Feb 15, 2015 11:59 IST
Soumya Bhattacharya
Soumya Bhattacharya
Hindustan Times
India,pakistan,India vs Pakistan

For both the modern Indian cricketer and fan, the allure of the World Cup is unique. It is, quite simply, the apogee of the game that defines the world's populous democracy.

During an interview with this newspaper, Sachin Tendulkar had told me that his greatest moment on a cricket field was winning the World Cup in 2011. Not the hundred at Perth in 1991 or the debut century at Old Trafford or one of many, many stellar achievements in a career without parallel.

Mahendra Singh Dhoni ranks India's exit in the group stages in 2007 as his worst moment on a cricket field. Not being eviscerated 0-4 and 0-4 by England and Australia in successive Test series. Not losing 1-2 at home in Tests to England in 2012. Being knocked out in the group stages in World Cup, he felt, was the lowest ebb of his career.

Most Indian fans, always oscillating between extravagant hope and deep despair, excitable and demanding, scale the greatest heights of frenzy and overreaction during this tournament. The World Cup provides a quadrennial occasion unlike any other for the outpouring of jingoism, hysteria and mass participation. The attraction of ODI cricket may on occasion pale beside the wham-bang of Twenty20, but the place of the World Cup in the fan's heart is secure, inviolable.

To understand why this is so, we have to go back to a sun-splashed glorious summer's afternoon in London nearly 32 years ago. 25 June, 1983. The World Cup final in which India beat the reigning champions, the West Indies. Batting first, India scored 183. The West Indies, the most formidable team in world cricket by some distance, looked set to overtake that without even breaking into a canter. Viv Richards, his eyes alight with the intent of slaughter, was being imperious as only he could.

And then Richards pulled Madan Lal, miscued it a fraction, the ball traced a parabola and Kapil Dev ran backwards, ran, ran with the sun in his eyes and our hearts in our hands, till he had the ball in his cupped palms. The beginning of the end for the champions. The beginning of the beginning of India's great love affair with the World Cup. Later there was the spray of champagne from the balcony, the droplets catching and refracting the late afternoon sunlight. A group of men smiled like they had never smiled before. Kapil's Devils. World champions.

Kapil Dev, Indian cricket captain, receives the Prudential World Cup Trophy after India's victory over the West Indies in the World Cup Final at Lord's cricket ground in London, 25th June 1983. India won by 43 runs. (Photo: Getty Images)

An unlikely triumph, and more famous for being so unlikely. It made us realise that we had hitherto paid little attention to limited-overs cricket not because we disliked it or were purists, but because we had not been any good at it. 25 June, 1983, changed Indian cricket for ever. Not merely that. It changed the Indian fan's relationship with cricket for ever.

That redefined relationship was in tumultuous evidence across the country on 2 April, 2011, as India won the World Cup again. The jubilation spilled over from homes and bars to major thoroughfares and parks across the country as a stomping, honking, roiling mass of humanity celebrated. Every four years, Indian fans go into a frenzy; they hope that, yes, this year will be ours, and it never was, not quite in the way they wanted it to be theirs, till that sultry spring night at Mumbai's Wankhede stadium.

Just as Kapil will always be captive to that image of his on the Lord's balcony, toothy grin, arms wrapped around a trophy no Indian had at the time imagined getting his hands on, Dhoni will forever be defined by the image that captures the lofted six that brought India the winning runs: the expansive backswing, the eyes fever bright, pupils dilated at the point of ferocious impact, the enormous follow through of the bat, the ball soaring, becoming a white speck in the dark night sky.

Mahendra Singh Dhoni, Virat Kohli and Suresh Raina leave the field after winning a one-day international at the Asia Cup cricket match in Dhaka in 2012. (AFP Photo)

An awful lot has changed in Indian cricket since April 2011. Only three players from that World Cup winning squad - Dhoni, Virat Kohli and Suresh Raina - figure in the current one. There is no Yuvraj, player of the 2011 tournament. This is the first World Cup since 1992 in which the team has not a single member of India's golden generation of cricketers. Dhoni, who reached the peak of his career with that triumph, has been stumbling and sliding his way downwards. He is no longer India's Test captain. And he is certainly playing his last World Cup.

