We waited with Sachin

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For those of us born after the Indian cricket team’s improbable victory in the 1983 finals, the wait to experience what it felt like to win a World Cup was a test of faith and patience. Indian cricket’s folk hero, Sachin Tendulkar, played in every World Cup from 1992 to 2011, and an entire generation of fans journeyed with him to experience World Cup glory.

Maybe the only thing our sporting heroes fear is their sporting mortality. For all the records they break, the parallel universes that they seem to inhabit where limitation has no seat, not one of them has been able to fight father time. They try to feel 20 when they are 40 and attempt to make one last dash for the finish line with their minds and bodies at constant battle with each other.  In 2011, Sachin Tendulkar was no different. At 38, he was the senior most cricketer in the side and the last one standing from his generation. The World Cup had returned to the sub-continent after 15 years and the excitement was feverish. There was no doubt about it this time. This would be Tendulkar’s sixth and last shot at World Cup glory. Winning it for him would be a retirement gift nonpareil. It had been such a long journey.

The Indian economy was liberalised in 1991 when it was on the verge of collapse. This new economy gave the country, among other things, cable television. We went from 2 channels to having more channels than we could count. The 1992 Cricket World Cup was the first to have colour apparel and floodlit matches. Cricket, which was played in whites till then, had metamorphed into a Technicolor extravaganza. In this new avatar, Sachin Tendulkar played his first World Cup. India, who had failed to defend their title in 1987, didn’t progress too far and arch-rivals Pakistan won their maiden World Cup title.

To understand Sachin Tendulkar’s place in India isn’t easy. He had won every accolade possible and scored more runs than any other cricketer. But the World Cup had eluded him. To draw a parallel, imagine Michael Jordan finishing off his career without an NBA title to his name. In 2011, Tendulkar was not the carefree player he once was but remained an integral part of the side. Playing in home conditions, India were the favourites. Would he live to be a contented 80 year old or look at his stuffed trophy cabinet, still pining for that missing piece of silverware, the World Cup?

By 1996, Sachin Tendulkar had assumed the mantle of talisman, the player who could win matches single handed with the sleight of his bat. His posters adorned walls and his squeaky voice belied the weight he carried on his shoulders every time he strode out to bat. If he played well, the team won. If he got out, the television was switched off and the remote thrown on the couch in a huff. In 1996, Tendulkar was in the form of his life. Unfettered by injuries that would later curb some his strokes, this was a Tendulkar who wasn’t afraid to hit the ball in the air. India made it to the semi-finals. Chasing 252 to win against Sri Lanka, they fell like nine pins. Cricket endured one of its darkest nights as the crowd went ballistic and rendered play impossible. The match was handed to Sri Lanka by default. The World Cup dream had literally gone up in flames.

India began auspiciously – with a win against Bangladesh and a tie against England, a match in which Tendulkar scored a century.  Never far from the action, he also scored a century against South Africa, a match that India went onto lose. They beat defending champions Australia and faced arch-rivals Pakistan in the semi-finals. Tendulkar scored a scratchy 85. India won and sealed a place in the finals with Sri Lanka. The venue – the Wankhede stadium, Sachin Tendulkar’s home ground in his city, Mumbai.

By 1999, fans had gone 15 summers waiting for the elusive World Cup. Adolescence did things to you that you couldn’t understand but cricket was your refuge. Then tragedy struck. Sachin Tendulkar lost his father in the middle of the World Cup and returned home. An entire nation mourned along with him. Summoning inhuman strength, Tendulkar returned in time for India’s match against Kenya and drowned his sorrow in an avalanche of runs, scoring a century. Just for a little while, the tears of sorrow mingled with tears of happiness. Like in previous editions, India beating Pakistan was the highlight and the team didn’t make it to the semi-finals. Would we ever get to experience World Cup euphoria in our lifetime?

Mumbai is the financial centre of India and on April 2nd, 2011, it was also the heart of India. It controlled the heart rate and blood pressure of every Indian. Chasing in a World Cup finals is never a good idea. Sri Lanka won the toss and decided to bat. They scored 275, an imposing total, especially in a high-pressure match. India lost their first wicket in the first over. Tendulkar struck two sublime fours and it seemed like he would take India to the Promised Land. It wasn’t to be. He got out and the score stood at 31 for 2. A sickly feeling enveloped you. This couldn’t be happening again. The next couple of hours would decide whether Indian cricket’s most iconic player would end his career with the trophy he coveted most or not.

If you have experienced a loss in a World Cup finals, it is safe to say that you have experienced true heartbreak. March 23, 2003, was my date with heartbreak. India made it to the finals. Sachin Tendulkar was at the zenith of his career, plundering bowling attacks at will. 20 years after they had lifted the cup, they made it to the finals. The side was overawed by the occasion. Of all the things that sport does to you is that it makes you seek a god that you don’t necessarily believe in. Chasing a herculean 359, fans still hoped for a miracle. By then, Sachin Tendulkar was already the highest scorer in the cup and even he had to play out of his skin if India were to even sniff victory. He got out in the first over. I switched channels. Rain made a fleeting appearance and raised our hopes for a rematch but the rain seemed to have heard Johnny’s plea and went away. India lost by 125 runs. I couldn’t study for two days and the board exams were just days away.

India’s next generation stepped up. These are players who grew up idolising him. Now they’re playing to ensure his legacy wasn’t incomplete. They chipped away at the runs and soon, the formidable total looked gettable. Crackers that have been saved up for the big day were cautiously removed. Nothing’s over until it’s over.

In 2007, the Indian team was a formidable one and when they touched down at the Caribbean, expectations were high. Sachin Tendulkar was playing his 5th World Cup, a feat in its own right. Would this be his swansong and if so, would he go out on a high, the cup ensconced in his safe grasp? The 2007 edition is acknowledged as the least memorable, even more so if you were an India fan because in a week’s time, they were on the flight back home. Losing two of their first three matches, they didn’t go past the group stages. The country went up in arms. Our World Cup dream remained just that, a dream.

The Indian captain, Mahendra Singh Dhoni, played the innings of a lifetime. In a fitting end to the final, he sealed victory with a six. The cricketing gods had delivered poetic justice. Gen Y finally got a taste of what it felt like to win a World Cup. Sachin Tendulkar finally got a taste of what it was like to win a World Cup. The country exploded. The crackers created a symphony of their own and tears kept rolling. The energy from Mumbai was transmitted to all corners of the country. Indian cricket had paid its dues to Sachin Tendulkar. It had taken 6 World Cups but the wait seemed worth it. Our generation got to add its bit to cricketing folklore. Someday we would get to tell our kids of that magical night in Mumbai.

George Bernard Shaw once said cricket is a game played by 11 fools and watched by 11,000 fools. It is still played by 11 players but the so called fools watching it have increased a thousand fold. If cricket is the only thing that brings us all together and cause us to keep aside religion, caste, political affiliations aside, even if for a little while, it may not be such a foolish thing after all.

The next morning, you woke up to an inexplicable sense of emptiness. Euphoria had left the building and normalcy was seeking its rightful place in your life. A 28 year old wait has ended. Maybe this is how the astronauts felt after they returned from the moon. What else is there to look forward to? Where do you go once you go to the moon?

Greatness seemingly ebbed away from Sachin Tendulkar after the World Cup and a year and half later, he announced his retirement from limited overs cricket. When the Cricket World Cup starts on February 14th, things will be a little different. This time around, Sachin Tendulkar will wait with us.

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