The birth of belief

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Lord’s Test, 1971. India, fresh from a series victory in the West Indies, had taken the first innings lead over England. Now they needed 38 runs to win, with two wickets remaining, including that of the man in form, Eknath Solkar. I can’t remember who the commentator was; it might have been John Arlott. He informed those of us sitting around a Murphy radio at home in Bengaluru that it had begun to rain. Thousands across the country must have done what we children then did — we broke into a rain dance, to encourage the gods further.

It worked. The match was washed out. The newspapers carried a cartoon of a local driver refusing to drive a bus in London because it was No. 38. We thought it was hilarious. We revelled in the glow of defeat averted. Not to lose was the greatest victory then.

Years later, I discovered that the reaction in the Indian dressing room had not been much different. Skipper Ajit Wadekar didn’t break into a dance, but he blessed the rain, and the mood in the dressing room turned upbeat. It was taken for granted — by the players, the media, the fans — that India would not have made it.

Four decades later, the psychological turnaround is complete. At 31 for two in the final of the World Cup, and with India’s best batsmen dismissed, only the generation that had followed the Lord’s Test of 1971 had any doubts. We were prepared for the worst — another Vijay Amritraj moment in sport. The cliché was near at hand, had always been: so near, yet so far. Amritraj, once considered more talented than his contemporaries Bjorn Borg and Jimmy Connors, was always magnificent in defeat. But mainly it was defeat. Talent that didn’t go all the way, the story of Indian sport.

The Talisman MS Dhoni, Suresh Raina and Sachin Tendulkar during a practice session
Photo: Getty Images

This time, however, it was different. The radio had given way to television, and the group around it was not unlike the group around the radio all those years ago. But the atmosphere was different. The younger ones didn’t flinch. My son leaned over and bet the price of a Dream Theater CD that India would not only win, but win easily. He is a fan in the age of Sachin Tendulkar — confident, self-assured and with faith in the cricket team. A completely different animal from his father who is wracked by uncertainty and carries too many memories of promise collapsing at the last hurdle.

Has an era finally ended? The era of Doubting Thomases and the-other-team-will-win certainties? The era when the dominant emotion at an India match was not anticipation but anxiety, and everyone believed that even if India had to score 10 runs in 10 overs with 10 wickets in hand, they would somehow manage to screw it up?

When Virender Sehwag says today that he always backs the opposition, he means it as a joke, as a way of proving to himself the sheer absurdity of such thinking. Not so long ago, that was the way to bet. When India made their Test debut in 1932, they reduced England to 19 for three in the first half hour of play. Then, shocked at their impertinence, they allowed England back into the game to lose by 158 runs. For the first 20 years — while a whole generation came and went — India didn’t have a single victory. The CK Nayudus, Mohammad Nissars, Amar Singhs, Vijay Merchants rocked the world as individuals but Team India had nothing to show for it.

National ambitions were moored to simplicity. The prayers were practical: “Please God, let Merchant score a 50” or “Let CK hit a couple of sixes.” Fifty scored, sixes hit, the fans were happy. Indians were not expected to win anything, their aim was to be honourable in defeat. Sometimes even that was a tall order. One summer day in Manchester, Fred Trueman and Alec Bedser combined to dismiss India twice in a day for 58 and 98. Not much honour in that.

It was only when a genius named Sunil Gavaskar appeared that we began to fantasise about drawing matches we would have easily lost earlier.

We are now in phase 3 — the Tendulkar phase. We have become a nation that believes. The anxiety has been replaced by belief, the worst case scenario is merely a reduction in the margin of victory. We lose now and then, of course, but there is no inevitability about it. India began as favourites and won the World Cup. Now, in close finishes, the intelligent money will be on India.

India won only 23 Tests of the 125 that Gavaskar played, but they drew 68 or 54 percent. Even in one-day internationals, despite the resurgence in the years around the 1983 World Cup win, India still lost more games than they won of Gavaskar’s 108.

Tendulkar changed all that. His win-loss record in Tests is 61-46 and in ODIs 230-195. A whole generation with more points on the credit side has grown up around him.

Mahendra Singh Dhoni confessed that he didn’t watch the 2003 World Cup final. “I switched off the television when Tendulkar got out,” he explained. If watching Tendulkar bat is a national obsession, switching off the television when he got out had become a national habit. Till now.

India has traversed the path from valour in defeat to honourable draw to inevitable victory. Youngsters assume victory is a natural corollary to being Indian. The 2003 team that lost in the final was a better team than the one that won this year. But neither the players nor the fans had crossed this important psychological barrier.

Cricket fandom in India has traditionally been fraught with stress, tension and foreboding. Would Gavaskar, the greatest run-maker of the era, score a century in the same match in which the greatest match-winner BS Chandrasekhar claimed five wickets in an innings? That happened just thrice.

Hence the private arrangements with the cricketing gods. About turning vegetarian, about shaving off hair, about donating to temples, about not using foul language for a week. Simple, doable things. No one promised to take off all their clothes and parade around in the stadium. This is not fandom, merely publicity-seeking, and that’s a whole different genre. It is the bandwagon effect where prime ministers, politicians, movie actors, models — all pretend to love the game and want to contribute to it with their humble presence, fully clothed or otherwise.

Indians are fans not so much of cricket as of cricketers. Look at a Ranji Trophy match. Three men and a dog make up the audience

The fan who watched the final without making a single visit to the toilet sacrificed more. “This is the least I could do for my country,” he said proudly (but softly in case it set off something he couldn’t control). It meant he didn’t miss a single minute of the action — or a single commercial. And since the Indian skipper was seen most often in both, this fan was a bit uncertain about whether India actually won or what he saw was a commercial. Strong bladders can lead to weak minds sometimes.

The great thing about sporting victories is that it involves a few million people (not 1.2 billion as the media would have us believe. There are enough millions who don’t give a rodent’s donkey or are otherwise engaged in the hard business of staying alive or have been turned off by all the hype and hoopla). Everyone has a story about how he contributed to India’s win.

Just as cricket has undergone a change, so too has fandom. This has been said often enough, but bears repetition — Indians are fans not so much of cricket as of cricketers. You only have to see the attendances at a Ranji Trophy match to understand this. Three men and a dog make up the audience, and sometimes one of them takes the dog for a walk and the crowd is abruptly reduced by 50 percent.

In the days when Gundappa Viswanath was rewriting the geometry of batsmanship, crowds flocked to watch him in local league matches. On one occasion, I borrowed a cycle and rode a great distance to see him play in a tennis ball match. Turned out he was the chief guest and didn’t actually play, but it didn’t matter.

Fans had no guarantees then; the uncertainty was often devastating. You might walk on the road avoiding all the cracks in the pavement or make sure you touched every electric pole on the way to the stadium or bribe the gods in a hundred different ways. But you knew in your heart that you — and India — were fighting a losing battle.

Tendulkar, and now Dhoni, have changed all that. From anxiety to belief in three steps spread over several decades. The bladder controller can let go at the next World Cup, and the model can keep her clothes on. It doesn’t mean that India will win everything from here on. Just that long-suffering fans will not need to make so many sacrifices. We have done our bit over the years.

talmenon@yahoo.com

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