ICC Cricket World Cup 2019: Interminable four-year wait and waking up to nothingness after an India exit
The morning after was sullen and bleary. The hangover didn't go, the sadness didn't subside, the pain continued to persist. If that sounds like a patient's lament, so be it. Tragics of the world unite. Losses in the field of play are a routine business, but a World Cup exit somehow still sears straight through layers of professional objectivity and piles of dispassion. And nothing hurts more than the morning after, for it gives one enough room to brood. The dystopian sinking feeling hangs heavy, and before you realise, the groundswell of what-ifs arrive. You begin to visualise what you wanted to see, drum up the feelings you wanted to feel, but neither of those exists. This is, simply put, hallucinating the hallucination, but what the hell. Life moves on, but the heart and mind are stuck in a warp. Miserable feeling, this.
In hindsight, you know this shall pass too, but looking at others (deservedly) feasting on the cake that was yours for the taking hurts. You recount the virtues of sport and fair play, you attempt to rationalise and romanticise, you try to accept and get on with it, but not today. Not on the morning after; they are meant to be bitter and brutal. And so it starts, another cycle, another round of (largely meaningless) bilateral series, and you feel you might end up hating the sport forever. You never do, actually. The haunting void seems just too big to fill. In times like these, it helps to revisit Boris Becker's iconic quote on losing the Wimbledon second-round match to one Peter Doohan in 1987. "Nobody died, I just lost a tennis match," Becker had said. But no, not today. Today is the day to grieve, to deal with your pain; that's what sport teaches you anyway, is what you try to tell yourself, but deep down, it is eating you. The morning after his heavy.
For this writer, the terrible post-match morning first appeared after a sticky night in 1996. It was his first real brush with cricket, the first waking memory, the first real heartbreak. Here was the setting: India are led by a tall, shy and stylish Hyderabadi who walks around with collars rolled up, and whose post-match intonations " mumble, mumble, but the boys played well, mumble, mumble " will become comedy gold long after his disgraceful exit. India have bowlers who look straight out of Silicon Valley, and fielders who look straight out of a deep freeze. They also have an opener who looks straight out of a dream. He is playing with a bat without a sponsor's logo; it looks like one of those (alleged) Kashmir willow bats they sell in the old town, but it surely can hit. It was 'leather tex', the kids used to say, presumably a bat suitable for leather-ball cricket.
That batsman would end up with 523 runs in the World Cup, the highest in the tournament. But you don't care for numbers yet. There's something about his game, about him hooking, pulling, driving, dancing, defending, flicking, sweeping, leaving, breathing, existing... You don't know the word yet, but you know the curly-haired cherub is a genius. Newspapers tell you he plays with the heaviest bat around, so you look for the heaviest 'leather tex' around in the neighbourhood and try pulling balls from the good length. You obviously fail, but it doesn't matter. Your man is bossing the best in the business, and that's what matters.
And just like that, we are in the semi-finals, in front of a hundred thousand screaming souls, at the Eden Gardens. You don't know the word yet, but you feel the tension. You believe you can't lose, not with that kind of support and with that kind of batsman. You lose. The man batting with sponsor-less bat scores a masterly 65, but the team falls around him on a crumbling track.
The morning after is strange. You don't know the appropriate word again, but you can feel it " the emptiness, the hollow, the anguish. It ebbs and flows, stops and starts, rises and retires, but never goes away. 23 years later, you're still struggling for that one word that best describes it. Pain? Grief? Loss? Void? It's not one feeling and yet it's each of those. A fan is born.
You're still too young to understand ICC's Future Tours Programme. You simply watch cricket and play cricket. A hell lot of it, actually. The curly-haired kid has, meanwhile, become a national obsession. He always was, since the day he first walked out to bat in international cricket back in 1989, but the realisation hits you now. He's got a sponsor too. He scores all over the world, decimates the best of attacks, tears into the best leg-spinner of the time (of all time, actually), and the fan in you is in a state of perpetual speechless awe. The team rarely wins though, but you couldn't care less. Sachin Tendulkar is destined to dictate yours, and nation's mood.
And just like that, it's 1999. It's summer vacations, which means mangoes, movies, and cricket. You watch him hit Allan Donald for a straight drive and, not for the first time in your young life, you fail to find the right words to describe its royal magnificence.
