“God is not coming to save us,” Dhoni told his team in the huddle.
It might as well have been a message to millions of cricket fans who set aside a large portion of a June Sunday to watch the Champions trophy final from Birmingham between India and England. Following sports as a hardcore fan is thankless a lot of the time. It is an enormous time sink and one that can be torn apart by many rational arguments. Never is it more frustrating than when losing sleep over whether or not a sporting event of interest would even transpire. For much of Sunday, cricket, its governing body and fans had eggs on their faces with the farce of a rained out final looming large. How would we explain to the billions who don’t watch or care that the final and deciding match of the (quadrennial) second most important tournament on the sport’s calendar would not happen because of a few millimeters of rain? What sense did it make for a tournament of this magnitude to neither schedule a reserve day nor have the flexibility to call for one late? Why, in this day and age could the sport not find a way to play around rain?
“God is not coming to save us,” fans might have felt at 10 PM (IST) when the game should have been winding down but instead went in to one of its gazillion rain breaks. God had better things to do than to pay attention to a farce of a cricket match that climaxed a tournament (whose original intent and current iteration are pretty far removed) run by a farce of an administrative body.
Instead, a game heading to the nether that most one day internationals end up at, found a second wind and turned into a Category 5 sporting event whose result will resonate among fans, players and the history books for a long time to come. Forget the Confederations cup and the exhibition football that is mostly meant to test out Brazil’s readiness for the real deal next year. Forget the tennis majors that are currently 10 day warm-ups for a top-heavy final weekend. Forget the NBA finals whose winner was anointed, predicted and called out 36 months ago. The sporting event of the summer was the most unlikely cricket match of them all!
Here are five reasons why –
a) Context : The Indian team just got done beating 5 different teams on three different grounds in conditions mostly removed from ones they are familiar with. In many ways that makes this Indian cricket’s moment of crowning glory even when ranked against the triumphs in 1983, 1985, 2007 and 2011. Over 17 days India beat South Africa, West Indies, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and England. And India did this on the heels of the most controversy the team and sport have faced in a decade. And India did this while replacing doyens of their game with a set of fresh-faced and brash youngsters who have not yet blazed their own trail. And India did this in the eleventh month of an interminable cricket season that would have broken slightly more mortal bodies and minds.
In the final match of the tournament at Birmingham, they overcame conditions, interruptions and a pitch that would have sapped those a little less tough. They were put into bat at 10 AM and did not get to bat until 4:45 PM. And even then, only for 6 overs before they had to take shelter for another English summer downpour. Interruptions are killers whether to writing a blog post or to bat thru 20 overs against two new balls and a team playing at home. While India got lucky at several stages, they could have sat on ready excuses of chance, luck and the vagaries of interruptions. The fan base would have consoled itself that the final was not their day and the best team didn’t win. Instead the team batted hard and then the bowlers and fielders held their nerves and incidentally their chances to pull off a win that seemed far-fetched right thru the day until 20 were needed off 16 by England with 6 wickets in hand.
In the context of where international cricket, Indian cricket and the game were at that moment, this was a win for the ages. The defining one day international tournament win for the defining team of the year. Period.
b) Captain : Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s post-game interview was the best I have ever seen in any sport.
The video can be located here.
It is not easy for winners to be calm, erudite or even coherent in moments of euphoria. No wise words have been said right after an orgasm. One only needs to listen to or watch Virat Kohli in the moments after the win to see how most of us would react when life gives us champagne lemonade. Dhoni on the other hand was calm, crisp and extremely logical. He called out how he doesn’t think of much more than the next ball or game. He let the youngsters in the team take all the credit and limelight while being quite subdued himself. He spoke of how he values toughness and persistence more than technique and also shared his insecurities on how the game could have been lost at any moment.
Throughout the game and tournament Dhoni led with the composure and vision that Indian fans are now used to. His field placements, inflexibility with selections and batting order and bowling changes (such as letting Ishant Sharma bowl one over too many) rile many of us up but like a cricketing voice I highly respect told me today,”He deserves the benefit of the doubt. He is Dhoni da!” MS Dhoni has not missed a game for his national team or franchise in a year. He has captained in every one of these games and has faced up to pressure, controversy, volume of cricket and adversity with zero complaints and immense responsibility. He is the leader the passionate universe of fans deserve and nowhere was it more evident than in his cool during the pressure stages of the final and during the post-match interview where lesser mortals would have blabbed about supernatural forces or spouted clichés. India just beat five teams in the course of 17 days. They could not have done it without MS Dhoni.
c) Choke : There are harder things in life than to recover from a painful loss in sports. But not that many :). Like several teams and individuals across sports will tell you and like every India fan who saw Chetan Sharma 1986 and every South African fan who saw Allan Donald 1999 will tell you, painful losses stick for a really long time. And every English cricketer and fan will find the next limited overs tournament win that much tougher. A lot tougher. Painfully hard.
England had the game in the bag. Their best player on the day Ravi Bopara and their best ODI batsman Eoin Morgan had done the hard yards. Ishant Sharma was in a generous mood and the packed house full of India fans were one boundary away from heading to the exits after being rained on for close to 10 hours. England would have been deserving winners on the day. Instead the cruellest C word of them all took over the team ten minutes early to transform a six wicket win into a five run defeat.
d) Celebration: Freedom fighters have appeared less elated than the bulk of the Indian team did after the match. Virat Kohli launched into an incoherent tirade of English-sounding words, Ravindra Jadeja let loose knowing he’d shed the heaviest of baggage, Ishant Sharma walked the walk of a cocky bowling lead and the rest of the team somehow managed to wear and hang on to the most insipid blazers known to man, for a lap around the stadium.
Forget the win, this was a celebration unlike any other. There was Gangnam style, champagne, a random cellphone call to the captain, blown kisses and a cavalcade free of hangers-on and paparazzi. If there was any sense to the rain, it may have been that it filtered out all but the most deserving and the most die-hard. The video below does not do justice but is somewhat close to the sights and sounds that followed the win.
e) Chance: Let us not forget the element of chance and luck that helped the Indian team out. England after all were two overthrows shy of winning this one. India after all got extremely lucky with Ian Bell dismissal. Ishant Sharma got wickets to deliveries that were either extraordinarily well-thought out or acts of random ineptitude by the English. Any of several things could have happened differently and changed the outcome. India will play much better in the future and lose. England may even play worse and win. The line between winning and losing, the line that gives sports especially cricket its very own exclusive tier in the world of entertainment was very thin today. Thinner than on most days in most sports involving most teams. It is why I will remember this day and game forever.
Being a cricket fan brings a lot of pain. There are days when the time sunk into strangers hitting a leather object feels futile and frustrating. And there are days when it is life-changing, rewarding and euphoric. June 23’rd 2013 was one such day.
A champion held up the ICC Champions trophy. And a game quickly took its place as the greatest 20-over game ever. To India and cricket fans everywhere, maybe God did come to save us.