The World Cup that begins today feels like a birthday that comes close on the heels of a wedding.
I do not feel the surge of excitement that I did for the earlier World Cups.
It’s strange how World Cups have acted as pegs to hang my memories on. Any particular year I think of, its association is deeply embedded with the nearest world cup. World Cups have acted as bookmarks in my mind, sorting things out, giving me a quick recap of what was what.
I began following cricket from the 1996 World Cup.
Before the Wills World Cup, memories of cricket are hazy. Cricketers dressed in white, playing cricket on a hot afternoon – Shastri and Kapil and Srikkanth. A few television ads for Dinesh Suitings and Palmolive Shaving Cream.
The Wills World Cup got me hooked to the game.
I was in Primary School, and didn’t watch a single match in the entire tournament. Yet I got my information from two sources – letters from home with updates about India’s matches. And a teacher named Shruti Raja.
She taught us Maths, and was one of those rare Maths teachers who didn’t try to pull out your appendix if you didn’t know 7 Table. She regaled us with stories of her trips to Paris, and bubble-baths that she enjoyed, and other colourful tales that caused mayhem in my mind.
During the World Cup, she would give us updates about the matches. It was the first time I heard the names Azhar, Tendulkar, Jadeja – my first heroes. The passing of information was very basic. She would walk into the class and announce – “Boys, India won the match”.
Yay!! An eruption of cheers followed, even if the only thing we knew about the situation was that we belonged to India.
She would then add some frugal details, like “Srinath took four wickets”, or “Jadeja scored a fifty”, which was followed by more cheers.
But I had no idea about the format, the counties that played in the tournament, or what the World Cup actually was. It was when I went home that year and found an Outlook 96 World Cup special that my interest in cricket was born.
It was a beautiful edition – pictures and articles and team profiles and opinion pieces. I remember going through each and every team profile, and I could tell you all the players from all the teams. It was like a magical Hogwarts book, a world I could dive into when I wanted.
I brought the magazine back with me to school. I began playing cricket, following it through The Hindu, and generally fantasising about sharing the dressing room with Sachin Tendulkar one day.
That time when Bengalis behaved like Khap Panchayats.
1999 World Cup : Teenage was arriving at the horizon. Along with pimples, sly thoughts of the sexual kind, and a generally more holistic knowledge of cricket, the 1999 world cup gave me a glimpse of what cricket meant to Indians.
It was the time of Indipop music. Of Come On India, Dikhado…duniya ko hilado. It was also the time when Britannia ran its extensive Britannia Khao World Cup Jao (Passport kya tera baap dega) Offer.
The company from Hungerford Street had decided to tempt gullible young cricket fanatics like me into gulping down packets after packets of biscuits and cakes with the hope of going to England to watch the world cup.
Like an idiot, I fell for it. Any money I saved was spent on Tiger biscuits. I’d eat those shitty biscuits, telling myself it would all be worth it when I meet Deba in London and discuss the nuances of cricket with him.
The 99 World Cup was also the first time I learnt that sports was not just about following a team playing a sport. It was about pain and anguish and hurt and disappointment. Shortly after the world cup, the match fixing scandal broke out. Azhar, my hero, was shamed in front of the entire world. I remember shedding a few tears in a particularly delicate moment. I remember feeling aghast, wondering what sort of a person would do something like that.
The 99 World Cup also taught me that we take cricket very seriously. But teenage was knocking on the door, and I pushed cricket out of my mind, and rushed to open the door.
2003 World Cup: This was my Angry Young Kid phase. I think the phase is called Intermediate because at that age, all of us are intermediaries between donkeys and real, thinking adolescents.
I had issues with people, ran away from home, and took up work and residence at a small PCO booth cum travel agency in the outskirts of Bhubaneswar. The PCO booth was located in front of a leprosy colony, and a shady basti called Prem Nagar where eloped love birds built their nests.
Which meant a strange motley crew of people who came in to watch the match on the tiny black and white television. Drunkards, children with fingers missing, teenage mothers holding children with permanently running noses, drunkards, alms-seekers, drivers, and drunkards.
I’d finish school, go back by the school bus, take off my uniform and sneak into my secret dual life. I watched each and every match of that tournament (except Scotland vs UAE sort of matches, for which the guy would never lend his TV).
During the final, I watched with horror as Ganguly chose to bowl after winning the toss. I looked away as tears welled up in my eyes when Sachin lofted a mishit shot off McGrath. I played fervently as rain poured in briefly in the middle overs. I went to bed that night, Sachin’s words ringing in my ears like gigantic cymbals – “I’m happy to receive this award, but I’d have been happier had we won the tournament.”
