People who like sport remember their lives better than those who don’t.” So opens and closes Daniel Harris’ remarkable personal essay on going through divorce during the unforgettable Ashes series in the summer of 2005. For someone who measures the march of time in four-year cycles of the cricket World Cup, Harris’ reminiscing provides a particular pleasure.
When it comes to World Cup season, memories flow clear as a mountain stream, dates present themselves uncomplainingly and one is able to locate a previous self in the current of time. The 2019 edition is now under way in England. Equivalents of Proustian madeleines are all around. A biscuit company has relaunched an ad campaign from 1999, iconic photographs have resurfaced on Twitter, heroes of recent vintage are holding forth in television studios. Stirred up by all this, I didn’t as much go in search of lost time as have it find me.
1996: INDIA, PAKISTAN, SRI LANKA
1996 may have been the second World Cup in Technicolor (at least in terms of the players’ kits) but I have no memory of Australia-New Zealand 1992. Now, at least, I am five years old. Of course, it is not how I understood it then but we are in the middle of the roaring 1990s. Well, roaring by our parents’ standards anyway.
We are the liberalization kids, but, at this point, we don’t know McDonald’s or the internet. We are not the first generation of the age of excess, but the last of the age of prudence. That is why our approaching emancipation will forever be tempered by middle-class memory. But—to adapt former US first lady Michelle Obama’s words on failure—change is a feeling long before it is an outcome. So, even a five-year-old can tell they are now aggressively selling things along with a game. Chewing gum, carbonated drinks, sports shoes.
This is South Asia’s World Cup, and the beginning of the reverse colonization of global cricket. My first cricket bat leans against the side of our sunmica-topped dining table in a Mumbai living room cluttered with the accoutrements typical of the time: a stodgy landline phone, back issues of Reader’s Digest, floppy place mats with a low-resolution print of generic fruits. We are watching the India-Pakistan match in that room. I don’t remember the Aamir Sohail-Venkatesh Prasad showdown. I do remember a bushy-moustached and narrow-shouldered Venkatapathy Raju flashing the victory sign. It is some years before even off-spinners will start looking like models.
I think I am special because the final is on my birthday. The adults are napping. The volume is on low, so I lean in to the TV—a Sony Trinitron—to hear the assured voice of John Dykes during the pre-match show. He is who I want to be when I grow up. Even then, I suspect that I will have no flair for actually playing sport.
They are holding the tournament in 1999 because the world is ending in Y2K—that was the rumour spread by the older boys in our apartment complex. Looking back, it is a noble thought. Let’s sneak in the ultimate dance with bat and ball before the clocks all go whack. Some sensible adult tells me it is to avoid a clash with an Olympic year.
1999 is that sweet spot where I can get excited about things without letting them wreck me emotionally. So it is with cricket. I prepare for the Cup by manfully defending my father’s sponge-ball throw-downs in the larger living room of our new flat.
On an expedition to the wonderland of Crossword on Peddar Road, I badger my mother for a book of World Cup trivia. Did you know that the West Indian bowler Winston Davis’ 7 for 51 against the Australians in Headingley in 1983 was a One Day International (ODI) world record at the time? I memorize batting averages and the names of team captains from the first tournament in 1975, displaying a penchant for hoarding inconsequential information at the cost of learning life skills like bicycle-riding or swimming. It will become a character trait.
The players are wearing oversized jumpers. Isn’t it supposed to be summer in England? The punters of Sea Queen Apartments are organizing their own tournament under Mumbai’s blazing noon sun. In overcast Taunton, Sourav Ganguly is dancing down the track and launching Muttiah Muralitharan’s deliveries into the rafters. Forgetting about the “six is out” rule, I try to foolishly emulate him in our backyard tournament. I spend hours on my haunches, peering at the underside of cars parked in neighbouring buildings, searching for red and white rubber balls.
The World Cup enters its business end as school reopens after the summer holidays. I am distracted from India’s woes in the Super Six stage by a long-plaited girl in my new class. On the basketball court, where we play hand-cricket in the lunch breaks, I run harder in the hope of catching her eye. In England, a South African who wears a chunky necklace has caught the world’s eye—Lance “Zulu” Klusener. Oh, to be as cool as Zulu! In the final, Australia thump Pakistan. The consistent guile of Glenn McGrath trumps the express pace of Shoaib Akhtar. The staid Steve Waugh pips mercurial Wasim Akram. This Aussie side is a ruthless machine, and they are just getting started. It is only the summer of 1999.
