Block E, Seat No 4409. Mohammad Bashruddin, a Pakistan fan who had flown from Chicago, kept chanting the numbers like a hymn. As he neatly slipped the ticket into his thick-bound Quran, Bashruddin rued not thanking the unknown lady who had made it possible for him to be at the “most important match of his life”. “I don’t know who she is, where she is from, I was stuck for words when she handed me the ticket. Maybe, it’s all an illusion,” he said.
Bashruddin, like thousands of fans on either side of the border — Lahore is just 150-odd kilometers from Chandigarh — had been holding a vigil outside the ticket booths for four days. Every day, they were told the same thing: “Sold out”. But they returned regardless for tickets to the India vs Pakistan World Cup semi-final.
It didn’t help that the biggest show on the subcontinent was being staged at one of the smallest Test venues in India. The ground seats were just 28,000. Once innumerable ministers, diplomats, film stars and cricket board officials were accommodated, there was not going to be much room left. Officials from the Punjab Cricket Association had turned off their mobiles and gone into hiding, so sick were they of the constant calls from people wanting tickets. The only tickets available were the fakes being sold to desperate fans across the city.
Two days before the match, three years after the 26/11 terror strikes in Mumbai, it was announced that the prime ministers of both nations, who had met a week ago in Delhi, would attend the match. In a matter of hours, Chandigarh became a no-fly zone, with unmanned drones piercing the hazy evening skyline. At the Ambala airbase, fighter jets and helicopters of the Indian Air Force were on standby. Almost 10,000 police and army personnel were on the streets or stationed nearby, flaunting everything from shining brown lathis to slick black machine guns. Later in the day, around 1,000 youngsters marched on the stadium to protest the widespread unemployment in Punjab, only to be charged down by mounted police wielding sticks. So tense was the balmy March day that it felt that May had arrived all too soon.
The two teams were under siege in their hotels. Outside were hundreds of security personnel and the throng of adoring fans they were trying to keep out. The players travelled to the stadium and scurried back in convoys complete with decoy buses, outriders and armoured vans. Officers were deputed to taste and test food.
Somewhere in the maddening middle of all this, a cricket match was going to take place. A semi-final that had standalone value and multiple threads. Sachin Tendulkar was a hundred away from his 100th hundred; arguably his last shot at the World Cup; home-boy Yuvraj Singh’s blazing form and bravado; Zaheer Khan and his knuckleballs, Shahid Afridi and his whippy leg-breaks, Saeed Ajmal and his twinkling doosras. Separate the match from the bustle, and it wouldn’t cease to be any less dramatic. But it seldom is when the two teams meet.
In the eye-blinking spat of camera shutters, Indian skipper Mahendra Singh Dhoni didn’t blink. He separated himself from what was happening outside the cricket ground, dressing room and hotel. “The hype created by the media? By the sponsors? We are not getting involved in it.”
In hindsight, the rebuttal wasn’t an artificial veneer. The monkish calm reflected the team’s morale, having just cleared a psychological barrier by beating Australia before it hammered South Africa and West Indies, and tied the match against England. Depleted the world champions might have been, but they were behemoths still. Pakistan, comparatively, was in a period of crisis. The last of their gun bowlers, Shoaib Akhtar, was nursing an injury. The inheritors to Inzamam-ul-Haq’s and Saeed Anwar’s batting mantles were mere pretenders, and Pakistan were riding on Afridi’s skills and charisma.
So once Australia were dethroned, it was inevitable that the trophy stayed in India. Dhoni admitted as much: “After beating Australia, we knew we’d be the favourites. Nothing, not even the Pakistan match would get anywhere closer to the pressure we felt when we were playing Australia.” To understand the magnitude of the victory, remember that India hadn’t beaten Australia in a World Cup since 1987.
Back to Mohali and pressure, Dhoni slipped in a cheeky little analogy to drill home the point. “I think of the pressure like I do of fast bowling,” Dhoni said. “Once it goes past 150 kmph you don’t notice whether he is bowling 155 or 160. Before the finals, the pressure won’t grow now, it will be static. You will end up in a pressure cooker.” If Dhoni was tranquil, his counterpart Afridi was warm and witty, cracking jokes and flashing his grin. Pointed out that he has a young team, he retorted: “Match ke baad, hum sub buddhe ho jayenge (After the match, we will all have aged).”
Was the Hawk-eye tweaked for that Sachin LBW? Did Pakistani fielders have butter naan before the match, for their greasy palms dropped Sachin alone four times? Did the cameras capture Manmohan Singh’s half-wink? What did he talk about with his counterpart Yousaf Raza Gilani? Did you spot Aamir Khan? The terrace talk and corridor whispers covered a raft of diverging topics that you don’t generally overhear during a cricket match.
Tendulkar’s fortune was, perhaps, the most discussed, debated and even ridiculed. Some were disappointed that he missed out on a hundred, some were relieved he didn’t. “It’s saved for the final. In his hometown. Is there a better script?” a commentator asked.
By the time the match ended, with India soundly beating Pakistan by 29 runs, all other considerations were left to conjecture as magnanimity took over, with fans of either countries exchanging memorabilia and flags, phone numbers and photographs (thank god, selfies had not caught on). Out in the middle, the players hung around, chatting with each other longer than they would usually. Afridi extolled the Indian team and billed them as favourites for this World Cup and the next, though he couldn’t resist a dig at the Indian cricket board’s reluctance to visit Pakistan for a bilateral series. He quipped: “Lekin dil dono taraf se badhane chahiye! (Both sides should show large-heartedness!)”
The Mohali high intoxicated the Indian cricket world so much that it momentarily forgot the biggest prize was yet to be won, which they sealed in three days. Not that Sri Lanka were fragile pushovers—not with the Jayawardenes and Sangakkaras winding satin blades, not with Malingas and Muralitharans smiling wickedly. The atmosphere was part carnival, part bullring. No doubt, it was the greatest night for a generation of cricketers and cricket watchers. But there was a sense of inevitability. The final, for all the competitiveness, seemed like a stretched climax. Even the post-match celebrations — which included Tendulkar being carried on the shoulders around the ground by his young teammates, a symbol of how he had carried the hopes of a nation for so long — seemed like a rehearsed get-together.
So it reached a fulfilling end, almost as precisely as planned when first the subcontinent was awarded the World Cup and Mumbai the final. The pundits were precise in their assessment of India as the outright favourites; the astrologers were accurate in prophesying an Indian triumph, the fans were reciprocated for the unwavering support.
It was the perfect script, well almost. 99.94 per cent perfect. Tendulkar, the greatest cricketing hero of the country, became a world champion in the twilight of his career, though there was no 100th hundred in his hometown.
This article appeared in print with the headline ‘The Calm and the Storm’