Guest Post by Siddharth Vij
There exists an asymmetry in the speed with which a cricket crowd reacts to events on the field. When something favourable happens, the reaction is instantaneous – the cheering, the clapping et al. However, when something unfavourable happens it takes a second for the regular buzz of the crowd to collapse to less than a whisper. It almost feels like everyone is waiting for someone to pinch them out of a collective nightmare. After the first ball of the seventh over of the Indian innings of the World Cup Final on Saturday, that second of disbelief seemed to last an eternity. The ball had been nicked, gathered cleanly by the keeper and the umpire immediately raised his finger. However, it wasn’t until the batsman had reached the middle of the pitch on his walk back did the hush descend over the Wankhede stadium. Tendulkar was gone – the 100th 100 was not to be on this day, and maybe even the World Cup. The doubt which had crept into the mind during the last few overs of the Sri Lankan innings had suddenly become overpowering. The crowd did come out of its shock long enough to give Sachin a very nice ovation as he walked back but as he disappeared into the dressing room, the World Cup seemed to leave with him (The last time I had been at the ground, Sachin had been booed off after a scratchy Test innings against England. To see him receive such an ovation after this failure was quite gratifying).
When the day started, such a moment was unimaginable. The confidence that India would win was absolute. I sensed it from the moment I got in line to get into the stadium 4 hours before the first ball. The person standing in front of me had a small sticker on the back of his India shirt saying ‘India World Champions 2011’. At a point when it threatened to peel off, a cop reached over to press it back into place. Mention must be made of the great job done by Mumbai’s finest and all the other security agencies. The security checks at the entrances were very strict (as they needed to be) but also smooth and it took only about an hour for us to be seated inside a refurbished Wankhede stadium. Many glowing words have been written about the new Wankhede stadium but they still do not do it justice. That probably has more to do with how terrible the old stadium was. The wooden benches and annoying pillars are gone, and have been replaced by bucket seats and an unobstructed view. But the most welcome change is the gaps that have been left between and above stands which allow a wonderfully cool sea breeze to blow over your face at the most unexpected times. Critics might still crib about its lack of aesthetic appeal, but it is finally a stadium worthy of the Home of Indian Cricket.
Back to the match: 8 years ago, Zaheer Khan started off a World Cup final bowling to a far more accomplished left-hander and leaked 15 runs. On this day, he kicked things off with an almost inch-perfect maiden. It might not have been as crushing a blow as we received that day in Johannesburg but it was an emphatic opening salvo nonetheless. Zaheer’s opening spell was magical and gave India a grip on the game that we didn’t relinquish for quite a while. Every time Sri Lanka seemed to be getting back into the game, we’d take a wicket. Then, Dhoni would almost immediately bring Sreesanth back for a spell and he’d invariably give away boundaries. There were a few discontented mutterings about Dhoni’s captaincy but as long as we stayed ahead of the game, the crowd was satisfied. And what a focused crowd it was. You can judge a crowd’s interest in the action on the field by their behavior when the home team is bowling. This crowd was totally into the game, it didn’t need any external stimuli to get it excited. Quite a few Mexican waves were tried and failed, the annoying hooter was repeatedly ignored, and even the sloganeering never really took off (this was the first time I’d been to a Wankhede game and not heard ‘Pakistan haiy haiy’ ring out even once). That’s why the Sri Lankan charge, when it came in the last few overs, was so devastating. With a silken glove, Jayawardene knocked the collective wind out of the crowd and, we feared, out of the Indian team as well.
As it was, those fears were completely unfounded. Despite losing the team’s two best batsmen within the first 7 overs, the self-belief of Dhoni’s men never wavered, and India’s middle order went about constructing a simply magnificent chase. The Gambhir-Kohli partnership was eminently pragmatic and not only laid the foundation for the hitters down the order but also re-instilled belief in the Wankhede faithful. Sri Lanka’s bowlers were ineffectual. Fearing India’s batsmen, they’d dropped in-form bowlers who held no terrors for India’s batsmen and picked rusty bowlers who also held no terrors for India’s batsmen. It was an inexplicable move, and one India took full advantage of. Kohli and Gambhir were coasting along when a superb return catch by Dilshan against the run of play sent Kohli back and put the game on a knife edge once again. Yuvraj Singh was slated to come in which would have put two left-handers in the middle against off-spin at both ends, and with a new batsman who isn’t completely comfortable against spin at the start of his innings. It was at this stage that the captain of India did something that will live on in Indian cricketing folklore forever. Despite being in terrible form with the bat and not having had a great day with the gloves, MS Dhoni promoted himself ahead of the man of the tournament. He recognized the moment, and like a Jordan in his prime, backed himself to seize it. By the time he smashed the winning six over long on in his distinctive style, we had seen another great captain stamp his authority over a World Cup Final. At the crowd’s celebrations were apposite, reflecting a mix of emotions – gratitude for Tendulkar, joy at the victory and an immense pride at the manner in which it had been achieved. There was no luck, no controversy, just class. India had been bloody brilliant.
There is a tendency among some of my generation (I am 25) to not give this current team its due. We are given to comparing them with the heroes of our youth; the supposed brashness of the current lot with the grace and gentle disposition of an earlier generation. Saturday proved that they might be different in some ways but in many ways they are the same and equally deserving of our love. In the post-match interviews, each of them earnestly mentioned how this victory did not belong only to them but also to the people of India. Of course, it meant a lot to them and they wanted to do it for each other; but one could sense that they also knew how much it meant to us and that spurred them on even further. And it meant even more that we were with them in the moment of triumph. Such is the magic of a home final. On that glorious evening in Mumbai, We were Them. And They were Us. One.
Siddharth Vij is an itinerant member of the Centre Right India family. You may follow him on Twitter.