ICC Cricket World Cup 2019: From cautious optimism and superstitions to calculative wins, Team India's success mirrors a confident nation

Not many know the real story behind India’s cricket World Cup win in 2011. Everyone is aware how India defeated Sri Lanka by six wickets at the Wankhede in Mumbai on 2 April, Sachin Tendulkar becoming the second-highest run-getter in that edition, Yuvraj Singh’s heroics and captain Mahrendra Singh Dhoni’s ‘helicopter shot’ and absolute lack of emotion after hitting the winning six in the final.

But what has remained a secret till now is that India’s wins in the tournament were made possible because I did not get up even once during the entire match from my lucky drawing-room sofa, often at the cost of considerable personal discomfort. I knew that if I did, India would invariably lose a wicket. If fielding, then Men in Blue would either drop a dolly or miss the chance of a run-out. Alas, my personal sacrifice went unnoticed.

You may choose to believe my ‘contribution’, dismiss it or laugh at it but there were countless Indians like me — some performed havans, prayed before the Allah, donned their ‘lucky shirts’, refused to budge from their seats, kept fasting or made similar, not-so-minor adjustments in their daily lives to either inspire their beloved Men in Blue or in the fear of upsetting the celestial order that decides the fate of matches.

 ICC Cricket World Cup 2019: From cautious optimism and superstitions to calculative wins, Team Indias success mirrors a confident nation

India's captain Virat Kohli. AP

It is easy to label this behaviour — often on a mass scale in a country of billions where cricket transcends its sporting boundaries to become a cultural motif, an assertion of national identity and ambition — as superstition. And it doubtlessly is. Dhoni and his boys lifted the coveted trophy because of their skill, not because I remained glued to my seat. But the superstitious behaviour of its fans also tells us a story of India where ambition cohabits with insecurity and self-doubt.

The World Cup wasn’t just a trophy. Lifting it wasn’t just an act of reaching the pinnacle of sporting excellence but the collective yearning of a billion people who wanted to announce their arrival on the world stage. Therefore, the story of Indian cricket team’s journey from 1983 till now is also the concurrent story of a nation finding its feet among comity of nations through a sport that remains intrinsically linked to its colonial past.

But right from 1983, when India lifted its first World Cup, through the torturous and occasionally brilliant 1990s, from the new millennium in 2003 when Sourav Ganguly’s knights raised a billion hopes only to fall in the final, till redemption in 2011 — Indian cricket’s trajectory mirrored its rise as a nation. Occasionally brilliant, frequently frustrating, maddening and magical in equal measure.

As Ayaz Memon writes in his review of Mihir Bose’s book, The Extraordinary Story of Indian Cricket, "the trajectory of this two-in-one story can neither be linear, nor smooth. You can’t drive through this saga in cruise control, uncaring of what else is happening in the environment. It’s a bumpy ride over a century and more, of crests and incredible triumphs (individuals and teams), interspersed with deep troughs, hairpin bends, setbacks and sundry other impediments along the way....”

As a result, billions of Indians — for whom cricket was primarily an expression of national sentiment — appeared struck by self-doubt and insecurity that manifested in superstitious behaviour. At one level, superstition reflects one's fear of the unknown. It quantifies their fear, and through an appeal to the cosmic order of nature, one seeks to overcome it. Had India been as ruthless as the ‘Invincible’ West Indies of 1980s or as dominating as Steve Waugh’s Australians then these superstitions would have been deemed superfluous. But India were neither West Indies nor Australia. A mediocre team held in place by Tendulkar that suffered frequent middle-order collapses, the lack of quality fast bowlers, pedestrian bits-and-pieces players who qualified as "allrounders", and above all the lack of the unbending will to win that plagued the team all through the 1990s would result in the mind of its fans trepidation at worst and cautious optimism at best.

It was Ganguly, who stepped in when the game in India was going through its worst-ever crisis and instilled some steel into the heart of a talented bunch. At the turn of new millennium, India had probably the best middle-order in a batsman’s game but still lacked the self-belief or indomitable will to conquer without drama or emotion. Men in Blue still required the individual to rise above the team in a collective game for success. Tendulkar — that freak of nature — frequently obliged. At times the very, very special VVS Laxman did. Sometimes it was Rahul Dravid’s solidity that saved us or Virender Sehwag’s bat that bludgeoned opponents into submission.

By 2011, when Dhoni came from a small town in Jharkhand to lead a team to its second World Cup win, it also marked an inflection point in the history of a young, Independent nation. India had started to tap into its potential; the game had seeped into the veins, sinews and ligaments of this humongous country. Power was getting transferred from metropolises such as Mumbai to the outskirts of small towns.

The story can’t be understood of not placed within the present context. In the current edition of the World Cup, India was presented with arguably the toughest draw. It wasn’t until 5 June that it took the field, watching other teams ratchet up runs and points, and when it did, Virat Kohli’s India were slated to play against South Africa, Australia, New Zealand and Pakistan in their first four matches.

Indian media in the 1990s would have floated elaborate conspiracy theories against the ICC for conspiring to send India home early. Instead, the media too has changed. No trepidation, the pre-World Cup talk was about quiet, understated confidence. And it wasn’t misplaced.

India won their first two matches — against South Africa and Australia — in a canter. There was no drama, no hype, no taking off of jerseys on balcony. Just a ruthlessly professional performance that reeked of utter domination and remarkable self-belief. It seemed as if even the cacophonous Indian media has matured too. The wins were applauded, but not in an over-the-top manner that would have greeted wins in the 90s or even the first decade of new millennium.

Nothing exemplified this brutal efficiency than the defeat of Australia or the dismantling of Pakistan. In Australia, India faced a five-time champions who had inflicted upon Men In Blue their most psychologically devastating blow in the final of 2003. It seemed for a long time as if India would never recover from that soul-curdling defeat.

Yet on 9 June, one thing was evident. The clinical win over Australia was an important psychological milestone for India because the Aussies didn’t collapse. They were gritty and fought almost till the end. Yet, they were comprehensively beaten. This says that Australia’s best is not good enough to beat India. Just like the ‘Idea of India’, the ‘idea of Australia’ has been well and truly defeated.

Against Pakistan, it was evident how a once fearsome rivalry has degenerated into a spoof. The gulf between Pakistan’s mediocrity and India’s efficiency on the field is so huge that an entire continent may rest in between. It was not even a contest.

The cold calculation showed by Kohli’s boys in their wins is not by accident. It is the culmination of a team that has finally found its feet, backed by a system that is bold, swift and efficient. It would seem that Indian fans have grown up too. I was not seated on any particular chair on Sunday evening.

Updated Date: Jun 17, 2019 19:37:11 IST