When India first won the cricket World Cup, in 1983, I was living in Singapore, heading the office there of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Singapore Television did not show the match; Cable TV, let alone satellite broadcasts, did not exist. I had to strain to listen to the static-ridden voices squawking at me from the BBC short-wave radio commentary.
But it was enthralling for all that, and I still remember the exhilaration of India’s surprise win over the world champions, the West Indies, late into the night in Singapore.
My blessed father, living in India, video-recorded India’s key matches for me, including every ball of that final, and before too long, a suitcase full of bulky VHS cassettes had arrived, to be shared on a Sunday viewing binge with a similarly cricket-obsessed English friend, a law professor at the Singapore University.
Thus, the defining images of that historic win – Srikanth’s rasping square cut to the boundary, then the crushing disappointment of being bowled out for a mere 183, the seeming certainty of defeat, then Balwinder Sandhu’s extravagant inswinger that bowled the magnificent opener Gordon Greenidge, and Kapil Dev’s incredible running catch, one hand outstretched, to dismiss the legendary Viv Richards just when he seemed to be running away with the match – are all vividly imprinted in my memory, as if I had been there and seen it myself.
A Nation’s Dreams and Heartbreaks Manifested Through Cricket
So it is with most Indian fans: we vicariously associate ourselves with the triumphs and disappointments of the national team, seeing in them a vindication of our own best qualities, a reminder of our failings, and an essential source of our national pride.
Increasingly the team’s successes have become part of our self-identification as Indians; in willing our team to succeed, we are vicariously expressing our desire to see the nation triumph on the world stage.
I still recall the crushing disappointment of the only final we lost – as it happens, to Australia – in 2003. I was living and working at the UN Headquarters in New York those days and had just one friend with a satellite dish that could receive the telecast from South Africa.
The match began at 3 am American time, but a compatriot and I roused ourselves for the special opportunity to see India regain the title it had last won two decades earlier. On the taxi to my friend’s home, we were both praying that India would win the toss because every pundit was saying that whoever batted first would win.
Imagine our horror when India won the toss and asked Australia to bat first. The match was over before it began, and we sat in sleepless despair, watching Australia amass 348 and duly rout India.
There seemed something about that decision at the toss that spoke to our weakness and diffidence, a national reluctance to rise to the challenge, a defensiveness and desire to protect ourselves rather than venture boldly forward. It was heartbreaking, and yet confirmed our worst fears about ourselves.
That Magical Moment in 2011
Now, expectations are different. Hundreds of millions of fans expect India to win every time it steps onto the field, and there is a seeming inevitability these days about Indian Cricket’s triumphs, not least because of their frequency.
Much of that expectation was there in 2011 when my late wife and I were actually at the Wankhede Stadium in Mumbai when India, at last, wrested the trophy that had eluded it since 1983.
No sporting victory is ever real until the last run is scored or the last wicket is taken, and that magical moment when Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s booming six cannoned into the upper tiers of the crowd to seal the win is forever imprinted on my mind.
Tomorrow comes a chance to repeat that victory, after a shorter interval than the last time, and against the very opponents who had denied us in 2003.
India has won every match it has played in the tournament so far – ten in all, including the semi-final defeat of New Zealand, reversing the semi-final result of 2019. But if any team can stop the seemingly irresistible juggernaut being pulled by the brilliant captain Rohit Sharma, it is Australia: multi-talented, overweeningly confident, with a record of success that is longer and more fabled than ours. It should make for a thriller of a final.
Both Semi-Finals Witnessed a High Standard of Cricket
This World Cup has come at a time when many were writing premature obituaries for the 50-over ODI format. With the throbbing, pulsating, time-limited, and cheerleader-inflected joys of T20 on offer around the world, it seemed to many that the 50-over format had reached the end of its shelf-life.
But they were wrong.
Though it featured several one-sided matches, this World Cup has had more than its share of exciting chases and heart-stopping climaxes. Netherlands’s upset win over South Africa, Afghanistan’s over Pakistan and England’s implosion in the tournament against as many as five seemingly inferior teams will all linger in the memory of fans around the world.
So will Virat Kohli’s three centuries, the last of which set a new record (50 ODI hundreds) unlikely ever to be equalled, and Mohammed Shami’s incredible wicket-taking spree after being omitted from the team in the first four matches.
Both semi-finals witnessed a high standard of cricket and the elements of human character that make it such a compelling sport to watch: talent, grit, resilience, individual accomplishment, the vagaries of the weather and pitch conditions, and the inscrutable caprices of fate.
For fans of Shami the man as well as Shami the player, there is a particular satisfaction in seeing him vindicated after the vilification to which he has been subjected by the Hindutva troll brigade ever since he under-performed against Pakistan in Dubai a couple of years ago.
He has maintained his dignity and composure and above all his commitment to excellence in turning out five match-winning performances for India in the six opportunities he has had. If India wins the World Cup, there will be great joy in seeing him declared the Player of the Tournament.
Tomorrow, the blue-clad gladiators step into the cavernous colosseum of the Narendra Modi Stadium for one last act in the drama that this World Cup has been. A billion people will be watching them from around the globe.
I plan to witness it at the home of a friend with a home theatre equipped with a gigantic screen. With the quality of high-definition camerawork these days, it should be even better than watching it live, though our motley group of cheering friends may not fully compensate for the enthusiasm of the live audience in Ahmedabad.
Still, whether you are in Kerala, in Kansas or in Kazakhstan, if you are Indian, your heart and mind will be nowhere else this weekend. Every one of us will be fervently wishing for the Boys in Blue to bring the World Cup home.
(Former UN Under-Secretary-General, Shashi Tharoor is a Congress MP and an author. He can be reached at @ShashiTharoor. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)