For those Indian cricket fans born after their team’s improbable victory in the 1983 finals, the wait to experience another World Cup win was a test of  faith and patience. Indian cricket’s folk hero, Sachin Tendulkar, played in every World Cup from 1992 to 2011, and an entire generation of fans journeyed with him to experience World Cup glory.

Sachin Tendulkar after India's win in the 2011 Cricket World Cup.

Sachin Tendulkar after India’s win in the 2011 Cricket World Cup.

 

Maybe the only thing our sporting heroes fear is their sporting mortality. For all the records they break, not one of them has been able to fight father time. They try to feel 20 when they are 40 and attempt one last dash for the finish line with their minds and bodies at constant battle with each other. In 2011, Sachin Tendulkar was no different. At 38, he was the senior statesman of the Indian side. The World Cup had returned to the sub-continent after 15 years and the excitement was feverish. Playing in home conditions, India were the favourites. There was no shred of doubt about it this time. This would be Tendulkar’s sixth and final shot at World Cup glory. Winning it for him would be a retirement gift nonpareil.

To understand Sachin Tendulkar’s place in India isn’t easy. He had won every accolade possible and scored more runs than any other cricketer. But the World Cup had eluded him. To draw a parallel, imagine Michael Jordan finishing off his career without an NBA title to his name. Tendulkar was no longer the carefree player he once was, but he remained an integral part of the side.  Would Sachin Tendulkar live to be a contented 80 year old or look at his stuffed trophy cabinet, still pining for that missing piece of silverware, the World Cup?

The 2011 World Cup was a culmination of a long journey, one that began in 1992.

The Indian economy was liberalised in 1991 when it was on the verge of collapsing. This new economy gave the country, among other things, cable television. We went from two channels to having more than we could count. The 1992 Cricket World Cup was the first to have colour apparel and floodlit matches. Cricket had metamorphed into a technicolour extravaganza. It was in this new avatar that Sachin Tendulkar played his first World Cup. India, who had failed to defend their title in 1987, didn’t progress far and arch-rivals Pakistan won their maiden World Cup title.

It was in 1996 that Tendulkar first came close to tasting World Cup glory. By then, he had assumed the mantle of talisman, the player who could win matches single handed with the sleight of his bat. His posters adorned walls and his squeaky voice belied the weight he carried on his shoulders every time he strode out to bat. If he played well, the team won. If he got out, the television was switched off and the remote thrown on the couch in a huff.

In 1996, Tendulkar was in the form of his life. Unfettered by injuries that would later curb some his strokes, this was a Tendulkar who wasn’t afraid to hit the ball in the air. India made it to the semi-finals. Chasing 252 to win against Sri Lanka, they fell like nine pins. Cricket endured one of its darkest nights as the crowd went ballistic and rendered play impossible. The match was handed to Sri Lanka by default. The World Cup dream had literally gone up in flames.

By 1999, fans had gone 15 summers waiting for the elusive World Cup. The tournament had returned to England, the place where India had won their first and only title. Then tragedy struck. Sachin Tendulkar lost his father in the middle of the tournament and returned home. An entire nation mourned along with him. Summoning inhuman strength, he returned in time for India’s match against Kenya and drowned his sorrow in an avalanche of runs, scoring a century. Just for a little while, the tears of sorrow mingled with tears of happiness. Like in previous editions, India beating Pakistan was the highlight. But the team did not advance to the semi-finals. Would we ever get to experience World Cup euphoria in our lifetime?

If you have experienced a loss in a World Cup final, it is safe to say that you have experienced true heartbreak. March 23, 2003, was my date with heartbreak. Sachin Tendulkar was at the zenith of his career, plundering bowling attacks at will. Twenty years after they had lifted the cup, India made it to the finals and faced a marauding Australian unit. The Indian side was overawed by the occasion. One of the things that sport does to you is that it makes you seek a God that you don’t necessarily believe in. Australia took the Indian attack to the cleaners. Chasing a herculean 360, Indian fans still hoped for a miracle. By then, Sachin Tendulkar was already the highest scorer in the cup and even he had to play out of his skin if India were to even sniff victory. He got out in the first over. I switched channels. Rain made a fleeting appearance, raising our hopes for a rematch, but then went away. India lost by 125 runs. I couldn’t study for two days and the board exams were just days away.

