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1983 reasons why we should watch the cricket world cup finals, just for the sheer joy of sports

Very few moments in sports, capture the pure joy of any spectator event, as this goal by Diego Maradona in the 1986 world cup does. Voted the goal of the century, this is one sporting moment that anybody who has never played football, or never watched the game, or has no clue about Argentina, England, or the Falklands war, or can’t understand a word of the Spanish commentary, would appreciate. I was 5 when this happened, so can hardly claim to have watched it live, but I do remember watching it before the 1990 Italia world cup, as part of the preview show and being blown away.

Just as you don’t need to be Russian to admire Tchaikovsky, or Colombian to tap your feet to a Shakira beat, you don’t need to have known about the Falklands war, the Latin American pride on display as Argentina beat England, the controversial hand of god goal scored by Maradona just a few minutes back, the well justified criticism of the poor sporting gesture by the international press, or about Maradona subsequent decline into drug abuse and later redemption as a national coach, to admire that one singular moment where he dazzled the 11 English players and millions of us with a few minutes of football magic. You need not have ever kicked a football in your life to appreciate the genius at work, but if you have actually played football, you’d probably appreciate the nuances even further

Sporting moments, without context, have the capacity to stir neutral observers, young and old alike, and un – prejudiced minds.

Sporting contests, with the spice of the socio- political context, or historic rivalry thrown in as context, are definitely spicier. And when you happens to be one of the camps, supporting team A or team B, player A, or player B, completely change the playing field altogether

As the cricket world cup 2011, draws to its grand finale, and a billion Indian fans, and millions of Sri Lankan fans gear up for a fitting title contest, I thought it pertinent to write about sports at a much more basic and primal level, and liberate it from some of the clichéd, stale and frankly annoying prisms through which most Indians see the game. This is not to say, that other countries are not guilty of silly behavior when it comes to sport, but I can only speak for my country.

Here are my thoughts on the most un- healthy trends in India when it comes to following cricket, and how it manifests itself through crowd behavior, poor quality of commentary, and outpouring of idiotic arguments online through social media:

  1. Intense jingoism and connecting a sports win / loss to all sorts of thing unrelated to the game itself
  2. The demographics of the audience and commentators is skewed, and there are too many people who make too much noise, without the right facts, or without having ever played the game

 I would want to briefly discuss these negative trends, leave you with some  very well articulated points of view on the above by other authors, and focus more attention on what really we ought to be looking forward to and appreciating with more fervor

First, some context into the recent matches involving India. Starting off from the quarter finals game against Australia, and building up a crescendo to the semi finals against Pakistan, India has ridden a wave of jingoism and national fervor. I am a super proud Indian, but I do believe there are some lines you don’t cross, and a lot of Indians are guilty of crossing many of these lines.

The first shock to me, even half anticipating the typical Indian fan mentality, was the abuse and boos to Ricky Ponting, during the quarter finals. Now, I am no Ponting fan, and neither do I believe Australian cricketers make great ambassadors for sporting fair play, but in the context of that game, Ponting played a master class that should have been applauded whole heartedly for what it was. Instead, he walked off the ground to boos upon scoring an epic century, and I held my head down in shame by the behavior. I know Australian crowds are partisan, I quite often find their behavior boorish, and if Ponting claimed a bump catch or shouted at an Indian player that day, he would have asked for those boos. But any great player walking off after a brilliant hundred in a high stakes game, would have expected a fair bit of appreciation for his game. For the record, the Australians have always applauded Sachin whole heartedly, and he is constantly compared to their national cricket icon – Don Bradman. The only crowd that has ever booed Sachin was in Mumbai!

Here is an excellent article, which explains how many of us felt about Ponting and his final ODI innings:

http://chroniclesofdementia.blogspot.com/2011/03/dear-ricky.html

A lot of bridge has flown under the water when it comes to Indo – Australian relationships, and sporting rivalries.

