As the Cricket World Cup heads to its final, it’s beginning to pack enough drama to put the most maudlin daytime soap to shame.
Sporting events may be all about winning and losing, but what’s so compelling about it is always the human drama involved—the highs and lows, the near-misses and the attendant heartbreak, the rush of adrenaline following a plucky victory snatched out of near defeat.
Of course, the exit of the Tigers was painful—particularly their unfortunate loss to Pakistan in the final game. Overall, however, the Tigers gave an excellent account of themselves. Shakib Al Hasan leads anybody’s list of top players, and it’s wonderful to see Mustafizur Rahman get some of his fizz back.
The upside of the exit of the Tigers is that it gave me the space to look beyond and take stock of—and enjoy—the tournament as a whole in a more relaxed frame of mind. All told, it’s been a great tournament.
I’ve followed only the first semi-final at Old Trafford in Manchester, and this packed all the excitement of a high-flying rollercoaster.
The much-fancied Indians had to pack it in after a remarkable victory by the Kiwis in a real nail-biter, especially in the second-half with India chasing a modest total of 240. Small targets often make for really tense matches for the simple reason that a wicket or a spurt of runs can dramatically alter the complexion of the match.
The Kiwis removed the Indian big guns early on, and pretty soon India had lost five wickets. A spectacular rearguard action of the swashbuckling Ravindra Jadeja and wily veteran MS Dhoni almost pulled off a miracle. Almost. Whoever imagined Martin Guptill, who, until now, had a very forgettable World Cup, would rise to the occasion when his team needed it the most? With one unbelievable, sharp throw he hit the stumps with Dhoni only inches away. The crestfallen veteran took the long walk back, his team’s confident dream of lifting the trophy now in tatters.
Kiwis seem to have a talent for nail-biters. Who can forget the tense drama of the final over of their match against the West Indies? West Indies all-rounder Carlos Brathwaite, an unlikely centurion, almost pulled it off. His attempted six would have been enough to pull West Indies over the finish line, but he was caught inches from the boundary. You would have to have a heart of stone to not feel for him as he knelt down in despair. What makes cricket so beautiful and unique is what happened next: New Zealand players came and comforted him. Can you imagine anything like that in football?
To be sure, all cricket teams are not created equal. The super-star teams have a swagger in their walk—England, Australia and India. Then there are the teams who are a shadow of their glorious past selves—South Africa, Sri Lanka and the hapless West Indies. The mercurial Pakistanis are hard to pin down. On their day they can beat anybody—they beat mighty England convincingly. Yet they surrendered in an ignominious defeat after they collapsed for 105 against unfancied West Indies. You just never know which Pakistan is going to show up on a given day; this gives new meaning to the term two-nation theory.
I would put Bangladesh in the middle—not quite as solid as the teams at the very top, but definitely a cut above the has-beens. I think former Indian captain Sourav Ganguly’s observation was quite astute. He said Bangladesh is not a good team, but a dangerous team.
Then there is Afghanistan, the plucky newcomers, still finding their feet. They still have ways to go, but they served notice to the world after they gave Sri Lanka, and in particular the mighty Indians, a real fright.
It is the glorious uncertainty of cricket that’s so much of its charm. On its day, even an unfancied team can humble a mighty team if it plays out of its skin. One-time greats South Africa had a terrible World Cup, but they finished on a high note by beating Australia, who were a serious contender for the trophy. Likewise, Sri Lanka is a far cry from its old self, but it did beat England, another trophy contender.
The dominance of the subcontinent was evident among the spectators—every time India played, the stadium turned into a sea of blue. Bangladesh and Pakistan fans also showed up in astonishing numbers. The huge crowds—noisy, rambunctious, good-natured, full of joy—added a vitality and, at tense moments, an electric frisson that was an utter joy. This is in stark contrast with Test matches mostly played in near-empty stadiums these days, a depressing sight.
There are winners and losers after each game, but the real value of the World Cup tournament is in the sense of community and warmth it engenders among the millions and millions of international fans all around the world. The cricket website Cricinfo, where I often follow matches, has followers commenting from literally all over the world—Germany, Australia, Canada, the US, the subcontinent, you name it. It’s fair to say we are all winners, and so is cricket.
In our passion for the teams we support, we tend to forget that it’s not just about winning. I still remember, over half a century ago, how moved I was when I read the credo of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics: “The important thing in the Olympics is not to win but to take part, just as in life the important thing is not the triumph but the struggle.”
Ashfaque Swapan is a contributing editor for Siliconeer, a monthly periodical for South Asians in the United States.