In 2007, the Indian team was a formidable one. When they touched down at the Caribbean for the World Cup, expectations were high. Sachin Tendulkar was playing his fifth World Cup, a feat in its own right. Would this be his swansong and if so, would he go out on a high? The 2007 edition is acknowledged as the least memorable, even more so if you were an Indian fan. In a week’s time, they were on the flight back home. Losing two of their first three matches, they didn’t go past the group stages. The country went up in arms. Our World Cup dream remained just that, a dream.

Few other careers have been so assiduously followed as Sachin Tendulkar’s, and the 2011 edition was the confluence of his World Cup journey. India began with a win against Bangladesh and a tie against England, a match in which Tendulkar scored a century. Never far from the action, he also scored a century against South Africa, a match that India went on to lose. India beat defending champions Australia in the quarter-finals and faced arch-rivals Pakistan in the semi-finals. Tendulkar scored a scratchy 85. India won and sealed a place in the finals against the runners-up from the previous edition, Sri Lanka. The venue was the Wankhede Stadium in Mumbai, Sachin Tendulkar’s home ground as well as the city of his birth.

Mumbai is the financial centre of India. On April 2nd, 2011, it was also the heart of India. It controlled the heart rate and blood pressure of every Indian. Sri Lanka won the toss and decided to bat. They scored 274, an imposing total, especially in a high-pressure match. India lost their first wicket, Virender Sehwag, in the second ball of the match. Tendulkar struck two sublime fours and it seemed like he would take India to the Promised Land. It wasn’t to be. He got out and the score stood at 31 for 2. A sickly feeling enveloped you. This couldn’t be happening again. The next couple of hours would decide whether or not Indian cricket’s most iconic player would end his career with the trophy he coveted most.

Indian cricket’s next generation stepped up. Gautam Gambhir, Virat Kohli and Yuvraj Singh were players who grew up idolising Tendulkar. Now they’re playing to ensure his legacy wasn’t incomplete. They chipped away at the runs and soon, the formidable total looked gettable. Crackers that had been saved up for the big day were cautiously removed. Nothing’s over until it’s over.

The Indian captain, Mahendra Singh Dhoni, played the innings of a lifetime. In a fitting end to the final, he sealed victory with a six. The cricketing gods had delivered poetic justice. Gen Y finally got a taste of what it felt like to win a World Cup. Sachin Tendulkar finally got a taste of what it was like to win a World Cup. The country exploded. The crackers created a symphony of their own and the tears kept rolling. The energy from Mumbai was transmitted to all corners of the country. Indian cricket had paid its dues to Sachin Tendulkar. It had taken six World Cups but the wait seemed worth it. Our generation got to add its bit to cricketing folklore. Someday, we would get to tell our children of that magical night in Mumbai.

George Bernard Shaw once said cricket is a game played by eleven fools and watched by 11,000 fools. It is still played by eleven players, but the so-called fools watching it have increased a thousand fold. If cricket is the only thing that brings us all together and makes us keep religion, caste, and political affiliations aside, even if for a little while, it may not be such a foolish thing after all.

The morning after the World Cup victory, we woke up to an inexplicable sense of emptiness. Euphoria had left the building and normalcy was seeking its rightful place. A 28-year wait had ended. Maybe this is how the astronauts felt after they returned from the moon. What else is there to look forward to? Where do you go once you go to the moon?

Greatness seemingly ebbed away from Sachin Tendulkar after the World Cup. A year and half later, he announced his retirement from limited overs cricket and retired from all forms of the game in November 2013. When India begins their defence of the cup, things will be a little different. This time around, Sachin Tendulkar will wait with us.

 

Pawan Mahalingam lives in Bangalore. He writes about cricket and other sports on his blog Pages of Sport, and he tweets at @coffeebytwo.