On Monday night, a large, respectable TV channel previewed Saturday’s India-Pakistan semi-final of the World Cup. No one present in the studio wanted to admit the possibility of the Indian team losing. When a couple of young men in the audience suggested that if that happens, “life will go on”, there was a loud chorus of “No, noo!”
The belief that the Indian team is almost the rightful winner of the trophy, and notion that it is invincible, is reflected in the Indian media also.
Perhaps, never having played any sort of sport in our lives, we’ve become very ignorant about the nature of sport — its essence is its uncertainty. Perhaps we don’t really know what our frenzy is doing to the players.
Most of us will never know what it feels to be an Indian cricketer. We’ll never be the gladiators these young men are; we’ll never be in the middle of cricket stadium with thousands of people shouting our names; we’ll never have 24 cameras trying to record and replay each move we make; we’ll never have people gazing up at the hotel we’re staying at, hoping to get our sight, even as they tell each other: yeh log paise ke liye kuchh bhi kar sakte hain [these people can do anything for money]
We’ll never know what it feels to be —for example — Yuvraj Singh.
But minutes after the fine innings he played against Australia, we got to see at close hand what he felt like. There hadn’t been enough time for him to don the professional sportsperson’s “media face”, when he mouths inanities in words that he’s probably spoken the previous day.
Yuvraj seemed mentally and physically fatigued. He breathed in deep, big breaths as he listened to questions, he sighed as he absorbed them and considered his response.
He spoke in his characteristic careless drawl, but the cool contempt that he normally radiates — in response perhaps to the scrutiny he’s subjected to and the necessity for him to participate in it — was absent.
He was asked how it was in the middle, playing against an opponent known to be tough like steel. “It was very difficult to control emotions,” he said. “Dhadkan kaafi tez ho gayi thhi [the heartbeat had increased quite a bit]. You think that if you make a mistake, you’re out of the World Cup. You think this is possible, and then that something else could be possible. It’s very tough.”
He was then asked if he’s been able to treat this World Cup as just another tournament, as had been the plan. “Woh to hua nahin yaar,” [that didn't happen, yaar] he said. “It didn’t work out. It’s not possible to get away from the fact that it’s the World Cup. You expect us to win, India expects us to win, we’re giving everything to win the World Cup.”
On the contrary, MS Dhoni says it’s just another match. Often what’s spoken by Dhoni in press conferences is calculated to smother further comment and avoid controversy, so it’s not possible to say if he really believes this, and if he’s really completely immune to pressure. But he’s a remarkable man, mentally very tough, often the coolest head on the ground.
Dhoni knows better than you or me how to play the game, trust me. He’s thought and planned cricket all his life. He knows how it goes in sport. On match eve, he coolly said: “Somebody has to lose this match. Irrespective of what happens, the political talk or the cricketing aspect, by the end of the 30th of this month, you’ll have one team losing and one team going into the final. That’s a big part of sport. It doesn’t happen only in cricket. It happens in every sport.”
Shahid Afridi said it can be called a contest between the Pakistani bowlers and Indian batsmen, and he’s right. India’s batting is deep, with potential match- winners following each other right down to No. 7. There seems to be just one in bowling.
Consequently, all attention turns to the pitch. The curator, surely a “patriot”, can’t make it favour bowlers, for Pakistan has a superior bowling attack. The pitch is still greenish, but over the last three days it’s lost some of that colour and by match day morning, it could be more brown than green.
Talking of Mike Horn, explorer, adventurer and inspirational speaker who’s been with the team for some time, Dhoni said: “What you think is impossible, you can do it if you push yourself and prepare yourself for it.”
What he’d probably find impossible is to convince the media, the fans and the politicians that it’s just another match.