On the cricketing field, India challenged the Australian dominance more than any other team, and had much more success against them than the others. This of course did not go down well with Aussies, and while the result was a good decade of high-octane cricketing contests, there were also bitter incidents like the Monkey gate / Sydney test fiasco. Purely as an Indian cricket fan, I felt cheated when it came to the Sydney test, marred by horrendous umpiring against us, and poor sportsmanship by Ponting & co, but Bhajji’s racial abuse of Symonds was equally shameful.

The non cricketing development was the growing racial attacks against Indians in Australia, and the detailed media coverage of it. While I am horrified by these incidents, I strongly believein  the following: A. Our media is not really credible, so this means they paint a distorted picture of everything. So 2 attacks in 2 months translates to a dozen Indians attacked everyday in their world, B. These issues are far more complex, and need a more intelligent understand of the root causes and the solutions. I am not going to solve it, but neither is some Indian abusing all Aussies online going to solve it, C. We do not hold the truly responsible people accountable enough – how many critical reviews of S.M Krishna’s performance as foreign minister have happened in this country, where we have asked him how he has worked with the Australian government on this issue? Instead we chose to pick the wrong battles, and believe that beating the Aussies in cricket somehow heals the trauma of the Indians mugged in the alleys of Melbourne and Sydney.

Thankfully the game of cricket itself was of a very high quality, and Indian sealed a thrilling contest in style. And that meant, we were up for an even more high volatile political game – India Vs. Pakistan

Needless to say, as a proud and intelligent Indian, I find Pakistan’s political leadership as a threat to India’s security and stability. It is an open secret that Pakistan has always been an unstable country, dominated by religious identity, obsession with Kashmir, military influence on social life, the omnipresent hand of ISI in war mongering cross the sub continent, and of late, a strong Al Qaeda and Taliban safe haven

The terrorist attacks on Mumbai in 2008, by Pakistanis, should not ever be forgiven or forgotten, but that does not make every Pakistani an enemy, leave alone 11 cricketers. No victory in a cricket match, will recover the lives of those people murdered by the Pakistani terrorists. India and Pakistan have been perennially at war with each other, but that should be left to diplomatic and political battlefields

From politicians across parties, journalists, film starts, and all sorts of wannabe celebs wasted no time in exploiting the India – Pakistan to grab attention their way and scoring silly brownie points.

The cricket itself was of pretty high quality, though I have seen better contests. But how many people noticed the finer cricketing points. The cricket itself was lost in the din of the politics played out for the match.

Manmohan Singh did not make any progress on bilateral relations; Rahul Gandhi being featured on NDTV’s webpage as they celebrated the Indian win was a crass insult to the 11 cricketers who won the match and a horrible example of how sold out the main stream media is; Gilani can smile all he wants, but frankly he is far safer in Mohali than in his Taliban controlled Pakistan and should rather have tried to fix that problem; No India – Pakistan problem was solved, and neither will ever be, by watching a cricket match, or by abusing Afridi, who has been a fantastic cricketer, leader, and ambassador for his country.

An excellent article, written by Akash Chopra, captures these sentiments well, and gives us fascinating insights into how cricketers themselves approach such matches: http://www.espncricinfo.com/magazine/content/current/story/508967.html

The other problem that plagues the Indian cricket following is the mushrooming of highly non sensical commentators and self-made experts. This includes people nominated by T.V and print media, and those of use who extend our cricket chatter to online social media. With advent of IPL all sorts of people who never played the game or had anything to with it before are experts on who should be or not be in the team, who would win, what should the captain do etc

I cannot claim to have played cricket at a higher level than school / university, and till today regret certain physical disorders that blew always my pipe dreams of being a cricketer. I do not believe that you must have played the game to speak freely or comment on it, and by nor does having played the game gives one a divine right to be an expert who gets it right

But the sheer extent to which the profile is skewed, and the significant number of people, talking, and talking loudly about the game without having ever picked up a bat or a ball, is crazy.

I am all for freedom of speech, but I guess I have to exercise my freedom of speech someday to say “If you think that’s an easy catch, why don’t you try to catch this ball I am going to throw at your face now!”

