Now. Tomorrow, India v Sri Lanka for the ultimate glory in the cricketing world: the world cup. I think it kinda fits, you know? Over the last three years, if there's been one constant, it's been: there's an India v Sri Lanka match 'round the corner. Right from the Asia Cup in 2008 - or is it even before? Our history goes way back, but I'll start with 2007.
In early '07, we played a four match bilateral with SL in India before the World Cup, which we won 3-1. We kicked their asses, I remember. However, it was SL that broke a billion hearts when we lost to them and crashed unceremoniously out of the '07 WC. Then the Asia Cup in '08, where we were on a high, rebuilding and recovering, just having beat the World Champions in their own freakin' backyard and destroying the Lankans on the way. We had a completely in-form, frighteningly awesome line-up. And yet in the final? We crumbled to Mendis' carrom-ball. Score to SL.
The Mendis nightmare continued as we toured them later that year. He bamboozled the likes of Dravid and Laxman and Ganguly as SL cruised to a Test series win. However, we came back and won the ODI series 3-2. I don't think it's possible ever to underestimate how important this win was. Almost as big as the CB series win. For me, this is where the Indian team began to show that it had the guts for a right royal scrap. This was as much a defining moment in recent Indian cricketing history as any other.
Then. Another ODI bilateral in early '09, 4-1 to India. SL touring India later that year, Tests and ODIs, both going to India. Then we tour them in '10, drawing the Tests and winning the ODIs.
In between. Five tournament finals: Asia Cup '08 (SL), Compaq Cup 'o9 (Ind), tri-series final in Bangladesh '10 (SL), Asia Cup '10 (Ind), the Micromax tri-series with New Zealand '10 (SL).
That's a lot of cricket in less than three years. I remember a lot of exasperation everytime yet another series was announced, and I even wrote a parody-piece about it. And to think that the biggest tournament in cricket also culminates in an India-Sri Lanka final? Is it the same old yet another, yet another? Can we expect things to be different this time? Especially when these teams know each other inside-out?
Let's have a look at SL's performances leading up to the finals. Well. I don't remember much of SL's matches this tournament, because they've been so efficient. I honestly can't remember a goddamn thing from their group matches, except their middle order had a funny propensity to make life tough for them. Huge wins against Kenya, Canada... a loss to Pakistan, I remember, their only aberration... a washed-out match against the Aussies... then? A win against New Zealand, I think? And Zimbabwe? I honestly can't remember without looking it up, because their campaign has been so unremarkable. Most of their plans have worked, and worked well.
Clinical wins against England and New Zealand in the quarters and semis, and you have to say Sri Lanka have peaked, yeah?
That's the funny thing. I can point out a particular stage in the tournament where each team has peaked, and say, "yep. That's about as good as they can get." Sri Lanka are in that stage right now. Dilshan on song, Sangakkara and Jayawardene in form, Malinga, Murali (if fit), Herath/Randiv/Mendis... everybody chipping in. Rosy picture? I think so.
But what's funny about it, you ask? Well, the only team that hasn't reached this 'peak' stage is India. In every match you get the feeling India is performing sub-optimally, doing just enough to get the job done. Our first match against Bangladesh is probably the closest we've gotten to playing to our potential. Is that scarily awesome, or scarily worrying? I don't know. But that we've gotten all the way to the final despite not being at our best adds some credence to India's apparent strategy of saving their best for the last. Maybe they don't want to get burnt-out before the Big One. God knows we've done that before.
A fairly comfortable win against Bangladesh, a hair-rending tie with England, wins against Ireland and Netherland, both games in which we made our chases a little complicated because of overconfidence at the top, then that last over loss to South Africa, and finishing off our group with another good win against the West Indies. A well-fought quarterfinal encounter with Australia... and then the win over Pakistan in the semi.
About the game...
I will not lie to you, I looked forward to that game like it was my next breath. I mean, I don't know how much of it is the media hype; I don't watch news channels anymore, particularly during a major cricket tournament. But even so: that morning I woke up and the first thing I thought was oh my GOD today's India v Pakistan! And then: oh my god today's my mom's birthday better go run and wish her. But, yeah. I was super-excited.
The match lived up to my expectations. A team is only as strong as its weakest link, so while everybody went on and on about how it was Pakistan bowling v Indian batting, the real battle was between the Indian bowlers and the Pakistani batsmen. And guess what? The bowlers won. It is very special, considering how handicapped the attack was without a second specialist spinner, and that neither Nehra nor Patel had exactly covered themselves with glory in the previous matches. But they came good, and that's just this Indian team all over again: they falter and they fight, but by god, they won't just lie down and take whatever crap's dished to them.
(A note of appreciation here: I raged and raged when I learned that Ashwin had been dropped for the game. The Nehra choice worked very well - he bowled superbly - and Dhoni could've just grinned and soaked up the "oh he's such an intuitive captain" praise. But he didn't. He had the balls to admit that he made a mistake in reading the pitch, and that he ought to have gone in with two spinners, while still appreciating Nehra and Munaf's efforts.)
A lot of talk's going around that it was more a case of Pakistan losing than India winning the game. They dropped Sachin Tendulkar four times, they say. That's criminal! Perhaps. If Sachin'd gone, what's to say Yuvraj wouldn't have performed? What about Kohli? What if Raina had gotten a longer stint? What if Dhoni'd settled in earlier? Maybe if Sachin'd gotten out early, would we be looking at a 280+ score? 220? Can anybody say for sure?
