Nothing can be more disquieting than the sullen silence of a mass of people, refusing to even breathe.
I was not at the World Cup final venue but grieving in front of my television set at India’s capitulation. The Indian in me was sad. The cricket fan in me was marvelling at the near perfection with which the Australians had dismantled India’s dream run and won the championship. Pat Cummins and his team had done what many believed was impossible. Taming and caging the tiger in his own den. I applauded, even if with a heavy heart. After all it was a sporting contest and not a war.
The images from the Narendra Modi Stadium, overflowing with a lakh of people, were speaking out loud, even if the overwhelming majority had gone silent. The defeat had left them speechless, the Australian celebrations blind. In this collective expression of mourning, they had forgotten to acknowledge the superior skills and brilliant tactics of the rival team. It was as if not only had the invincibility of this Indian team been shattered but the very essence of their own identity had been ripped apart.
On the eve of the match, I was at a television news debate on whether this was the best white-ball team India has ever had. The consensus was yes, it is. I met a wealthy Indian cricket fan, there for one of the many debates the news channel had lined up on the World Cup final. I presume he was wealthy because he had bought the cricket bat with which Dhoni hit the six that won the 2011 World Cup. He had spent 1 lakh pounds (around Rs 1 crore) to acquire that memorabilia.
He had been to most World Cup finals and was now making plans to go to Ahmedabad. He was aware that tickets were selling in black for more than Rs 1 lakh each and hotels were beyond the common man’s reach. He was sure India had the best chance now to add to the two World Cups it has already won – not only because the Indian team is strong, but also because of Modi’s inspirational presence.
His touching faith in Modi’s infallibility and the Indian team reminded me of a cricket fan I had met after India had decimated Afghanistan in Delhi. He was not worried about India’s chances as he was sure India would be in the final at Ahmedabad and to defeat the team in Modi’s state was an impossibility.
I had seen the steam billowing out of the collective energy of the thousands that day inside the Jaitley stadium and had wondered how they would react to an Indian defeat.
I remembered the 1996 World Cup semifinals at the Eden Gardens in Kolkata. The advertising blitz around the Indian campaign convinced people that the cup and India are made for each other. On that night, the Eden – the Paradise that the fans had envisaged – turned into an inferno as the Indian batting collapsed against the eventual winners Sri Lanka. The angry crowds went berserk, the sky lit up with fire as newspapers were lit and the ground was showered with litter. The match was abandoned and Sri Lanka, way ahead of the Indians, were declared the victors.
2023 is no 1996. A cricket fan is now a greater political animal and his belief of invincibility stems from reasons beyond cricket. In this ‘New India’, even sports seem an extension of a narrative where the lines between self-belief and self-delusion have become blurred.
When thousands marched into the Ahmedabad stadium on Sunday, November 19, they were convinced that cricket and their political leadership had aligned the stars so perfectly that defeat was an unthinkable possibility.
Australia had other ideas. They had studied and dissected the Indian strengths and weaknesses to perfection. They had even assessed the pitch conditions and the psychology of the highly partisan crowd well. What they unleashed on India was an exhibition of skills, planning and strategy that wore down a strong Indian team who despite their undeniable brilliance were yet to be really tested in their very vulnerable moments. To borrow from boxing terminology, Australia sparred first and once Indian defences were exposed, they unleashed a barrage of punches that left their opponents shell-shocked. Panic and pressure, something the Indians had appeared immune to so far, surfaced all of a sudden. A screaming sea of people were slowly losing their voice and by the time the Indian prime minister arrived at the stadium, India had lost the plot. What was made for each other was now coming apart.
The Australians were stamping all over the Indians. The crowd was not there to watch a cricket match. They were there to celebrate India’s win, not to applaud the wonderful cricket the Australians were playing.
Not even Modi’s presence could lift their spirits as all along they had believed he was the talisman that would ensure India’s win. Their world had collapsed, their dreams broken to shreds. They must have felt cheated, refusing to appreciate a four hit, a six struck, a century made and a victory achieved against all odds.
The Australian captain had on the eve of the match said that they would draw energy from silencing the crowd. The hush that descended on the stadium Sunday night even while Cummins lifted the trophy may have pleased the Australian captain, but it sure had diminished India in the eyes of the world.