I was there!

I now have a new #1 in the list of “interesting stories about myself” – a list that comes in very handy when socially gauche people like myself make small talk with acquaintances. My erstwhile #1 interesting story was a very good one: “Landing up in New York on my first ever trip there and then standing in a queue in Manhattan for 2.5 hours to buy an iPad 2 for my wife on the day it was released!” I felt it would stay on top of the league table for a long time – but wasn’t to be!

My new #1 interesting story is I watched the World Cup Finals 2011 live in Wankhede, Mumbai – the greatest cricket match that India has played (and won) in the last 28 years!” It is a story that only about 30,000 of the 1.2 billion Indians (that’s 0.003% for the numerically inclined) can boast of. 30,000 is still a large number you might think – but what makes it even more interesting is that each one of us experienced bliss in our own unique way that night – distilling and crystallizing those memories to be preserved in a shiny glass vial in the top drawer of the brain – to be brought out, shared  and shown off as many times as random acquaintances and hapless friends would allow us.

I can’t claim that all stories and personal euphoric experiences coming out of the Wankhede that evening are interesting. But here’s mine(like all good, easy to remember things in life, it consists of 3 parts) :

1.    Managing expectations

India were the runaway favorites before the start of the World Cup. I ran a notional (lest the cops come for me!) betting pool in office. Everyone was supposed to bet an amount of money on upto 2 teams winning the World Cup – you could bet at 4 different stages (pre-WC, middle of league stage, before QFs, before SFs) and there were reducing pay-offs depending on the stage if you got your prediction right. 14 out of the 29 bets I received were on India – 14 out of the 15 people who bet had India as one of their two bets! So, yeah, the expectations were high.

Much to my relief, the league stage sobered the headiness of the fans quite a bit – I missed the games against Ireland, Holland and SA because I was out in the US but followed whatever I could over streaming sites online. When you let England chase 338, register unemphatic wins over Ireland and Holland, lose 9 wkts for 29 runs to SA and then give away 14 runs in the final over, most Indian supporters (instigated in no less measure by the media) were sounding despondent. Ashish Nehra would have been wishing he was never born and Piyush Chawla would have been wondering if  getting selected for the WC squad was a blessing or a curse!

South Africa looked set to reach the last 4, SL were co-favorites and living up to that billing, Pakistan were the surprise package and Australia were always expected to pack a punch: India were not the sure-shot winners anymore. Being one of the ever optimistic, ever faithful fans, I felt a huge sense of relief at that stage – for two reasons. One, the spotlight on India wasn’t shining so brightly anymore giving everyone a chance to go about their job quietly. Two, there were no fears of peaking too early bullsh*t – I remembered South Africa-2003 and  the script looked similar thus far!

2.   Where there’s a Will

I watched the QF against Australia on espnstar.com in office with my Reliance 3G data card. That day as I took the cab home from my office at 10 pm, laptop open with the match streaming live – just about the time when Yuvraj was earning himself his 4th Man of the Match of the tournament – I thanked Dhirubhai Ambani, all the smart people who develop cool technology, and most of all, Ministry of Telecom for giving us 3G, despite all the scandals and delays. The two overs of Brett Lee and Shaun Tait where Raina and Yuvraj plundered 27 runs to shift the balance decisively India’s way epitomized the warrior like spirit with which the new India played its cricket! The poetry and surrealism of that moment was heightened by the fact that this display of feisty spirit was against Australia – a team that defined “toughness” and “spirited action” all through my coming-of-age years. It was almost as if the baton transfer of “fight-till-your-last-breath” brand of cricket from Australia to India had been ordained to happen at the Motera, Ahmedabad. As Yuvraj went down on his knees on the pitch, the Aussies waved their byes to the cricketing world and meekly embarked on a journey of rediscovery.

I remember asking my wife then to ask around in her circles of influence for tickets to the WC Finals. I knew Pakistan stood in the way but we had never lost to them in a World Cup! That was strong enough logic. I had obviously tried the WC ticket lottery online under 3-4 different names but that wasn’t good enough! I turned the emotional quotient to my request up a notch telling my wife it was the ideal “turning-30″ birthday present she could give me.

Thus began my quest for the World Cup Final ticket – I furtively e-mailed everyone whom I thought could arrange for tickets, sent SMSes to the people whom I knew better, called up friends and asked everybody whom I met over the week preceding the Finals for tickets. Meanwhile, the Indo-Pak game was turning out to be Rupert Murdoch’s wet dream! Everybody who was anybody wanted to be in Mohali – or at the very least, passing some superficial “it’s a game, not a war”, “the biggest match ever” kind of remark. While I did not doubt for a moment the “huge” deal that an Indo-Pak WC SF was, one felt violated by the mind-numbingly non-stop media hype : a desecration that eventually cost Pakistan their wits and set up one of my least memorable Indo-Pak WC games. The scratchy, chance-filled 85 innings by SRT is my only lasting memory from that game (not a very happy memory for an Indian fan as you can imagine). Sachin taught us all that day, “How not to lose when you are not winning” – it was a valuable lesson, no doubt, but fell short of the “humdinger” tag in my book.

