Wednesday, September 27, 2023

The heartbreak of 1996

 We just refused to believe that it could go any other way.  You really have to blame Sachin Tendulkar.  We genuinely believed that through his individual brilliance, India could win the 1996 cricket world cup.  He never said so.  He just made us believe so.  With him, he carried the hopes of a billion fans.  Even before he had taken the world by (sand)storm in 1998, he still made us think that one individual alone could take the team to victory.  Not that we had a dearth of talent really.  Be it dependable batters like Mohammad Azharuddin and Navjot Sidhu, clean strikers of the ball like Ajay Jadeja and star bowlers like Anil Kumble and Javagal Srinath, the team was no slouch.  But back then, two things were scarce in that team.  It was not talent, it was self-belief.  And it was leadership.  Sure, there was a piece of batting or bowling magic here or there.  But when it truly mattered, few rose to the challenge like the way Sachin did.  That it was entirely unfair to him was something that we fans realized only when he had others like Virender Sehwag and Rahul Dravid lessen his burden in the second half of his career.  But let’s stay in 1996.

The teams were divided into two groups of six each.  India were in a group with Sri Lanka, Australia, West Indies, Zimbabwe and Kenya.  The warning signs were there in the group stage itself.  We lost to Sri Lanka and Australia in a manner that exposed the team’s shortcomings brutally.  Mind you, Sachin scored an incandescent century against the Lankans and a brilliant 90 against the Aussies.  But the bowlers were leaking runs like cracked buckets.  The batsmen were all looking patchy.  As scores of anecdotes from players over the years confirm that in Azhar, we had a captain whose strategic abilities, enterprise and leadership were things that existed solely in our imagination.  Azhar was struggling for runs himself.  And just seemed incapable of trying anything out-of-the-box or even a tad different. (I am not counting the lame attempt to bowl Anil Kumble in the first 15 overs.) 

I might sound harsh when talking about Azhar.  But you only have to observe the power of the leaders in previous cups, especially Imran Khan.  He had led the Pakistan team from out of nowhere to lift the cup in 1992.  A consummate leader is an inspiration, a strategist, a tactician and someone who leads the way.  Azhar in 1996 was none of this.  But similar to 1992, we all saw a glimpse of what could happen when we cohered as a team, in the match against Pakistan.  Unlike 1992, Sachin did not even make a significant contribution. (A scratchy 31 off 59.) But it all came together for a magical day.  Sidhu’s anchor, Jadeja’s spark, Venkatesh Prasad’s gall.  It was all heady (but as we were to discover later, transient).  It was always a wonder to me why this team only rarely came together this powerfully and confidently.  We won a high-octane quarter-final versus Pakistan with Sachin hardly contributing anything.  Why was this an exception?  Why did we fans have to resign to the capriciousness of this team?  I have only questions, no easy answers.

The highlight:

I remember the heartbreak of the semi-final like it is happening in front of my eyes now!  People mention Aravinda de Silva’s dazzling counterattack.  Sure, it left us stunned.  But when he was dismissed, SL was only 85/4.  We just watched in silent horror as their middle-order calmly and coolly took them to 251.  Did we try anything different?  Couldn’t Srinath have been brought back for a quick burst instead of Jadeja bowling 5 expensive overs? (Srinath only completed 7 of his 10 overs.) Why the conservatism in going with an Ashish Kapoor who was tidy but rarely penetrative instead of Venkatapathi Raju who was a more attacking option?  Sure, the SL side had plenty of left-handers but Raju was no slouch versus southpaws. (Remember him tying Brian Lara in knots in 1994?)  And the batting that fell like a stack of dominoes after Sachin got out was, in retrospect, no big surprise.  How often in the 1990s did we really win when he did not take us all the way?  All of these painful recollections make Virat Kohli’s words post the 2011 win even sweeter - “He has lifted the burden of the nation for 21 years.  It is time we carried him on our shoulders.”  

