“Brendon McCullum shagged my Mrs” — easily the words I never expected to hear with such abandon, but, in many ways, it was the perfect expression of the sheer exuberance that enveloped New Zealand during the 2015 World Cup. I was at an inebriated party in Melbourne, where 5,000 New Zealanders from all corners of the world responded to a clarion call from a popular New Zealand DJ and converged at a large garden pub. Alcohol flowed, and so did Kiwi pride.
The flock of young faces in New Zealand colours brought to mind a poster seen in Nelson, a small seaside town in New Zealand: “Let’s bring back our children”. Unlike India, but similar to many European countries, New Zealand is an ageing population. You hardly find any youth outside of the college towns of Dunedin and Auckland. After graduation, most youngsters move to the UK or Australia and settle into life as “second-class citizens”, according to their fretting parents.
So, as the co-host of the World Cup, New Zealand saw a flood of ghar wapsi from 20-somethings working in neighbouring countries. The air was infectious with hope and excitement. Even if it’s ephemeral, there is something incomparable in the way sports can raise the happiness barometer of a country. And, hence, that drunken man, who had travelled out to Australia, said what he did.
The 2015 World Cup was like that. Emotions boiled over in New Zealand as the nation rallied around not just their team but also a legend trying to cheat death: Martin Crowe, suffering from cancer and having taken a call to go off chemotherapy, had just one wish. He wanted to see New Zealand lift the World Cup before he died. In the process, he had a nation on an emotional edge, praying for him and wishing with him.
News came in at an otherwise insipid pre-game training in Auckland that Crowe would be playing a friendly match for his old club, organised by his childhood friend Mark Greatbach. Needless to say, it was to be his last game. And so, one walked into the tree-ringed park in the city centre with a lump in the throat. Luckily, for us, others weren’t as morose. They had gathered to celebrate a legend and it turned out to be a most memorable evening that would stay on in my mind for years to come. I had known Crowe a little bit, courtesy his time as the coach of Royal Challengers Bangalore in 2008. It was inspiring to see him that day, posing for selfies, engaging in small talk, mingling with the children of the club members, spending time with elderly ladies, and having a laugh with his mates. Suddenly, finding myself alone with him, I felt at a loss for words and mumbled out, “Selfie?!”. He smiled and graciously said, “Why not?”. Though, the damned Chinese phone I had then would go kaput later, drowning that image into ether, that moment would stay with me, too.
As New Zealand surged ahead, the mood began to ramp up among the locals. Giddy, excited, optimistic, and guarded — a headline ran in a local newspaper. The country had two sets of sport fans: the boisterous rugby lot, who were used to their team winning and would bet with confidence. The cricket lot was quieter, almost not believing that their team was rollicking along. Andrew Dunford, a fan who wrote a preview for this newspaper, had nailed the sentiment with a quote from the Christopher Morahan-directed film, Clockwise (1986): “It’s not the despair, Laura, I can take the despair. It’s the hope I can’t stand.”
All through this, there was a tournament to cover. Since the Indian team had played most of their games in Australia and I was largely drifting about in New Zealand, our paths didn’t cross until they came over for a game. Indian fans suddenly seemed to materialise everywhere and they weren’t in a self-deprecatory mood. NRIs are usually a gung-ho bunch, and now, with India doing rather well in the tournament, their enthusiasm was on the upswing. A comment from an Indian player, relayed second-hand by a journalist who was a witness, captures it best. At an Indian training session, fans kept exhorting the player to shout “Bharat mata ki jai” with them. The player indulged them a few times but when he returned to the practice session, the fans kept asking him to continue. It was then that he delivered a glorious sucker-punch: “Itna hi pyaar tha, toh desh chhodkey kyun aaye, bhai? (If you had so much love, why did you leave the country?)”
Across the Tasman Sea, the Australians were marching on, sending a clear signal that they would be the team to beat. When they humbled India in the semi-final, it didn’t come as a surprise. The memory from that Sydney evening pertains to moments after the game, when the Indian captain MS Dhoni walked into the press conference room. Michael Clarke, the victorious Australian captain, was leaving when he spotted Dhoni and stopped to speak to him. “What’s this I hear about you planning to retire? Don’t. You are good enough, fit enough to play the next World Cup.” Words to that effect. Dhoni smiled and took his place in the hot seat.
The Indian dressing room, one learnt, was understandably sombre after the loss. Dhoni tried his best to perk them up with a short speech: “He told us to be proud of the way we played and asked us to keep learning. He said, ‘Don’t forget all the good things you guys did on the field, the way you bowled. Keep it in your memory and hold on to it’,” R Ashwin would share a couple of days after the game.
One man who had held on to the memories of better times was Mathew Sinclair, former New Zealand batsman. He had refused to chat face-to-face but had agreed to speak on the phone about his life, which at that point, was fast spinning out of control. The man who had hit a double century on debut had signed up for government dole before heading to Napier to try his hand at selling real estate. House to house cold calls, not drawing a salary but trying to survive on commission cuts from sales, his wife working at a coffee shop, two young children — he had a lot on his hands. It was a phone call that triggered the blues — he spoke about marital discord arising out of his precarious financial situation. It would come to my mind a few months later, when news emerged that Sinclair had tried to run away with his children, leaving his wife behind, only to be apprehended by the police. “You guys in India, where cricketers are superstars, won’t probably understand it,” Sinclair had said in that chat. “Life isn’t all milk and honey, mate”.
A sentiment brought home again by another sight from that World Cup. News emerged that Chris Cairns, who was waging a legal battle to save his name from a match-fixing scandal, was working part-time at a bar, when he was heckled by guests about his nefarious links. The report suggested he had quietly left the workplace. Was he really working there? Hadn’t he saved money? New Zealand cricket was a divided house over Cairns. Many former cricketers had turned against him but he did have the support of at least one former cricketer in Dion Nash.
It was a tumultuous tournament — not just for what happened on the field but for the events off it. There was Chris Harris, selling medical equipment to surgeons and trying to come to terms with his daughter’s disability — hemiplegia — that causes problems in movement and coordination. Then there was Lee Germon, a former captain who had successfully led Christchurch cricket to bounce back in time for the World Cup, after an earthquake had ravaged the city. Above all, it was the warm, friendly people whose memories would remain from the event in New Zealand.
The final image from that World Cup came at the sun-washed steps of Federation Square in Melbourne, the morning after the final. The victorious Australian team had gathered amidst a riot of yellow. Most players talked about how hungover they were. A conversation with Brad Haddin offered proof. When asked if he remembered any jokes by the stand-up comic Andy Lee who had a session before the final, Haddin smiled, “Oh yeah, I remember lots of laughter. Think he was funny! I wish I could remember something!”
This article appeared in print with the headline ‘Happy Nation’