2003: SOUTH AFRICA
I have converted fully to football by now, but a World Cup is a World Cup. This tournament introduces me to the wonders of South Africa: to the lofty crags of the Table Mountain that rise behind the Newlands in Cape Town; to the bunny chow of the Indians in Durban; to the giant tree inside the boundary at the ground in Pietermaritzburg. I find out about the horrors too: about the Boer War and apartheid and Robben Island. In their tour diaries, Indian journalists write about crossing the Great Karoo from Bloemfontein to Paarl. I now know what the Karoo is but I don’t quite understand what that desert landscape of cloudless skies represents in the South African imagination. That will happen only when I read J.M. Coetzee, years later.
Memories, then: The gangly Ashish Nehra scarfing and then barfing a banana after he destroyed the English batting; a week-long sore throat caused by a lurid blue concoction (Pepsi’s tribute to India’s “Men in Blue”); attending a quiz at the YMCA off Carter Road, where geckos hid in the prickly lawn grass; Chaminda Vaas rattling a Bangladeshi opener’s stumps.
The West Indies are my second team. A friend and I have codenamed our latest crushes Chanderpaul and Sarwan. The Windies are eliminated in the group stage. Chanderpaul and Sarwan—real and codenamed—have not registered our existence. But Ganguly’s boys are on a rampage. Against Pakistan, Sachin Tendulkar dispatches an Akhtar delivery over wide third man for six. It is not his most audacious six of the tournament. A few days earlier, against England, he had taken a step across middle stump and pulled an Andrew Caddick ball out of the ground. But the old enemy has become irrelevant. The tournament will be remembered for the win against the new one. War minus the shooting and all that. In the final, we are steamrolled by the Aussie machine.
There was all this but what is the first image that comes to mind? It is Shaun Pollock, leaning forlornly on the dressing room balcony during the hosts’ tied game against Sri Lanka. The South Africans have messed up the Duckworth-Lewis calculation in a rain-shortened game. I am watching the match at my aunt’s one-bedroom flat in Matunga, with its star-patterned floor tiles and Childcraft encyclopaedia set. Sixteen years from now, this flat will be sold. The smooth wooden bannisters in the corridors will disappear when the redevelopers eventually take the building down. Matunga and Chanderpaul and the Carter Road YMCA will have long become the past by then. And I still won’t understand how Duckworth-Lewis works.
2007: WEST INDIES
Oo la la la la le o—the World Cup goes to the Caribbean, my favourite part of the cricket-playing world. The West Indians always look like they are having the most fun. The group-stage matches coincide with my class X board exams. But I can watch the knock-outs in peace, the endless possibilities of a three-month summer vacation before me. India betray me by getting knocked out at the group stage. First, they lose to Bangladesh on my birthday. They annihilate Bermuda next, but that game truly belongs to the burly policeman Dwayne Leverock, who defies gravity and belly to pull off a one-handed stunner at slip to dismiss Robin Uthappa. Then, Rahul Dravid’s team goes and bottles a must-win game against Sri Lanka on 23 March, three days before my last exam.
Pakistan coach Bob Woolmer is found dead in his hotel room a day after they lose to minnows Ireland and crash out of the tournament. The Jamaican police initially say it is murder. A pall of gloom descends over what was supposed to be the sunniest World Cup. The marketers have their own problem: They have been deprived of the tournament’s revenue-spinner—an India-Pakistan clash.
The great Brian Charles Lara plays his last hand in a dead rubber against England in Barbados. During the post-match interview, he asks the crowd: “All I want to know is, did I entertain you?” On the other side of the world, I feel a pang. The crowd roars its approval. It will miss this twinkle-toed fellow who used his bat as a cutlass, scything and clipping his way to monumental scores, this man who made batting seem like a work of imagination.
By now, I know I am moved by the idea of telling human stories through sport. I look for meaning in sport, and, in my head, I am already building what I imagine to be a cathedral of words to describe it. But it is unnameable, this feeling, a secret I won’t share because it is silly romanticism, this sport business. This is not the stuff of life; it is the stuff of leisure. A stable career is built out of studying something sensible: medicine, engineering, accountancy, law. You can’t be serious about sports journalism, can you, someone sensible asks me. The flicker is extinguished.
Duckworth-Lewis returns in a rain-affected final between Australia and Sri Lanka. The Aussie juggernaut wins its third successive Cup comfortably, but not before some confusion about when the match ends. I say it in hindsight, but the foreboding clouds over the Kensington Oval during the final were a fitting metaphor for the Caribbean World Cup—and my own state of mind.
2011: INDIA, SRI LANKA, BANGLADESH
I am a 20-year-old law student. I am reading about postmodernism and the end of history. I imbibe an affected cynicism that will eventually be exposed as callow self-absorption. I am determined to stay true to my philosophy, which demands a studied aloofness but often plays out as a lack of sensitivity in interpersonal relationships.