I remember trebling my efforts to get a ticket in the hour following India’s SF victory. I tasted initial success – only to be left high and dry. Little did I realise that this script would repeat many a time over the next couple of days. I was offered tickets at one of the pavilions for an amount that was both shocking and ridiculous when I heard it first. It was at a significant integer multiple of the actual printed ticket price – but then, this was the WC final and tickets were like the rain in Sahara or stability in the Arab world! What makes me feel oddly disgusted is that the premium was not being charged by a seedy, needy black-marketeer (who will feature soon enough in this tale) but by highly educated, quite well-to-do folks. As I came in touch with more and more people selling tickets “at premium”, I realized there were many more well-off folks who were making a fast buck out of this. Now, I will not second guess why they were doing so: there are inefficiency and market failure arguments out there that I can think of. Probably, these are valid reasons.

However, I felt an odd feeling of “being there all by yourself” with “every man to take care of his own”! It was a very ironic feeling – here we were, on the verge of one of the greatest achievements in the nation’s sporting history with everyone wanting to get into that stadium to cheer and support as one nation. Yet at the same time, people you knew well, your colleagues/friends/acquaintances were unabashedly selling tickets for prices that would make the seller 200-300% profits, maybe even more! Of course, folks like myself are also to blame – we were happily providing “liquidity” to this odd marketplace by being ready and willing buyers! It was bizarre, to say the least.

The ticket purchasing saga had several twists and turns. I managed to get contacts of 2-3 “intermediaries” who have a knack for sensing intent – once they knew I was interested – they kept coming back with offers. I was desperate, as you can imagine by now. So I kept all of them in play – I came very close on Thursday (Final was on Saturday). An acceptable price was arrived at – I withdrew the largest amount of cash that I have ever withdrawn from several ATM cards – and handed them over to a vague person at a pre-defined location. I was told, the tickets will come in a couple of hours. While my wife was quite annoyed at the extraordinary leaps of faith I was taking – handing over money to strangers, paying ridiculous amounts for a ticket; I ignored all the pressure and focused on the job at hand much like Bevan in the 90′s not worrying about the scoreboard and just remaining single-mindedly focussed on winning the game for Australia. Anyways, I was told late on Thursday evening that the deal was “off” and the tickets were not available. It wasn’t hard to imagine what had transpired – the person I was purchasing tickets from had been offered a better deal elsewhere and decided to bail out on me! Apparently, honor among the crooked, etc. kind of concepts don’t exist among the folks who black WC Final tickets!

A lesser fan would have been disillusioned and given up the chase by now. I, however, decided to turn up the heat – a few more frenetic phone calls later, I still had a few leads going. The “botched up”deal had helped me do an “internal price discovery” – setting the price that I was comfortable paying. There was no turning back now. Next afternoon, one of my cricket crazy NRI-colleague, D. figured out a credible source and off we went to see if we would get lucky with the tickets this time round. We went to this really seedy building in South Mumbai to a ramshackle office where the last thing you’d hope to deal in is a WC Final ticket! The elderly gentleman was quite warm and did his best to convince us that the tickets we were getting were genuine! He offered us the customary tea/coffee but we were eager to pay, grab the tickets and get out of there! As D. and I stepped out of that “office”, we quietly hi-fived each other – it was one of those understated, reined-in ecstatic gestures that I always imagined Edmund Hillary giving Tenzing atop the Everest. The one that said, “yaay, we did it! but let’s not get too excited – since we have to get the hell out of here first!”


3.   Lessons learnt on an April evening

It happens to me – I think it’s possibly a common thing with other people too. I don’t really remember the day or time leading upto the Final. It’s like my mind was too busy focusing on storing those memories when I would be in the stadium to worry about things that transpired before. So, here we were, S., D. and I in the stadium just soaking in the atmosphere in the stadium, too dazed to wonder why the toss was done twice, too hyper that we would have started boo-ing the SL national anthem had it gone for a second over the 7 tormenting minutes that it rambled on for!

I remember Lanka reaching some 30-40 odd in 10 overs before we actually started focussing on the cricket. We were still figuring out all the celebs smiling and waving out of the giant screens, marvelling at the people seated inside staid, air-conditioned boxes, shouting and participating in the Mexican waves – too busy to focus on the cricket. In hindsight, that opening spell of Zaheer was perhaps one of the most crucial ones of his career. But this is not about that spell. We went berserk when Yuvi turned on the magic and took wickets with his innocuous looking left arm spin – surely at 210-4 in 44 or 45 overs, this one was going to be a sub-250 chase. But then Jayawardena, Kulasekara and Perera exploded and Wankhede went silent! 275 was a tough score to chase down in a WC final – I didn’t know then that it would be a record WC final chase – thank God as it would have unsettled the nerver further!

I remember discussing with S. at the break that this is probably going to be difficult for SL to defend with only one good bowler (Malinga) in their team! At that time, I think it was a brave statement just to give us all some confidence to soothe the anxiety. But as I look back at it now, I am sure even Lanka would have realized they didn’t have the bowling to trouble India and were hoping the pressure of the Final to help them.

