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'In India, only Mumbai and Chennai crowds are forgiving'
Ask any cricketer and he'll tell you that playing the World Cup and that too in front of the home crowd is the biggest challenge the sport can offer. That is because everyone wants you to win and there is a tremendous pressure to perform. The home team is always the favourite.
Amidst such pressure of expectations, there is one word that separates men from boys and that is victory. I was fortunate to be a part of the 1996 World Cup, which was at home, and I was again fortunate enough to play against some of the top teams in the world. I relished playing the tournament in front of home crowds.
But there are advantages and disadvantages when you are playing at home. The biggest one obviously, is that you get the support of the crowd. That is something which is really amazing. It can't really be explained.
The flip side of playing a World Cup in India is coming to terms with the emotions and passion of the fans. Come what may, at every stadium in India, you are expected to win. During my playing days, Chennai and Mumbai were the only two venues where the fans would appreciate team effort. If you are playing in Kolkata and that too in front of a huge crowd, it's really difficult - their aspirations are so high that they become unreasonable and emotional.
In 1996, we saw that when India played Sri Lanka in that 'famous' semifinal match. Prior to that game, we had had a smooth ride. But at the Eden, the crowd got angry because we couldn't stand up and fight.
When I look back and think hard about what went wrong in that particular game, only one thing comes to my mind. Probably, we could have batted first and that could have made all the difference.
Undoubtedly, the Sri Lankans were in top form, but the decision to bat second was taken by the team management after seeing the way the Lankans were chasing down daunting totals. Probably, we were not destined to win that tournament.
But the highpoint for us in the 1996 World Cup was the match before the semifinal. Beating Pakistan in Bangalore lifted the spirits of the team and we were ready to take on any opposition. The thumping win over our neighbours (whom India had not beaten since the 1992 World Cup) convinced the Indian followers that the team would go all the way. Simultaneously, the pressure rose sky-high and we were looking to ride on the good form, but it wasn't meant to be. It still hurts when I recollect those moments - I guess it's part and parcel of the game.
This was a World Cup for which the Indian players had prepared in the best manner possible. The players were confident they would reach the top. The reasons were all there. It was at home, the wickets were to our strengths and most crucially, we were fresh and charged up for the big event. Unlike the 1992 World Cup, where tired players lined up for the tournament immediately after playing a long and taxing Test series against Australia, which was then followed up with a tri-series involving the West Indies, here we were fresh, raring to go.
Despite the tournament being held at home this time, the present scenario is more or less similar to that in 1992. The current bunch of cricketers under MS Dhoni are definitely talented and have it in them to make it big, but at the end of the day, it all boils down to how much your body can take. With so much cricket being played all year round, it's never going to be easy to win and perform superlatively in every match. There are no two ways about it - perform or perish.
That said, it's heartening to see the way some of the cricketers have taken this World Cup. I am told some who are nursing niggles have opted out of the South Africa One-day series just to achieve 100 per cent fitness for the tournament. The players themselves know that the Cup will be both mentally and physically demanding. It can really drain you if you are not fresh in both these aspects.
But what I am waiting eagerly for is to see how Sachin Tendulkar bats in this tournament. In 1996, Tendulkar was a very aggressive strokeplayer and had shown the grit to stay at the top. Now, he plays his cricket very responsibly and has at the same time shown how hungry he is to do well in this particular World Cup. The double century he scored in an ODI last year proves how much cricket is left in him.
I remember when Tendulkar used to enter the field two decades ago, he rejoiced if the opposition lost a wicket. He has not lost that joy or the competitive spirit. Even today, the expression on his face when an opposition batsman gets out is the same. It is a unique gift to still have such hunger and thirst for the game. I have great regard for this cricketer and he is the only man who is capable of changing history - and history says no host country has ever managed to lift the World Cup. Can Sachin change that? My fingers are crossed.
In my opinion, the 1996 performance would rank thirdbest of India's World Cup performances. After the magical 1983 victory, I strongly feel that the 2003 final was our highest World Cup point. And yet, if I were to select the best ODI team India ever had, it would have to be the 1985 World Series of Cricket winning team. Under Sunil Gavaskar's captaincy, that team had the best balance. Actually, even the 1992 World Cup team was pretty good because it had plenty of all-rounders.
I am equally fond of the current Indian team. There are plenty of match-winners in it. And this year's event is going to be different. With Australia no longer the monster they used to be, it's going to be the most open World Cup ever.
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