I recently pooh-poohed the World Cup, but it wasn’t always so. My first memories of cricket come from the tournament. I recall sitting in my parents’ room as the 1992 edition played on the television. I insisted to my parents that India was winning, but I don’t think they were even playing (and, of course, Pakistan won that round).
But in 1996, that’s when cricket started for me. I was 11, I was back in India, and it all just made sense. There was a young(er) Sachin Tendulkar, scoring runs in every match; there was that scintillating Bombay match between India and Australia (when all of the city seemed to stop); then there was that other match against Pakistan (cue all our Venkatesh Prasad impersonations).
And I remember the end, too. God, do I remember it. My father, ever the pessimist, made a bet with our upstairs neighbor that India would not win. He did so jokingly, but with India 100/8 against Sri Lanka, the neighbor sent his daughter with the money. That caused a bit of ruckus in my household, because my parents were embarrassed (don’t make bets with friends, people) and my father tried to find a way to resolve the faux-pas.
The neighbor’s daughter stepped into my room and there I was. Sitting on the ground with my dinner in front of me, watching Calcutta make a fool of itself (it was only later I learned it’s a regional pastime). I wanted to cry, just like Vinod Kambli running off the field (with Kumble?). It wasn’t just the cricket. My family had recently returned from the Middle East, and even as a pre-teen, I could tell India was backward in some way. Things seemed at a standstill. Back then, the talk was about “second-generation” reforms and coalitions, not 9 percent growth rates and India Shining. Everything seemed so fragile — the United Front governments, even Bombay itself, then firmly under the thumb of a mad man.
But I also remember some weeks later, when another kid and I ran downstairs in the compound with a new bat and tennis ball and started to play. Mind you, it all came naturally. I had a run-up, I knew how to bowl, and he knew how to bat. It was like a religious conversion. And ever since then, it’s been cricket. Always between tears and joy: that’s what it’s like to be an Indian, and an Indian cricket fan.