I have seen the Indian batting innings at least 15 times on the telly ever since – every shot is etched sharp and clear in my memory. But more than the shots, the emotions that coursed through me during different points of the innings are still the stuff that goosebumps are made of! When Sachin edged Malinga to Sangakkara, I remember having pulled out my ticket stub and giving it a long forlorn look. Was this going to be my costliest disappointment yet…I wondered? As Kohli whipped Dilshan off his legs for a 4 to square leg, the prayers began. We didn’t move out of our seats – for food or water or anything else. S. stopped getting up from his seat at all – not even when Dhoni hit Perera for a six over deep point! D. launched into a multi-lingual commentary that oscillated between a Brit accent and a Sushil Doshi impersonation that left all seated around us a trifle baffled. But we were too tense to take note. We were setting small targets for India to achieve without losing wickets – much like the players on the field. As we started cruising, that Wankhede crown regained its voice – and how! The innocuous but immensely productive Gautam Gambhir nudge to the leg side off spinners was cheered like a 6! Patriotically charged songs kept blaring between overs and hold-ups – if I was a SL cricketer, I would be very very pissed – fortunately I wasn’t, so I was crooning at the top of my voice, hugging and hi-fiving total strangers as Dhoni and Gambhir showed the world how to chase down a total in cricket!

Perhaps my only regret of that day would be to have missed seeing Dhoni hit the winning 6 – a regret that I have since made good by watching it on TV at least 67 times. I am in love with that twirl of the bat, the look in those eyes, the part-smile-part-smirk of relief, every single iota of Dhoni’s body-language as he hit that six to uncork the celebrations for 1.2 billion people. It is my firm belief that we tide over the glorious monotony of life through collecting “special” moments, the “little gems” that make life worth living and putting up with. I definitely collected myself a sizeable piece of “jewel” in the Wankhede that evening.

The fireworks began, the noise continued unabated for a full hour and the victory laps were cheered and pretty much everyone in the India team was being interviewed. As everyone and their grandfather dedicated the victory to Sachin, I remember asking myself what the victory meant for me? It was kinda strange given that it was hardly the time to get philosophical – but D. next to me was crying like there was no tomorrow as he stared right through the fireworks in the dark Mumbai sky; so you can pardon me for taking a mental pause from the celebrations and becoming pensive!

To me, the victory symbolized 3 things – I guess it would be hard for you to believe that this is an impulsive, spur of the moment answer that came to me late that evening on 2nd April. But trust me, it was impulsive – I have since refined it and put it in better words maybe but these were my first thoughts as the enormity of this victory sunk in. Three clear symbols that I have since gone back to and drawn strength froms – and will probably continue to do so for a long time:

  1. Coming of age of a nation: We have all been told sometime or the other how lucky we are to be living in India in this day and age. A time when India is being recognized a global force to reckon with – yet is plagued by regressive scandals, corruption negative forces that threaten to spoil the dream run. Dhoni’s masterful twirl of the bat, to me, was like India showing its detractors the giant middle finger! F#$@ corruption, politics, scandals, insurgency, inflation, media exposes – India knows how to chase down its “targets” even when “Sachin and Sehwag” don’t score!
  2. Dhoni and the art of self-belief: Every self-help book worth its salt teaches you to believe in yourself. But the lesson is best learnt when you have a kick-ass teacher like Dhoni! To walk out to bat ahead of “Man of the tournament” Yuvi at 110 odd for 3 is brave! But to do it when you’re playing the WC Final and when your highest score thus far in the tournament is 34 odd, you can pretty much call yourself the synonym of self belief! Then to absorb the pressure like a sponge, score 91 runs in 75 odd deliveries and win your team the World Cup is like taking your self belief, making a giant cream-pie out of it and rubbing it in the faces of all your critics! I must thank Dhoni for making life simpler for me – now every time I find myself in a pickle (Monday morning blues or a difficult client situation), I tell myself, “If Dhoni could come out and score a 91 in that pressure cooker moment in a WC final, you can certainly solve this relatively insipid problem!” Sounds corny, I know, but is mighty effective!
  3. Closure…at last: Millions of cricket fans of my generation were too small when 1983 happened. Consequently, we have grown up wanting to be the best cricket team in the world. A 1000 times our hopes have been crushed by the swinging blade of Javed Miandad(1989) or the spinning ball of Sanath Jayasuriya (1996) or the blitzkrieg of Ricky Ponting (2003). Sure, we have had our moments of glory but the collective baggage of our crushed dreams and desires, the unfulfilled khwaishein was getting too onerous to carry! That 6 over mid-wicket finally brought much needed closure to our cricketing desires – now, we can get hungrier and ask Dhoni and Co. for much much more but we can all go to our graves with the satisfaction that on that night, for 4 long glorious years, we were the WORLD CHAMPIONS!

I realize this has become a rather long piece – rightfully so, since there is so much to be said about that victory! A victory that neatly epitomizes a nation’s rise, that teaches all Indians to believe in themselves and raises a tanatalizing question for the Indian cricket lover, “What next?”

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