Friday, March 1, 2024

Cinderella Men

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By Rahul Saikia

The cricket world cup of 2023 will be memorable for bringing together two contrasting and complimentary narratives around the game. The first is the compelling storyline of the ‘underdog’ as exemplified by Australia’s ultimate victory in a manner reminiscent of India in the 1983 world cup. The second narrative relates to India’s amazing winning-streak which almost mirrored the sheer dominance of the West Indies and Australia in the 1970s and 2000s respectively. As the excitement over the world cup settles, we can perhaps better appreciate how both these narratives have inspired various national teams and their supporters over the decades.
Watching Australia’s Travis Head advance into India’s modest fortress of 240 runs, I recalled an eerily familiar scene from the 1996 finals, when an equally impervious Aravinda De Silva chased down an almost identical score (of 241) to defeat Australia and complete Sri Lanka’s fairytale world cup. As the term ‘giant-killers’ comes to mind, one cannot help but think of India’s much mythologised 1983 victory against the legendary West Indians. Then as now, it was the larger-than-life grit of one-man, Kapil Dev who with his unbeaten 175, like Glen Maxwell with his audacious 201, galvanized a team of underdogs towards belief and victory. That Australia now stands where the Indian team stood in 1983, is a testament to how roles can reverse and come full circle across the pages of this wonderful and heartbreaking game.
Australia clearly deserved their victory over India at the finals this Sunday. Of course, one is likely to argue that India, with its ten-match winning streak was the better overall team for most of the series. Not insignificantly, one of these ten wins was a comfortable victory over the Australians in the group stages. India it could be said, was a victim of its own success, while Australia had luck on their side. Such second-place arguments must nonetheless acknowledge how the Australians so convincingly outplayed the Indians on the day when it mattered the most. That the Australian bowlers restricted Virat Kohli and KL Rahul to a single boundary for most of the Indian innings is the most telling fact here.
From the Australian perspective, their triumph in the finals is also the culmination of long transformation of a recently middling side into a team of world beaters. Here, one can draw solace and inspiration from a team that was once in far greater shock and disarray than the Indian team might currently be in. This was the Australian team after the ball-tampering scandal of 2018, which witnessed the long exile of their two biggest stars in Steve Smith and David Warner. What followed was a long and arduous campaign to rebuild a team from a largely unknown and initially uninspiring crop of reservists and newcomers. One of those relatively unknowns was Travis Head.
Of course, the reasons for India’s current world-cup upset are nowhere as worrisome as the crisis of Australian cricket in 2018. This same Indian team (Kohli, Rohit, and Shami included) might still salvage a last hurrah in one of the big international tournaments to come. Still, there is a quiet sense that Sunday’s defeat also signals the gradual waning of another wonderful era in Indian cricket. With it comes the familiar challenge of rebuilding another inspiring team from a sprawling field of younger players eager to prove themselves as worthy successors to the established greats in the current side.
In this, there is something in India’s current cricketing moment that resembles the Australian experience from a few years ago. This includes the challenge of regrouping after an unexpected and psychologically taxing setback. Far from the gaze of politicians and tycoons, this quest to rebuild a winning team will quietly resume over challenging pitches and unfamiliar outfields across the world, where new heroes will be born even as old legends hang up their boots. This is a storyline that India and Australia, and every other cricketing team will recognize.
Last Sunday, as Australia breached the psychological 200 run mark, I switched off the game with a pang of anger and sadness. Scrolling through Netflix for a suitable distraction, I recalled when I had first experienced such a feeling. It would have been the 1990s, when my then favourite team, the mercurial West Indians, would time and again set themselves up for victory – only to fall apart against a variety of less talented but better disciplined teams. It is only now, in hindsight that I can better appreciate how one team’s fairytale win is the tragic end of another’s dream-run.
Beyond this trinket of morality, it is worth delving further into Indian and Australian storylines, especially from the perspective of their fans. For starters, India’s ten-match winning streak took the team’s supporters on a fantastical journey that allowed for the temporary suspension of our messy realities. For a few hours, we were no longer the fumbling characters that we often imagine ourselves to be in our private and/or professional lives. For a few hours, we could live vicariously through the exquisite skill and domineering aura of the men in blue.
On another level, such a streak of dominance allows people to participate in the myth of a resurgent nation as articulated in the supernatural abilities of certain players. It is an idea best encapsulated by Virat Kohli who reflects a modern Indian ethos that combines the traditional ideas of fair-play and hard work (ala Sachin Tendulkar) with a confident and even brash assertiveness to compete fearlessly against the best in the world. While the old role-models preferred to err on the side of caution, the new ones would rather stake their claim to greatness, even as it entails the obvious risk of failure. Such supreme confidence can also nurture illusions of invincibility, which when they finally burst, reveal a red-faced sense of shame and disappointment, leading to the kind of sullen withdrawal that we witnessed from fans last Sunday.
The idea of a cricket team as a symbolic vehicle of national pride and excellence has been variously embodied by Australia, West Indies, Pakistan, and India over the decades. For all its promise of ‘post-colonial’ empowerment however, critics would point out how such a sense of national pride can easily spillover into nationalist chauvinism. Here, it would be worth reflecting whether, and to what extent India’s world cup campaign was accompanied by, and ultimately distracted, by such nationalist pride and hubris.
It would be naïve to think of a world where cricket is divorced from politics and big-business. At the same time, it would also be erroneous to assume that these factors determine everything, and that too always in a singularly negative manner. If that were the case, then Australia would not have not walked away with the cup.
Beyond the realm of divisive politics however, the Australian victory is important because it provides a realistic alternative to the practically impossible idea of absolute perfection and complete dominance. For even as it inspires, such an absolute idea of perfection is ultimately untenable for any team, as it is unrelatable for most ordinary people. Often, we can better identify with the storyline of the underdogs, who warts and all, nonetheless emerge from the margins, to claim their moment in the sun. Here, it is the long Australian struggle towards a fairytale ending that is equally, if not more relatable for the millions of supporters (Indians included), who are similarly stumbling forward despite their constraints and circumstances. In this respect, Australia’s World Cup win signals a victory for all the Cinderella Men of cricket, who over the years, have come from teams across the world, including from India.

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