I can’t think of what is more annoying: Examples like the entire country clamoring to pick Sreesanth, based on his good test match bowling in S.A (and no one bothered to check Cricinfo  for his horrendous ODI stats), and having SMS polls on who should be in the team, or noises of match fixing  now and then

As a seasoned cricket observer, and one time cricket player at a small level, I can say that there is absolutely no use obsessing over match fixing in every match. Yes fixing exists, and yes it has been rampant in the past, and yes it still does happen now, but not even Albert Einstein can say exactly which match was fixed, how and by whom. And even if a specific match was fixed, it need not necessarily influence the outcome. You could buy half the team, but if Viru decides to smash a century nevertheless, or if Zaheer finds reverse swing, the team would still end up winning. So, it is quite futile getting into nitty gritty of the murky world of betting. So, why bother at all? Can’t you just leave that angle alone and enjoy the match?

While enough sensible voices in the media, and cricket writers have written about topics I have alluded to, I do believe the only way to make the country mature in its following of the game, is to actually give positive examples of what a thing of beauty cricket, or any sport is, even when stripped from all the context, sub plots, and analysis

I would love all Indians to watch the game with passion and support the men in blue. But along with all the nationalistic fervor, I would also urge you to look out for beauty in so many finer details of the game.

Watch the game for the bubbly enthusiasm of Sachin Tendulkar. Not Sachin the national hero, or god, or the man with 99 international hundreds, or anything else you may want to call him, but for the Sachin who loved the hit ball as a little kid. Here is the man, nay boy, in one of his early interviews as a 16 year old in love with the game:

This man is still in love with the game, and still loves to fight hard for that elusive Indian world cup win. I think the biggest way to insult this man is talking non stop about his greatness, and his 100th century, and how we should win the world cup for him. I am pretty sure if he scored his 100th century and India lost he would be gutted, just as I am sure he would take a duck happily if India still wins

Let’s wind our clock back to just one game, to that semi final against Pakistan, when Viru started off like a bullet train. How many of us observed Sachin playing carefully at first and giving the strike to Sehwag. How many of us know what a difficult thing that is to do?

I played a lot of cricket in my school days as an opener, along with brilliant left-handed partner and friend called Gaurav. Gaurav was all flash, dazzling stroke play, and attacking batting – stuff that I was capable of matching now and then, but was humble enough to accept that he was far better, and the smart thing to do was to give him strike.  But quite often, I would be on strike after Gaurav has crashed a flurry of boundaries, I would be tempted to play that flashy shot. Just to say, you know I can hit a cover drive too?

Now put yourself in the shoes of one of the greatest ever players in the game, a destroyer of bowling attacks in his younger days. How easy do you think it is for Sachin to take a single and get to the other end, when the crowd is egging him on for a boundary? Watch the finals for how the same Sachin would impose himself and take charge, if he observes Viru to be struggling to get his customary flurry of boundaries in the first few overs.

Watch the game for the fine science that is the game of cricket: Look at a dozen batsmen playing the cover drive, or the back foot punch in the match, and compare how each angle is differ, and each follow through is different. Watch it for how well-balanced Sachin always looks, as opposed to let’s say Dhoni. Watch it for how Dhoni hits the ball harder than most people.

A beautiful passage of play during the India –Pakistan game, was completely lost on most people who saw every moment of the match. Wahab Riaz, the Pakistani left arm seamer had to make a strong statement to justify his place in the team, ahead of the much fancied Shoaib Akhtar, and he did that with style picking up 5 wickets, with high quality swing bowling. Having done all that, he had to try to win the match out of nowhere with the bat. Ashish Nehra, much maligned in the Indian public ha d a similar point to prove, and had the ball in had. Ashish bowled a couple of lovely left arm deliveries, and Wahaz could not get bat on ball. There was a moment when Ashish completely fooled him with a beautiful swinging delivery, Wahab realized he was beaten in his own game by a more experienced practitioner, looked up to Ashish and both exchanged smiles. Forget India Pakistan wars, Sachin, Mohali, Prime ministers, semi finals, and all that jazz; it was just one young left arm swinger admiring the skills of another, and appreciating how the older man went about his trade.

Watch the game for the man with the big eyes, big smile, and an ability to spin the ball from Arabian sea to Bay of Bengal:  Muthiah Muralitharan.

