Six years. A drop in the ocean if we look at the history of mankind, but an age in cricket, where half a decade of Twenty20 was enough to utterly transform the game as we knew it.
March 30, 2011 – Mohali and a stadium that could seat only 28,000. Judging by the bizarre requests that landed up even in the inboxes of journalists, half the subcontinent seemed to want a ticket. Even those that had washed their hands off the game, because of fixing and rampant jingoism, were suddenly finding cricket cool again.
I had arrived in Mohali feeling like I’d been worked over by Shoaib Akhtar. Against sane advice, I had decided to do two quarterfinals, back to back. At 3am, having filed everything from India’s epic five-wicket victory against Australia, I flew out of Ahmedabad, to Mumbai. An 8am from there took me to Dhaka.
Thanks to the traffic on the roads there, an over had elapsed by the time I settled into my press-box seat in Mirpur, where South Africa had just embarked on their latest World Cup misadventure. ‘What a waste of time,’ I’d been told by those that reckoned a South African win was a formality.
I got my upset, and the stories, but was flat on my feet by the time I headed back to India. Once in Chandigarh, it quickly became apparent that this was going to be the most hyped cricket match ever played. Opportunistic politicians on both sides of the border had already hitched their wagons to the cricket stars, ensuring that the match-day experience for the average fan, or journalist, would be a miserable one.
The atmosphere in Ahmedabad, with 20,000 more fans in the stands, had been far more intimidating, but the presence of media from around the world in Mohali ensured that everyone was aware of what was at stake. In a prescient column on the eve of the game, the late Peter Roebuck wrote: “Despite the foreboding, past performance indicates that all parties will bend over backwards to make sure that the meeting is as happy as is possible in a semi-final, an essentially mournful occasion, when much can be lost and nothing won.”
India did win, thanks in no small measure to one of Sachin Tendulkar’s most important innings, an 85 liberally sprinkled with luck. The controversy over the Saeed Ajmal leg-before that was overturned would last for week, and prompt Stephen Carter, managing director of Hawk-Eye Innovations, to write on the company website: “The path Hawk-Eye showed was accurate and the Decision Review System was used correctly to overturn the umpire’s original decision.
“The Hawk-Eye track lines up perfectly with the video of the real ball from release to impact point.”
It might seem sacrilegious to say it, but there was another innings no less vital to India’s eventual 29-run win. Suresh Raina was playing just his second game of the tournament, and it was his 39-ball 36 after a big middle-order collapse that took India over the 250-run barrier.
The bowlers, most notably the always under-appreciated Ashish Nehra and the now-forgotten Munaf Patel, did the rest, and the celebrations stretched to dawn and beyond. On the other side, those that had spent the best part of a day crossing the border were in no mood to stay on. Most drove back the same night.
My favourite image from that night is of a young kid grabbing an irate policeman’s lathi and running off with it as a souvenir, even as cars and SUVs filled with tricolor-waving revelers looked on and cheered.
Bleary eyed at the airport the next morning, many hunted for a newspaper or two. “India book Mumbai matinee” was the Hindustan Times headline, and the accompanying picture of Tendulkar, who else, had the words: “Ready for History”.
Two days later, and a quarter-century after his cricketing odyssey had begun, he had his winner’s medal. But when I look back, it’s another man, who didn’t get to bat in the final, that I often think of.
Raina was an integral part of India’s white-ball teams for more than half a decade. But when the heroes of 2011 are mentioned, his name is almost always an afterthought. It shouldn’t be. In the Ahmedabad quarterfinal, against an Australian side that hadn’t lost a World Cup game of any significance since 1996, his 28-ball 34 helped Yuvraj Singh bring India home. The sucker-punch six over long-on off Brett Lee was as memorable as Yuvraj’s on-bended-knee celebrations at the end.
Against Pakistan, in the most intense game he had ever played, Raina held it together even as more wizened heads lost their composure. He may have made just 70 across the two innings, but they remain 70 of the most precious runs in Indian cricket history.
Before you mock him for having lost his central contract, you’d do well to remember that.