'India! India-ah!' Yes, we got that, but has this World Cup's crowds really been worldly?

Something strange happened during the India-New Zealand semifinal on Wednesday. I call it strange because such a thing hasn’t happened throughout this World Cup. When NZ’s Daryl Mitchell finished with a heroic 134 to take his team from utter defeat to noble defeat, Indian spectators stood up to applaud him at the Wankhede. It was heartening to see this, in what was otherwise a very war-like atmosphere, with stadium DJs exhorting the crowd to sing 1930s freedom songs, bafflingly, against the nice nation of New Zealand.

If it happened the other way around, say we were in Auckland, and suddenly the stadium started doing their rugby chant, the Hakka, and audiences started slapping their inner thighs and calling us to war, I’m sure BCCI would have complained.

As we go into battle finale today, like over a billion others, I’m in awe of an Indian team that seems to have the DNA of a 1980s West Indies team, but with far more wealth and stardom. They deserve everything. I’m middle-aged, and I’ve never not seen an Indian team go into a final with a mix of run-rate chicanery and some gods smiling. To see almost Germanic efficiency in cricket makes me think that I barely recognise the country, never mind the team. Which is why I want to understand the former, because the latter has the good wishes of 1/6th of the planet.

I’m the fallen generation that carried the guilt of Javed Miandad’s last-ball six, which segued into liberalisation and a middle-order collapse. Watching entire stadiums vacate after Sachin Tendulkar’s dismissal was disheartening not only to fans but also to the next batsman walking in (usually Rahul Dravid). Still, something was happening to India, but no one was sure what. Safari suit bureaucracy was crumbling. We were a little less afraid abroad. At least the wicketkeeper didn’t have to work by day at SBI.

My 30s taught me that no matter how many shirts Sourav Ganguly took off and waved, you still had to win games to earn respect. Otherwise, you’re just a shirtless entity defeated by Ricky Ponting. Still, that shirt-waving suggested the end of some kind of subservience.

In some ways, 2003 was cricket’s 1947. Indian fans had disposable income and filled stadiums in Cape Town, Melbourne, and Birmingham. You couldn’t hold up a sign that read, ‘India vs Pakistan-Taxi Drivers vs Bus Conductors’, as they did at MCG in 1985, in the final of the World Championship. The last 15 years have seen Indian money change the entire game, from a pastime among Commonwealth gentlemen to a Big Boss episode. It is not my place to judge which is better. But with great power comes some responsibility. For a world event, you need the world to be here. When lots of people are complaining that this feels like a BCCI event, rather than a World Cup, what they’re saying is that there are near-zero foreign fans here. A world event can’t have one lost New Zealander, cricketers’ wives and a loiterer from Pune being paid hourly to wave a Pakistani flag.

For Men in Blue to win deservedly, you need Men in Orange, Black, Yellow and Green in the stands. The whole point of sport is two opposing sides, never mind the state of India’s national politics. In South American football, it is so strong that the two sets of fans are kept apart by tear gas. Cricket doesn’t have to be that extreme. But without fans from any other country, this World Cup felt like India staring at the mirror and saying, ‘I’m great’.

One can’t have schedules, visas and ticketing so complicated that for a foreigner to get here, he needs magic tricks and puzzle-solving skills. Every match India play cannot resemble a Satyagraha march, and every non-India match cannot have the attendance of someone’s dog’s funeral.

Of course, none of this has anything to do with the players who’ll give their best tonight. It has to do with the Lords of Cricket, all Indians now, who have to decide whether they just want to play with themselves, or the rest of the world.


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