Another picture of the Australian team with the World Cup.
2007 World Cup: By this time, cynicism had creeped into my system like a virus that originates in Africa and spreads its tentacles to Switzerland. Hurt as I was from India’s disheartening show in the previous outing, I was too scared to invest any emotions into this edition.
Somehow, my feelings seemed to resonate with the Indian cricket team as well. Most of the stars seemed drugged, we lost matches to smaller teams, and didn’t even qualify for the India-Pakistan match in the second round.
Between shitty jobs and scabby relationships, I spent a few hours every day watching the matches, but my heart was looking forward to the sun sinking. And then, when the clock struck 6, I’d rush out to have Bhang. And as the hostel swam in a slow, steady motion, I sat on the cot and looked at the world and smiled.
The 2007 World Cup had nothing going for it. The matches seemed like they were being played in a local park. The commentary was drab, the matches seemed like friendly encounters, a coach was killed mysteriously in the middle of the tournament. It was almost as if the World Cup itself was embarrassed by what was going on.
I couldn’t care less.
2011 World Cup: There has been enough said about the 2011 World Cup. Of how the stage was set to perfection. India matches on weekends, an India-Pakistan semi-final where 5 catches were dropped off a single batsman by the name of Sachin Tendulkar. A final at Mumbai, a six to finish the match.
Much of the World Cup passed by in a drunken, smoky stupor. Old Monk from the local store (you could still find it in Hyderabad at the time), and top notch pot from Dhoolpet, friends with flats where you could drink like Ravana and pass out like Kumbhakarna.
This time, I fell for the blitz. I hummed the tournament’s catchy tune, created my Fantasy team and rooted for them. On the day of the semi-final, I had to drop off my ex-girlfriend at the airport. I was getting messages from friends about Sehwag taking on the Pakistani bowlers, and the trip to the airport and back would take a good two hours.
As she looked at me with her lovely doe eyes, I told her I couldn’t do it. I asked her to go to the airport by herself. I have often questioned myself if I did the right thing. If I was a selfish bastard. If things would have turned out otherwise…
But when I reached the room and saw Sehwag belt five fours off an Umar Gul over, I forgot about everything and settled in front of the television.
When Dhoni hit the final six, I felt a sense of calm. I felt vindicated for all the years I had invested in the sport. All the hours defending Sachin Tendulkar against morons who considered Ganguly to be the greatest Indian cricketer. The hours spent hunting for the score, the awkward hanging around paan shops to watch the match after buying a packet of Tiger biscuits for three rupees.
I had invested so much in the sport, and it all came together beautifully when Sachin was hoisted on top of his teammates’ shoulders. I ran downstairs to the streets and found people dancing. I joined them and danced, in spite of my two left Jeetendra feet.
I watched as a crazy fan waving an India flag jumped on to the back of an APSRTC bus. But time, tide, and APSRTC buses wait for none, and the man had to come walking back an hour later, the spring in his step lost somewhere near Jubilee Hills.
I drank myself to sleep and crashed some time in the night. Cricket had given me back everything I had given it.
2015 World Cup: This time around, I am too old to do it.
I can’t take the glossy advertising campaigns, the stupid jingoism associated with every cricket world cup. I can’t take the Pakistan-bashing, the lame jokes, the waking up early and sleeping late to catch each and every match. I can’t take two nine-hour matches everyday, and the gigantic dhobi-bundle of statistics that every World Cup dumps on my head.
I am too old for that shit.
This year, I’ll be watching cricket for the sake of the game. I will pick and choose games that I like, irrespective of whether India is playing in them or not.
I love tournaments played in Australia. The commentary is better, the stadiums are beautiful, the ball bounces up to a good level. There are spectators lazing about, drinking beer, running to catch the ball, laughing heartily when it slips right through their hands.
I am going to watch the tournament like that pot-bellied Australian you see on the screen – sipping his beer, waving his hand, drunk out of his wits.
I am going to support South Africa and New Zealand. If India wins, good. If it doesn’t, too bad.
I remember this one particular man who would walk in to watch the matches in Munna Travels (where I watched the 2003 World Cup). He would sit at the back, stoic and composed, indulging in a smile every once in a while when he saw us go berserk. I would wonder how he could watch the match so passively.
I am that guy now. I will sit back and smile.
You are free to go crazy.
I have retired as a cricket fan. Let the youngsters have their fun.