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The thrill of victory

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Ninety-six hours later, and the above photo still gives me chills. India, and, finally, Sachin Tendulkar: World cricket champions.

I am, first and foremost, Canadian. Raised, not born; Kuwait City, Kuwait takes that honour (tongue planted firmly in cheek). I speak Hindi, but don’t consider myself Indian, or from India. I’m not. My ancestors are. My parents are. And my folks, along with my brother, would be the first to admit that I don’t relate much — and never have — to the Motherland, though I visit her frequently, especially in recent years. Unlike most people from the subcontinent, I am the furthest from religious. I eat beef. We — Hindus — aren’t supposed to; cows are sacred. I love beef.

Now, please, don’t get me wrong. I’m proud of my roots. India is a beautiful country, with a fascinating history, and a place everyone should be lucky enough to explore. Like any country, she has her positives — world’s biggest democracy, yo — and her negatives. The poverty, especially when experienced firsthand, is indeed crippling. But enough about my identity struggles. Long story short: I’m quite certain I’ve never felt prouder of my Indian heritage than after watching India win the Cricket World Cup over the weekend.

I can’t, with only words, explain what cricket means to India and its people. I can’t stress enough the role it plays on India’s psyche. The success of the new IPL — Indian Premier League, 20/20 high-quality cricket — speaks for itself. Cricket’s their hockey. Sachin Tendulkar, the greatest cricket player to ever grace the planet, is India’s Wayne Gretzky. And Bobby Orr. And Mario Lemieux. And Patrick Roy. Combined. Times about, oh, a thousand. In such an incredibly religious country — that’s what sticks with you when you visit, the intense religiosity, especially amongst the poor — Tendulkar is truly a living deity.

For a country with over a billion people, it’s shocking, and a touch embarrassing, how unathletic Indians are. Not for lack of trying. Indian’s, at least this is how I see it, want to succeed at sport. It’s just not easy, considering, according to numbers from 2001, India’s rural population accounts for more than 70% of the entire nation. Not to mention the poverty, and a lack of sporting infrastructure. You think Canada has it bad when it comes to amateur sports?

I spent the summer of 1996 in New Delhi and watched, along with the rest of the country, Leander Paes win a bronze medal in tennis at the Atlanta Olympics. Overnight, Paes became a hero, and a celebrity. There were “poojas” — prayers — held in his honour. He returned home to a hero’s welcome, only the second Indian to ever win a medal at the Olympics, and the first since KD Jhadav at the 1952 Helsinki Games. ┬áSports permeates in India, it does, but nothing like cricket.

That’s why Saturday, and the World Cup in general, was so important. It’s not just that India won the tournament for the first time since 1983. It’s how they won the tournament, and the circumstances surrounding their victory. It was, and I say this with certainty, Sachin Tendulkar’s final World Cup appearance. And his sixth. Tendulkar — The Little Master, only 5’5″ — has re-written cricket’s history books. But the World Cup title eluded him. It was the only trophy he hadn’t won. And in the final vs. Sri Lanka, looking to record his record 100th One-Day International century (100 runs in a one-day, 50 overs per side match), Tendulkar was caught out after only 18 runs. I can’t imagine India has ever been so silent.

But Tendulkar’s teammates weren’t going to let him down. They picked him up, led by their captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni, Gautam Gambhir, and Yuvraj Singh. India didn’t just win the Cricket World Cup on Saturday. No, they won it in style. They walked it off. Dhoni, in the final over, needing four runs to win the game, and deliver the trophy to Tendulkar, and his cricket-mad country, sent a towering six into the crowd. A no-doubter. It sailed into the seats, far above the boundary line, and set off literal fireworks in the sky, mayhem in the stands, and euphoria in the smallest, and most remote, Indian villages. The camera panned to Dhoni’s face as he watched the ball disappear into the Mumbai crowd. As Yuvraj, his batting partner, ran towards him, along with the rest of his Indian teammates, Dhoni collapsed to his knees. India had become the first country to ever win the Cricket World Cup on home soil. Tendulkar had finally won everything there was to be won as a cricketer, coming full circle in the city of his birth, where his unbelievable journey began, his first century coming as a 15-year-old in what was then Bombay.

In the immediate post-game interviews, Virat Kholi, 22-years old, one of India’s youngest players, and representing the next generation of Indian cricketers, spoke words I will never, ever forget:

[Sachin Tendulkar] has carried the burden of the nation for 21 years. It was time we carried him on our shoulders.”

It’s Kohli’s shoulders whom Tendulkar is on in the picture above.

I think, if my memory serves me correctly, I let out a huge sigh after hearing listening to Kohli’s words. He watched Tendulkar play growing up. He played road cricket — I’m assuming that’s what they call it, just like we call it “road hockey” — growing up, surely pretending to be Tendulkar. So young. So poetic. So goddamn on the money. Tendulkar, 38, had done it all. All. And it was the next generation, the Dhonis, the Yuvrajs, the Gautam Gambhirs, and the Kohlis, who made sure he left the game the ultimate champion.

Could a better script have been written? Other than Tendulkar walking the match off himself with a massive six, I don’t think so. At the same time, it was so fitting the way it went down. In a country where family ties are valued like nothing else, where joint families are as common as a pick-up cricket game on the streets, it was the youth who lifted the elder statesman Tendulkar, literally after the game, parading him around the stadium, and figuratively in the match, in order to get him the title. To a man, they all said it: We did it for Sachin. We played for Sachin.

I couldn’t help but think of the 1998 Winter Games in Nagano, Japan. I’m haunted by the sight of Wayne Gretzky sitting alone on the Canadian bench, Canada having lost the semi-final to the Czech Republic in the shootout. Ninety-nine was only the greatest goal scorer ever, but Gretzky didn’t get the tap on his shoulder. He knew, like we all did, that as a player, he’d never win Olympic gold. It wasn’t right. Watching Tendulkar hoist the Cricket World Cup trophy, I was overjoyed with emotion that he’d avoided a similar fate.

Along the way, India dispatched Australia, the defending champions. They defeated Pakistan, their biggest rival, their nemesis. In the semi-final, no less. Playing at home, under what was surely incredible pressure, India put their poor 2007 World Cup finish behind them. They regrouped. There was never any panic. Not even after Tendulkar was retired for 18 runs in the final. Champions. “Windia.” I trust India’s still celebrating. I am.

One of my fondest memories from my jaunt through parts of India last year was joining a game of pick-up cricket on the beach in Palolem, South Goa. I was fielding, my feet in the water. The youngish batter, on a ball inside, close to his legs, opened up and smacked it my way. I dove, half-heartedly, and missed. As I got up and went to grab the tennis ball, I heard the batter’s friend say to him: “Sachin jaise, yaar.”

“Just like Sachin, friend.”

Congratulations, India. From an ocean away. Or, as they say back home, “Chak De India!”

Image, such a damn fine one, courtesy of Reuters, via daylife.

Written by Navin Vaswani

April 6th, 2011 at 12:51 pm