In the trimester break, I intern with a start-up in Chennai. I am on a local train. India are playing New Zealand in a warm-up game at the Chepauk. The distinctive white fibreglass roofs of the stadium come into view. Through a gap in the stands, I just about make out Tendulkar helping along a delivery straying down leg side. The train is past the stadium in a flash, but there is an unforgettable roar as the ball presumably reaches the boundary. It is an intense moment. I have goosebumps from the reverberation.
On the Cricinfo website, I read an extract from a book by an unknown Sri Lankan called Shehan Karunatilaka. These are early-ish days for e-commerce in India. Chinaman: The Legend Of Pradeep Mathew is the first-ever item I order online. Karunatilaka’s novel is about an alcoholic sports journalist’s quest to track down a mysterious Sri Lankan spinner who has dropped off the map.
Chinaman is unlike anything I have ever read before. It will be unlike anything I will ever read after. It is the Brian Lara of fiction. Karunatilaka writes: “Left arm spinners cannot unclog your drains, teach your children, or cure disease. But once in a while, the very best of them will bowl a ball that will bring an entire nation to its feet. And while there may be no practical use in that, there is most certainly value.” The secret itch returns.
Mohali hosts the India-Pakistan semi-final. At our law school in Bengaluru, the match is screened in the quadrangle of the academic block. In that morning’s international relations class, we discuss Benedict Anderson’s idea of the nation as an imagined political community. In the evening, we are ready to perform our nationalism, armed with Pepsi and Domino’s pizza. I have been harbouring a vague idea about a career in academia, but evenings like this crystallize my unsuitability for it: Where is the blood, the instinct, in theory? The Indian cricket team outplays the Pakistani cricket team, but of course we say that “we” won.
We are back under the makeshift tent for the final against Sri Lanka. M.S. Dhoni finishes it off with a six. The next few moments are a blur. When I eventually emerge from the melee of bodies deliriously piled one on top of the other, my glasses are broken, shirt torn, and I have lost a slipper. Even the warden—he of the puffed-out chest and bristling moustache—gets carried away. He bear-hugs some of us while declaring, “Tonight, there are no rules.” I lie down on the wide bridge to the enormous library building, look at the stars and say, “I can die now.” This is some of us at 20 then—to quote Albert Camus—originally innocent without knowing it, we are now guilty without meaning to be.
2015: AUSTRALIA AND NEW ZEALAND
This edition coincides with my first days in a new country, so I am a little checked-out of the whole thing. I move to London in a middle of a cold February to start a job with a venerable commercial law firm. London is a world of collar-up trench coats and dour faces on the Tube. My temporary lodgings are in a shoebox on Shepherd’s Bush Road. I say lodgings like some sort of gentleman aesthete, but I have to step on my suitcases to reach the shower cubicle.
I learn the language of the London property market at viewings organized by estate agents: double-glazing, EPC ratings, council tax. At work, I am assigned to the real estate team. I seem to spend all my time putting together packets of deeds relating to properties that the firm’s clients want sold. I sit in my made-to-measure suit and match up names and dates on sub-leases against an index.
It is not uncommon for the oldest of these documents to be from the 19th century. This is an old, old city. It gives me a particular thrill to sit in this tower of glass and chrome, bang in the centre of London, and superficially trace the titular history of parcels of land a few blocks from the office. Between all this, I have little time and mindspace for the cricket. The time difference is also unhelpful. Matches begin in the wee hours, and continue into the working day.
At night, I lazily watch highlights of the India matches. I wonder if my indifference has partly to do with wallowing in a kind of 1990s nostalgia. The giants I grew up with have almost all quit the game. Dhoni’s band of bearded, chiselled and tattooed men just don’t have the same kind of appeal—the way my father’s cohort never took to Tendulkar and Ganguly like it had to Sunil Gavaskar and Gundappa Viswanath. Generations of men, all trapped in the memory of early youth.
I move into a place near London Bridge. Beyond the TV set in the small living room, the top of the building they call The Shard looms like some giant lupine tooth tearing into the grey sky. I wake up to the sound of commentary on the day of the India-Australia semi-final. My loyal flatmates have been up for a while. They have watched Australia pile on 328 and are now glued to India’s floundering chase. One of them has already called in sick to work.
“How can you not want to stay at home and watch the game!” he wants to know. I straighten my tie, gulp down my orange juice and walk out of the door, head swimming with images from World Cups past. What am I doing here—on Bishopsgate, walking towards Liverpool Street Station in a suit and trench coat—I wonder, for a brief and mad moment.
At work, I am manically refreshing the Cricinfo scorecard every few seconds. That it is a lost cause is amply clear: 100 to get in six overs. Then Dhoni is run-out and the sorry end is reached soon after. I spend the rest of the day with the deeds packets, but there is a thing nibbling at my insides. This is supposed to be a beginning, but it feels like an end. Another World Cup is over. Another four years have passed.