Today's team is brimming with explosive young talent and potential. Rohit, Dhawan, Rahane and Kohli (who has been racking up ODI records in the way a globe-trotting CEO racks up air miles) are all proven match winners. Add to that Dhoni, the finest ODI finisher India has ever had, and you ought to have a formidable line-up. If only they were not so infuriatingly inconsistent: they have blown not so much hot and cold as hot and glacial. On occasion they have looked as out of place against decent opposition as a man who is used to a leisurely swim on Sunday mornings would at an Olympic event.

They won the Champions Trophy in England in 2013.They beat England in the ODI series in England in 2014, the first win for India in a bilateral series in England in 24 years. And yet they won not an ODI in South Africa and New Zealand last year. They won nothing in the recent tri-series in Australia.

The bowling, riven with injuries, is looking fragile. The fast bowlers are either not fast enough or are erring in line and length in trying to be fast enough. The spinners need to attack rather than contain. Staunching the flow of runs in the final overs will be something India will worry about. In a warm up game, India failed to bowl out even Afghanistan, who had clattered away to 153 for 2 at one stage. The batting has often launched spectacular assaults in the past 12 months; but the bowlers need to avoid making the sort of mess that cannot be cleaned up by aggressive batting.

The World Cup returns to Australia and New Zealand 23 years after the tournament that saw the birth of the modern ODI as we know it. That edition introduced coloured clothes, white balls, pinch hitters, opening the bowling with spinners. It was, as Martin Crowe wrote in a recent essay on ESPNcricinfo, the time when "one-day cricket was its freshest and most unpredictable".

The lexicon of the game has evolved a great deal since 1992 (we now have the switch hit, the scoop shot, the power play and plenty more), as has the game itself. The Twenty20 format has infused the 50-overs game with an armoury of strokes that would have been unthinkable in those days. Approaches to batting have changed. What a team would have considered a more than respectable in 1992 - 264 - was scored by Rohit Sharma in one innings last year.

In these times of batting porno with heavier bats and shortened boundaries, it now seems only a matter of time before a side breaches Fortress Five Hundred in an innings.

What this World Cup has in common with the 1992 tournament, though, is unpredictability. It will be the most close-run tournament of recent times. South Africa, despite their strength, cannot be called favourites because they carry the tag of chokers in big tournaments. Australia are a cracking side, but they are surely not invincible. New Zealand, with home advantage, will be a handful. The West Indies and Pakistan are as likely to be in disarray as deadly. England are playing their best ODI cricket in years.

And notwithstanding the fact that they will have to adjust to alien conditions, Sri Lanka are always capable of springing a surprise or two. The open nature of the tournament was revealed in the warm up games in which New Zealand walloped South Africa; Zimbabwe humbled Sri Lanka; and Pakistan comfortably beat England. Any team, really, is capable of beating any other on any given day. There is no single dominant side such as Australia at the turn of this century or the West Indies in the early years of the World Cup.

When the competition was last held in Australia and New Zealand, India failed to make it to the semi-finals. What will it be like this time around? The fan will always hope. (And proclaiming that we don't stand a chance, that it will be dire, is also a kind of hoping, an assumption that if we are pessimistic, the opposite is likely to happen.) The format is such that it is reasonably certain that India, along with the other seven top Test-playing teams, will make it to the quarter finals.

After that, two good days. A few of the batsmen do what they are capable of, the bowlers get it a bit right, perhaps the opposition has a day off, and we can see ourselves in the final. On the other hand, one bad game and the story is over. Till 2019. When millions of adoring cricket fans will again start getting caught up in the fever that is peculiar to the World Cup, hoping that, yes, this year will be ours.

(Soumya Bhattacharya's book, After Tendulkar: The New Stars of Indian Cricket, is in stores now.)

First Published: Feb 15, 2015 10:19 IST