I have very blurred images of the first cricket match I ever saw. I must have been 5 or 6. Being an Indian, I was expected to master the basics of our unofficial national sport even before I could add or subtract. In fact, my parents taught me the concept of average using strike rate. The first memories of the Gentlemen’s Game I have actually made me wonder who called it a Gentlemen’s Game in the first place. The semi-final of 1996 World Cup didn’t teach me anything about the game but that is when I started developing a real interest towards it. If you ask any of my peers, they will say that it was one of the most unfortunate events in the history of the game (or at least Indian cricket). This is what cricket meant to our generation – an outlet for strong emotions, a topic of debate and discussion and an integral part of our life. I remember the days when I wasn’t allowed to move around in the house when Sachin was playing. I watched in awe as this little fellow slammed the tallest of bowlers effortlessly.
But this young man was already a God by the time I started watching the game. The real wow moment of my cricketing experience was during a certain Test match against England in 1996. There were two young boys who were playing their debut matches – and yet they were giving you the feeling that maybe these are not the run-of-the-mill, last-for-one-series players. There was a certain right hander who had the most amazing technique – classic and steady. The southpaw at the other end had something different – elegance, determination and out of the world off-side strokes. I had found my favourites - Indian Cricket was welcoming two of its greatest heroes. By the end of the series and a few more after that, we had the great trio of Indian Cricket who would rule the field for the next decade – Sachin, Sourav and Rahul.
Despite giving so much importance to batting, we had our share of bowling heroes too. There was Srinath who bowled fast (yes that was fast those days) and then there was Jumbo who could wrap up the entire innings of the opposition single-handedly. It also helps your credibility if you give such a stellar performance against a certain team called Pakistan. There is no need to mention the emotions associated with an Indo-Pak match. For rookies, it was nothing more than revenge for past hostilities. But frankly speaking, according to a true follower of the sport like me (Please excuse me for being really cheesy), there was something beyond the history of the oh-so-friendly neighbours. If you have a look at both the sides of those times, you will definitely find an answer. Who wouldn’t be tempted for a Shoaib vs. Sachin or a Sourav vs. Akram duel? Who wouldn’t want to watch Inzamam getting run out for the umpteenth time? Did you secretly not wish to be a bowler like Waqar (even if on the face of it, you wanted even Sanjay Banger to slam him for a six). This is the beauty of the rivalry. You score and cement your place for the next few years.
The cricket of 90s was one of transition. The new millennium reaped the benefits. The teams across the world were in a transition phase. The 1999 World Cup paved the way for a ruthless team which would rule the game for the next decade. That tournament is still remembered for the two gripping encounters between Australia and South Africa. We, as proud Indians, cheered loudly for SA. We knew (and wrongly so) that only South Africa could beat Pakistan in the finals. But the final had scripted a different story all together. The Aussies rose to dominance and South Africa never really recovered from that loss. The “chokers” had arrived.
The 90s also sowed the seeds for the dominance of the sub-continent in world cricket. The Lankans lifted the coveted cup in 1996 – that was the best team they ever had. The BCCI started showing its prowess. Dalmiya headed the ICC and enhanced its fortunes. Indian cricket had arrived, and how!
Then came the darkest period in the history of Indian cricket. There were people who played with the emotions of millions – great names and the captain included. The 90s has ended and there were dark clouds hovering above Indian cricket. Then India entered the new millennium and towards a new dawn. The team had a new leader. It had new faces. It was no longer ruled by the metros and made its way into the small towns and cities. There was a new coach, new found spirit, new concept of “team huddle” and most importantly there was a “team”.
If you ask any kid these days, his most memorable victory will be probably the maiden T-20 World Cup victory, the 2011 World Cup victory or the Proteas chasing down 434. But for the 90s kids – who would be teens by the turn of the millennium – two victories stand out. The now-legendary India-Australia Test at Eden Garden and the 2002 Natwest final. The image of the captain waving his shirt in the balcony of the Mecca of cricket is something that even the kids of this generation will cherish. A young lad taking a hat trick, two classy batsmen showing why class is permanent and a team winning the Test against world’s best side from being forced to follow on – can it get any better?
This brings me to the whole purpose of writing this piece. The other day I was watching a debate on television which was all about T-20 and Test cricket. We may not have had the speed and thrill of T20 cricket, but we witnessed the best of Test Cricket. We were not a part of the IPL bonanza, but we did watch Indian cricket grow up. We were the audience when the masters of the game performed their greatest acts, and we were nervous wrecks! We were nervous when the final 2 runs were needed for the magic figure of 326, we were nervous when the young Turbanator bowled his hat trick ball, we were nervous when the first ball of 2003 WC final was being bowled, we were nervous when our God was on 99, we were nervous and proudly so. Because cricket meant more to us than a 3-hour entertainment show, it was our life. We filled the stadiums during all 5 days of a Test match, we made the Mexican wave viral, we formed the “India army” in response to the “Barmy Army”, we scratched biscuit packs just in the hope of winning an autographed bat, we went to the stadium 2 hours in advance just to catch a glimpse of players practicing. We were truly crazy.
They say you can’t bring back the past. But you can bring back the memories. My pen did it for me.
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