Watch how he goes about his game at the age of 37, half – fit, and playing his last ever game. Watch how he turns the ball at different angles, directions, varies his flight and sets his field. Buy a cricket ball, run in a few steps, and try spinning it. Try all day and see if you can actually spin it both ways, and control how much you spin. Observe how much your shoulder pains if at all you managed to be it for more than 20 minutes.

Be ready to stand up and applaud him if he beats Sachin or Sehwag and gets their wicket, in the last match of a glorious career. It takes a lot of skill to do that, and you do not have to be a Sri Lankan to applaud the magic at work. Neither does applauding Murali make you anti national. For those who understand Tamil, here is a priceless interview of Murali in Tamil, speaking about with child like enthusiasm about the game. You cannot help, but admire the man who has survived near death situations with the Tsunami, and terrorist attacks, talk about how it was back to cricket the next day for him:

Watch the finals, for the sheer audacity of a bloke called Virender Sehwag; observe how days of media build up, hype, minute analysis, the noise of a packed audience, and the knowledge that his house could get lynched if he fails and India loses, matters not one bit to him when he face the very first ball; watch how he hits most first balls for a boundary, whether they are good or bad. Watch how he would tease Murali by dancing out to him and how Murali would give one more of those big smiles, walk back and beat him the very next ball. Try and hear their friendly banter after that, and observe great minds at work.

Watch the finals, for the incredible sight of a freak called Lasith Malinga. Be ready to cheer every Indian boundary scored of him, but also be ready to let yourself be amazed at the sight of those toe crushing yorkers, very few cricketers who have ever played that game, can match that skill and impact.

Watch how Dhoni and Sangakkara go about marshalling their teams in a cool collected way. Whatever be your identity, or your opinion of either one of them, tell yourself that this finals features the two best modern captains in the game.

Look out for Dhoni the keeper, standing up to the stumps when Munaf is being attacked, and think of how hard it is going to be if he misses and get a 120 kmph ball in the eye or hand.

Look out for Zaheer Khan’s slower, knuckle ball. You have seen that against Mike Hussey, would he try that against Sangakkara?

You have heard the name carrom ball, a million times before, and you know Mendis bowls it, and so does our Ashwin; Can you watch closely and observe if they both do the same thing, or have a different way to bowl the carrom ball?

Watch out for how all these actors come together in a fascinating cricketing drama. Look out for some less heralded names, doing their best to steal the thunder from the super stars. Look out for Suresh Raina trying to contribute in every way possible – every attempt at a risky single and dive, just to add1 more run to the total, or every dive to save 2 runs. Look out for Dilshan, trying to carve his identity as a great opener and trying to over shadow Sachin, Sehwag, Jayasuriya

If you have gotten this far, you would observe suddenly how winning or losing has a different perspective altogether. Clichéd as it may sound, this has been a great cricket world cup, and the cricket will be the real winner. If the crowd does take part and cheer sportively, there is no doubt in my mind this would be a very good world cup final, between two closely matched teams.

If you have come so far, perhaps you may start following some more sports for the sheer quality of skills on display. A brilliant goal by Lionel Messi is as difficult to execute as a Lasith Malinga yorker, or a Roger Federer forehand winner.

If you have gotten this far, perhaps you may stop for a minutes when little kids play cricket or football, at the neighborhood park or beach, and watch the fun. Perhaps one day this may inspire you to join a local sports club, or team, or just play back yard cricket with your kids, instead of pouring vitriol on how non athletic Munaf Patel is

India should win, and am basing that on a strong gut feeling built on watching cricket for years. If not, I am pretty sure they would fight hard and show enough skills. And we can be sure that they have done a great job making it to the finals against strong oppositions, and the weight of expectations playing at home.

So, come Saturday, may the best team win, and may sports continue to spread more of joy and less of sorrow to millions around the world!

Footnote: Even if India win on Sunday, which I really hope they do, it would not be as big a deal as the 1983 triumph, which remains the seminal event in Indian sports history, as well as world cricket history, for its sheer impact on the game.

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