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Can we keep the cup?
India is arguably the spiritual home of cricket today, as England once was. So, a World Cup in the subcontinent is a homecoming of sorts. Can Dhoni's men go a step further, build on the home advantage, and become champions? Or has the IPL made international players so familiar with Indian conditions that there are no real favourites?
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A new generation's heightened self-belief marks the World Cup's third foray into a post-IPL subcontinent
Something about this World Cup doesn't quite add up. This story of a billion dreams is unfolding on too many levels, the fresh and the stale being feverishly woven into a grand tapestry of expectation. But this is, after all, the subcontinent, where cricket is still a metaphor for life itself. This is where garish hues of discord, ambiguity and absurdity all somehow coalesce into commendable celebration in the end.
No wonder the build-up to the sport's showpiece event resembles a jigsaw puzzle with missing pieces. To start with, there's the gigantic marketing machinery in place, making India's 1983 Prudential Cup victory seem more improbable with every re-run, making foreign stars peddle household wares in their best broken Hindi, sparing no effort to tell the stakeholder he is supposed to be excited.
Then there is the ignored spectator himself. He is the one who will go thirsty and hungry, brave the queue and the lathicharge;the heat, dust, grime and obnoxious bucket seats, to indulge his passion and create his own, real atmosphere. This is the core audience which will be bombarded by advertisements on live TV too. Yet theirs is a brave new world, often independent of manufactured hype. They have their own machinery.
"It's the old nature-state versus market-state conflict, " declares leading social scientist Shiv Visvanathan. "What is new about this World Cup? It's certainly not the build-up. It's not the format or the venue. It's the crowd and the players. Both have a new-found sense of belief and aspiration. The elements in the crowd which have changed cricket's perception are the diaspora, the women and the small-town fan, who now has his own heroes. For both player and fan, cricket in the subcontinent is a paradigm of desire and mobility. The spectator is hero, an extension of the herocricketer. This event isn't supposed to be about the Commonwealth Games and the country of scams. Sadly, the spectator isn't given the respect he is due because advertisers and administrators have stale ideas. In the subcontinent, cricket can never be just a marketing exercise. It's a tremendous hallmark of competence. It stands for idea and hope. "
The signs are all around us. In Kohima, not a cricket-loving bastion by any means, young crowds are gathering to wish Sachin Tendulkar luck. In quaint Dambulla, deprived of a World Cup game, microphone-wielding enthusiasts are gathering villagers and drumming up support for Sri Lanka. In Dhaka, where a national holiday had once been announced when Bangladesh beat Pakistan in a World Cup game, the jostle for tickets is maddening. There are a quite a few women in line.
They are ready for anything new. There is no talk of the death of the 50-over game, or any speculation on the absence of banner players in most teams. There have been World Cups in the subcontinent before, but this one is all about celebrating the freshness of the cast, both on the field and off it. The clockwork of clichês ticking around these new characters seems to have missed this beat.
This is where the real home advantage lies: the teams too are a reflection of changing social trends. India is a case in point. "The psychology of the modern Indian cricketer has changed along with the psychology of the crowd, " says former Test cricketer Abbas Ali Baig, "Now, fans expect the team to win, and the players themselves have grown belief, unlike earlier. Today's cricketers don't come from elite backgrounds, but they are more naturally educated in the game's nuances and know how to conduct themselves at that level. The same goes for the crowd, which is more ambitious and street smart. "
New Zealand player Mark Richardson attempted to capture this symbiotic relationship between crowd and players in 2004, writing how "cricket was no picnic in the subcontinent" : "What I really notice is the way subcontinent players play the game. Indian, Pakistani, Sri Lankan and Bangladeshi players seem to play at a far more personal level than us Kiwis ... it's played as a confrontation between batsman and bowler. In western countries, there seems to be more of a team approach, and it's got to do with the nature of life in these parts. In the subcontinent, it's dog eat dog. If you aren't born into privilege, then it is up to you to make a go of it or stay in the gutter. "
Richardson's assessment is simplistic, and a half-truth at best, but nails the point. Neil Harvey once described India's crowds as "probably the most fanatical cricket followers", and the success of the Indian Premier League has proved they can extend their repertoire beyond nationalist sentiments.
Conversely, for the players, money changed the rules of the game. "Today's cricketers are not subject to the frustrations we were, " feels Baig, "I remember in Kanpur in 1959-60, when the Aussies were here, we were three to a room in an abysmal hotel which you can't really describe. The Aussies enjoyed five-star luxury in a personal guesthouse owned by a rich industrialist. It's all got to do with the times. "
There has been no real role reversal or calculated shedding of a colonialist past. Indian money has changed cricket's superstructure, giving its players more headway and the fans a desire to be the best both at table manners and cricket. The IPL, although it has offered other teams a peek into the methodology of subcontinental cricketers and their playing conditions, has given local heroes too a new confidence, a chance to shed old tags and peek into the habits of opponents.
"There is no erosion of home advantage because of the IPL, " says former Indian captain Bishan Singh Bedi, "But there's good greed and bad greed. Today's cricketers are riding a high wave of financial success, a sociological gain from the game itself. That has given them the confidence to play on their own terms. " Bedi recalls how the 'Vaseline' controversy led to England's administrators closing ranks with their players, and how he felt things had turned turned full circle with the 'Monkeygate' episode.
"Today's crowd too is similarly bullyish about its rights, and this is why home advantage matters, " he says, "For some, their association with the IPL may be a shade stronger, but when it comes to flag-waving, there's nobody better than the subcontinental fan. "
Maybe this is the reason why the India of formulaic marketing and fluid emotions can come together seamlessly during the World Cup. "The World Cup is a nationalist ego trip, " says political psychologist Ashis Nandy. "It was the same in 1996 and 1987, but not to this extent. Strangely, the IPL is an explosion of this symphony of nationalism, where you are the one pulling all the strings. Now, the audience is evolving faster than the game itself, and cricket is a statement of intent: both for players and fans. If others don't catch up, they will be left behind. "
It's true then. Something about this World Cup doesn't quite add up. But it's not meant to. Here in the subcontinent, things always play out bigger than the sum of their parts.
WHAT WE'D LIKE TO SEE
AFRIDI HOLDING ALOFT THE WORLD CUP AT WANKHEDE
After all the Shiv Sena threats over the last two decades Pakistan skipper Afridi lifting the trophy at the Mumbai venue would make it quite special
WHAT WILL HAPPEN
In this World Cup, Sachin Tendulkar will emulate Javed Miandad's record of playing six successive tournaments. The Pak legend played from 1975 to 1996, while Tendulkar debuted in 1992
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