Ultimately, India took its chances better than Pakistan did. Isn't that all about what cricket is? Isn't a pitting of skill against skill? Particularly considering it's a no-contact sport and you're freakin banned if you so much as touch shoulders with an opponent player. India batted better, India bowled better, India caught better! End of story! Why undermine the performance?
I have to say, though, that the Pakistanis did have a great tournament (apart from a few mad overs against NZ) and Afridi was fantastic and super-gracious in defeat. That, though, brings me to one last grouse:
It is best exemplified by this article by Aakash Chopra.
Look, I've never been a fan of the guy. I can't judge his cricket-related articles - not my area of expertise - and I've heard they're pretty good, which, hey. Great for him. But this one? So much more broad-based - too broad-based, in fact, and I think have sufficient authority to comment on it.
"Is this really patriotism?" he asks in the title. No, Aakash, it's jingoism. Welcome to the party. You're, uh, about 60 years late.
The support for the Indian team bordered on crass, he says. Again: where have you been all these years? Then:
In fact, now that we have beaten Pakistan it's considered okay if we lose to Sri Lanka in the final, for we have been avenged. Don't you find it strange? What does it tell you about our evolution as a responsible nation?Oh god no - pop!sociology or whatever the hell he's attempting. No, Aakash, don't do it!
Post independence and the division of the country, we just carried forward the same sentiment i.e. sport being the vehicle to assert supremacy. The relations between India and Pakistan remained sour for the longest time. We've fought wars and still continue to have other equally important issues plaguing us. Yet, there's enough reason to believe that we as people, have matured and come a long way in trimming down that animosity, especially via Bollywood and numerous other cultural exchanges, perhaps reiterating time and again that the rivalry is only political. Or at least I'd like to believe that India has definitely evolved and has become a responsible nation. Unfortunately though, all it took was a cricket match to topple that process of evolution. Are we not, in a sense, pushing ourselves back a 100 years?Just look at that. Look at the histrionics there. I thought I was a drama-llama. "topple that process of evolution"... "pushing ourselves back 100 years"... it's a cricket match, man! Stop attaching more importance to it! You're kind of defeating your own case, y'know.
If there are issues between India and Pakistan now, it's got to do with a little something called "terrorism". I'm sure you've heard? It's got nothing to do with a bunch of guys in coloured pyjamas knocking a ball around.
Also: dude. Sport has always been a source of crass jingoism! Sport is not like real life, where there are a million shades of grey and there are no absolutes. In sport, there are a definite set of rules, a clear playing field, and a definite winner and loser at the end of it all. If we let ourselves go as far as sport is concerned, should it be considered a devolution of intelligence on our part? Bollywood and cultural exchanges are fine, but on the playing field, it's always going to be an Us v Them, and it's always going to bring out our basest instincts. This is the case with every high-profile rivalry out there. Or have you not been evolving with the times? It's a global village! Keep an eye out for crowd reactions every where.
Then he vies for our sympathy, by describing the pressure felt by a player during these kinds of matches. He talks of the reactions of fans and how the players fear them, citing the vandalising of Kaif's house in '03 and the super-hype that the Pakistan tour of '04 got as examples. "We are humans too," he says. "Will we be the nation's pariah just because we couldn't win a game of cricket?" No, just win the next one and you'll be their darling again.
Okay, I don't have much against this part. The pathos is heartfelt and completely understandable. I can't imagine how it must be to have millions of hopes hinging on every move you make on the field.
Then he ends it so:
It's about time that we, as a nation, answer these questions. Are we going to behave like this every time we play Pakistan? If we detest them so much, it may not be a bad idea to severe all cricketing ties with them, for a cricket match can't be used as a benchmark to prove our superiority as a nation. Every time we behave like the way we did this time, it pulls us down as a responsible nation. The choice is ours.Oh, is it, Mr. Chopra. What exactly did we do? We detest them? Really? We're looking at cricket matches as our only parameter of success against them? India and Pakistan have a lot of history between them, and the antagonism comes from wounds far, far deeper than any random cricket match. Like everything else, every place else, emotion is allowed free rein on the field. We scream and shout and hate and love, and at the end of the day we go home and sleep and go to work the next day. So don't boil everything down to a cricket match, Aakash. You're kinda shooting yourself in the foot.
Also, one of the most memorable India-Pakistan incidents is the standing ovation the Pakistani team got from the Chennai crowd in '99. Or more recently, when we gave the second-biggest cheer of the night to the Pakistani contingent (after our own athletes) in the Commonwealth games opening ceremony. Maybe you could take those incidents and spin a spiel about how close India and Pakistan actually are, huh?
Oh, god. I went completely off-track, huh.
Anyway, tomorrow? Has every chance of being India's day. I remember watching this ad and thinking how appropriate it was. Notice the man wearing the Dhoni jersey and walking the tightrope. He falls off at one point, and the crowd gets worried and anxious. Collective gasp. But he hangs on to the wire, hauls himself back on, and continues walking, much to the relief of the crowd.
I thought: that's India. That's the Indian team in a nutshell.