The heartbreak:

As we go back in time, sure, many world cup wins have been on the back of glittering individual performances.  But if you observe keenly, the team coming together was what well and truly took the teams over the finish line.  Sure, Wasim Akram’s magic deliveries swung the match Pakistan’s way in 1992.  But what would he have had to bowl with if not for Imran Khan, Javed Miandad and Inzamam ul Haq, not to mention his own batting.  In the 1996 final, Aravinda de Silva turned in an all-round performance for the ages.  But remember that they were led by a man - Arjuna Ranatunga -  who was willing to go any lengths to defend his bowler who had been accused of throwing.  How can we measure the impact that such leadership has on a team’s spirit?  In that final, remember that with Ranatunga expertly marshaling them, the other spinners choked the Aussies too.  Remember that Asanka Gurusinha played a superb supporting knock of 65 to help Aravinda stabilize the innings.  Many of us recollect Sanath Jayasurya and Romesh Kaluwitharana’s pyrotechnics in the 1996 world cup.  But remember that both of them failed with the bat in the semi-final and final.  And yet SL won.  

As I think about my own journey as an Indian cricket fan, I am filled with gratitude for a leader like MS Dhoni, batsmen like Yuvraj Singh and bowlers like Zaheer Khan who, through their sustained individual brilliance, also coalesced as a team, to win the world cup that Sachin wanted so badly.  You might wonder why is it that for all my talk about the team being of paramount importance that my happiness of 2011 is associated with Sachin, when there were so many other heroes.  It is because it was Sachin who made us hope against hope in the 1990s that India would win as long as he was there.  It is because we 90s cricket fans fell in love with Sachin before we fell in love with India as a team.  We knew but just didn’t realize that cricket is a sport of 11 players a side, not one champion and ten others.  That for a team to practically rest on one shoulder was grave injustice to the man carrying the burden.  That is why we see the 2011 world cup win as a sort of tribute to Sachin.  But as I reflect on 1996 now, with the benefit of time and maturity, I can be a bit gracious and admit that the best team, not the best individual, won the 1996 world cup.  And that team was Sri Lanka.  It could not have gone any other way.

Monday, September 4, 2023


 “We expect such people to be around.” 

Those were the succinct words of a friend when I shared how tough it was to swallow the untimely, premature passing on of my Aunt.  That pithy response summarized what I had been struggling to verbalize.  It made me dwell on the rather uncomfortable idea of mortality.  As I clawed my way back from a rather downbeat state of mind, the fact that I am 42 and ‘middle aged’ made me feel more introspective and less anxious.  Arguably a result of my being an Indian movie buff, my thoughts centered on the notion of interval - or its slightly more sophisticated-sounding synonym, intermission.

I began to think less about the longevity of my journey or that of my near and dear.  Instead, I began to reflect on, in movie parlance again, the ‘first half’ of my life.  This blog post is too limited and too public a platform for me to compile all the highs and lows of the life that I have lived till now.  But there is one recurring theme in my life that I wish to shed light on.  And that is a sense of belonging. 

To look one in the eye and make them feel like they matter is a trait in people that I am truly grateful for.  As I think of the closest members in my family, the most respected mentors in my life (both personal and professional), the dearest friends who are a family of their own, one common trait that I observe is that they know exactly how and when to give me a sense that I matter.  Whenever I crumble, they don’t piece me together.  Instead, they stand by me, empowering me to stitch myself again. They are the ones that let my stream of tears flow while being acutely aware that the handful of droplets are actually symptomatic of a flood of emotion that they are refusing to let me get submerged in.  That the apparent weightlessness of the tears is inversely proportional to the weight of emotion that is being lifted off me. They are the ones that celebrate my successes in a way where I know that their appreciation is genuine, sans jealousy or resentment.  They are the ones that proffer sincere, timely advice whenever I err, constantly looking to make me strive to be the best version of myself.  

As heady as I feel about all these wonderful folks, I am readily aware that what I just captured is just about receiving.  Receiving love, receiving concern, receiving advice.  As I look at the 'first half' in an honest manner, I feel like I have received more than I have given.  No, that is not a falsely modest statement, I assure you.  I sincerely feel like the second half of my life should be about fostering a sense of belonging.  Enabling people like I was empowered in the first half.  Loving people in the selfless, giving ways in which I was and am loved.  Sharing perspectives with people in a manner where they feel like I am sitting beside them, not preaching from a lofty pedestal.

As I think about genuine, selfless people like my Aunt who are no more, I realize that they are still “around” even after they are gone.  That is their legacy.  In the second half of my life, I would like to ensure that I give my loved ones the feeling that I am always “around”, enveloping them in the warm manner in which I have been protected all along.  That way, the ‘reviewer’ - be it God or one’s own conscience - looks at the picture and gives a verdict that both halves were coherent, feel-good and meaningful!