Cricket: India versus Sri Lanka: Bigger than the Super Bowl (and a lot of other things, too)

You think the Super Bowl is a big event?

At least half of the 300 million people in the USA tune in for the country’s biggest sporting event each year. There’s a two-week buildup to the championship game of America’s most popular sport; there’s no escaping the conversations in the days before the game. It’s the crown jewel of American sporting events. Everyone knows about it. And it happens every year.

But the spectacle is exclusively American. Unlike premier events in other major sports – such as basketball’s NBA Finals or tennis’ U.S. Open – no one but North Americans know or care about it. Half of the people who watch the Super Bowl would admit they only do so for its famous commercials and the halftime show. There’s a difference, see, between an event everyone knows about and one everyone cares about.

In India, not only does everyone know about the Cricket World Cup, everyone cares.

The only single-sport event that compares to the Cricket World Cup is soccer’s FIFA World Cup. In fact, the international football tournament eclipses cricket in both number of viewers and countries in which the tournament is relevant.

But there is no other country in the world with as many people that care about one particular sport as India.

And on 2 April, India was in the final of the sport’s premier event. In Mumbai.

This was certainly going to be a home game.

———

It’s an eight-hour match, but I planned to keep my eyes fixated on every ball bowled. My host family had recently bought a new HD TV, and everyone in the household, including me, was engrossed in the action.

Sri Lanka wins the opening coin toss and opts to bat first. Early on, things look good for India, and they keep Sri Lanka’s total low. But Sri Lanka picks up their strike rate towards the end of their innings, and as Sri Lanka’s Mahela Jayawardene finishes Sri Lanka’s innings with a stoic “6”, winning looks like it will be a difficult task for India.

Throughout the match, Franzi and Anaïs text me, asking for explanations of what’s going on. Neither is a cricket fan. That means something. When non-sports fans are so invested in the outcome of a match, there must be something significant about its result. Cricket is on almost everyday in India, but this is not an ordinary match. Everyone is watching – even the foreigners who know nothing of yorkers, dot balls and cover drives.

This game matters.

India’s innings begins. The team’s two opening batsmen – Virender Sehwag and Sachin Tendulkar, two of the world’s best cricketers – are out within the first few overs. It’s like if the Packers had lost both Aaron Rodgers and Donald Driver five minutes into the third quarter of the Super Bowl. Like the Spanish football team losing David Villa and Andrés Iniesta five minutes into the second half of the World Cup final.

Sri Lanka’s blond-dreadlocked fast bowler – Lasith Malinga – is responsible for Tendulkar’s wicket. I inform Franzi, but she’s already heard. “I really dislike this crazy hair mob guy for that!” she tells me.

For a good hour or so, an India win looks improbable. 1.2 billion people are stunned. For now, everything depends on Virat Kohli and Gautam Gambhir, and whether they can amass the rest of the 260-some runs required to win. As the overs pass, the required rate begins to increase ominously. Kohli performs well, but then his wicket is the third to be taken.

MS Dhoni enters as Kohli’s replacement.

At that moment, the game changes.

Dhoni is the face most synonymous with Indian cricket, the face you’re most likely to see in advertisements across the country. The wicket-keeper and captain, he is arguably the most important player on the field. Cricket’s team captains are like baseball’s extinct breed of player-managers, the ones held most responsible for their team’s performance. Dhoni has made some questionable decisions in the tournament so far, but he’s led India this far. Now he has the chance to lead his team to the round of one.

He’s given himself that chance.

See, Dhoni has put himself in early. Yuvraj Singh, who would later be named MVP of the tournament, is listed ahead of Dhoni in the order, but the captain wants to be on the field with the game on the line. It’s a legal move in cricket, and a bold one.

Dhoni proceeds to lead his team to the finish line.

First with Gambhir as his partner, then with Singh, the captain plays the best innings of his life in the most important game of his life. India’s required run rate – the best measure of the feasibility of India’s win – decreases. That’s good. Soon it’s on par with the completed run rate. And then India needs just a run to win with seven balls remaining. Dhoni’s on strike.

Dhoni hits the ball high in the Mumbai air. The fans anticipate the result long before the ball lands about 12 rows deep. An entire country rises together.

Six runs. India wins the World Cup.

Franzi texts me moments later.

“INDIA WON!!! 🙂 I FREAKING LOVE THIS COUNTRY!”

Me too.

———

I’d been rooting for India the whole time. I wanted them to win because they were my team, as much a part of my heart now as the Chicago Cubs have been for years. But I was also keen to see what the aftermath of an Indian victory would look like, and how it would compare to the celebration three days earlier after the Pakistan win.

It’s better.

Less than a minute after Dhoni’s six, I stick my head outside and just listen. The firecrackers are louder and last longer than the ones set off at Diwali. The horns I’m hearing are not car horns – the usual – but air horns squeezed for no reason but celebration. Music is being blared from so many portals I can’t discern a single song. So many people are shouting and screaming in the streets, it sounds a never-ending roar, as if all 33,000 fans in Mumbai’s Wankhede Stadium had been picked up and dropped blocks from our house.

“IN-DI-AAAA IN-DIA!!!”

My host family is watching the postgame show as intently as they watched the game. Tendulkar is being paraded around the field on his teammates shoulders, the only hole on his impressive cricket resume just having been filled. Players and coaches spray champagne, conduct interviews, and make laps around the field. The trophy is lifted into the air. I look into my host grandparents’ eyes, and they seem to be a little wet.

I go out into the street and watch the party. Standing atop a median on the corner of the intersection, I get a good view of Shankar Nagar square, grateful my height gives me an advantage over the many Indians around me. Normally one of Nagpur’s better-functioning intersections, the square has been absolutely overtaken by humanity. The scene is like the aftermath of the Pakistan win, but somehow more…complete. People aren’t holding back. Men are dancing everywhere to whatever tune is being played – in cars with open windows, standing atop motorcycles, or with both feet jumping on the ground. I pity whatever vehicles need to get through; drivers are bemoaning the fact they didn’t take a shortcut. Saket-dada disappears into the crowd somewhere, and doesn’t return until he calls for me to unlock the door at 2 a.m.

At home, we celebrate with ice cream for the second time in four nights. We watch the news, where news of celebrations similar to those in Nagpur are pouring in. The reporter in Delhi is shouting desperately above the hysterical crowd, which the videographer is having trouble shooting due to the crowd’s inability to stay still. It’s like this all over India. 1.2 billion people are rejoicing. To them, there is no better place in the world to be right now than India. And I have to agree. There is no better place to be.

As I say goodnight to my host dad that evening, I try to find some words to put the day in perspective.

“Once in a lifetime,” I tell him. “That’s all I can say.”

🙂

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One Response to “Cricket: India versus Sri Lanka: Bigger than the Super Bowl (and a lot of other things, too)”

  1. John Says:

    Great post, it’s really cool that you were there when it happened ^_^ I mean, I know /nothing/ about sports and hardly even /hear/ of them, and I heard about this while it was still happening from classmates during Bug-Bio. Ha. Must be big, if entomologists are distracted.

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