The campaign stutters, and after a poor match against the resolute Kiwis, the agony is over. You go to bed dreading the devils the day will bring, but the morning after is surprisingly painless to the point it didn't even register. You remember Sourav Ganguly's madcap 183 and Tendulkar's emotional 140, but nothing much otherwise. For some reason, in your head, the individual is bigger than the team, until 2001 happens. Ganguly lifts India from the morass of match-fixing to the glory of stopping Australia's 16-Test winning juggernaut. It's a win fashioned by the Harbhajans, the Laxmans, the Dravids, and of course, Tendulkar. For perhaps the first time in your life, you relate to the concept of a team effort. The fan inside you matures in a space of three Test matches.
Then came the spring of 2003. Bright sunshine, cool breeze, the receding north Indian winters and the approaching chill of board exams. The team wins nine of the 11 matches, both their losses coming against the eventual champions, Australia. For Indians of a certain vintage, waking up to 24 March, 2003 was slipping into a horrifying nightmare. We were not just beaten by a ruthless Australian team, we were crushed, humiliated and stripped of our self-worth. We felt recolonised, ironically, in South Africa. We felt for the young team too, but somehow, self-pity superseded compassion. The morning after this match has to be the best in the worst category. You have an exam to write, so the grief has to be locked in some obscure corner of the brain for a few hours at least, if only you know how. Class 10 students of ICSE board entered premature adulthood in the matter of a day.
The 2007 loss was painful too, but the sheer exasperation overpowered grief and mourning. You've just about entered your youth, and the restless energy demands answers. There are none coming. You see forlorn figures of Dravid, Tendulkar, and Ganguly, and you don't know who to be mad at. The heroes have failed you, but you don't want to call them villains either. Mercifully so. In a morning of anger, you're looking for reason. Good luck with that.
The answers arrive, though. The long-haired tyro, who has just won the inaugural World T20 in South Africa, gets a neat haircut and becomes the ODI captain. Luck arrives riding on MS Dhoni's broad shoulders. Ganguly's discoveries become the flagbearers of his destiny, and a four-year process restarts. Tendulkar finds a second wind on his last legs, and you knew that it had to be for him, with him, because of him.
2 April, 2011 merged into 3 April, 2011 in an indistinct blur of emotions and imagery. Again, not for the first time, you're looking for the right word to describe that feeling and that moment. 3 April is a Sunday morning, but it could have been any damned day of the week; it was all yours to soak and savour. We were the champions; read it again, say it again.
By the time gloom descended in Sydney four years later, you were disappointed again. You are a (presumably) worldly-wise adult and are expected to handle setbacks better. You think you do, until the morning after arrives. There's that feeling again, that junks all rationale and reassurances. The top-order fails in a tense chase, and the middle order crumbles soon after. Dhoni offers some resistance, but it's a shockingly meek performance. A few details here and there, and this would hold true for 2019 too. Soon after the loss, you take a walk, overhear people's tirades at a tea stall, and print next day's pages. Morning comes, and you're waiting for it, ready to fight that familiar feeling that has been visiting you every four years since 1996 (except 2011). You lose. That feeling strikes, and you resign to it. Miserable. Pathetic. Painful.
The baton is passed, and the cycle resumes. The new captain is a self-confessed fan of the curly-haired kid who once wowed a generation. Virat Kohli is a walking specimen of athletic excellence. You know he deserves it, but is he leading the best all-condition team? This fan has grown up, perhaps outgrown the sport itself. He is more deadpan than desirable, has more questions than comments, and is largely unperturbed by the explosion of emotions around. He can see the team's glaring weaknesses. He knows that the trophy, if won by Kohli, will come to the best man; if it will come to the best team, of that he is not so sure.
The trophy doesn't come anyway, but there's a mini-tussle going on within this fan. The analyst is itching for a told-you-so smile; the fan just wants a place to mourn. After all those years, from the Eden disappointment to the Old Trafford heartburn, the morning after is still an excruciating passage of grief and anguish; a Murakami-esque melancholy if you will. People are sad and outraged, some are looking for 'culprits', others are discussing wholesale changes. It's deja vu within deja vu. Life obviously moves on, but the morning after continues to be a nameless fall into nothingness. Still searching for the right word to tell you how that feels.