Murali celebrates after bowling Dhoni, via Getty
I’m not cricket crazy. I have fond memories of pick-up cricket with a tennis ball and coconut leaf bat, but I grew up on American football and basketball. Tonight’s game, however, in sheer international consequence, was something to watch. Sri Lanka beat India to not only advance to the next round of World Cup Cricket, they have probably eliminated India entirely. This is something akin to France losing in the World Cup qualifiers a decade back, only with a billion fanatical and now heart-broken fans. Cricket is the national passion in the subcontinent, and the two nuclear powers have been tossed while Bangladesh and Sri Lanka remain. It is truly inspiring sport, but more than anything it is inspired by the fans.
Cricket is a long game, going from 7pm to 3am, and that’s in the limited version. That’s eight hours of men mostly standing around, one man running, and another two mostly bunting a ball all day. In between, however, there are moments of extreme excitement, talent, and heartbreak. Especially near the end, when cricket reaches its desperate crescendo. Each side takes a turn to bat and the highest score wins. In this match Sri Lanka built slowly, moderately, unconvincingly. A ground ball is golden in cricket cause you can’t get caught out, but they seemed to lose momentum before they could reach the stands and go for four. Ball after ball would roll and roll, only to be caught by some Indian from off camera.
Then, in the later overs, Chaminda Vaas and Russell Arnold hit a succession of fours, pushing the total up and up. The people I was watching with set 250 as a defensible score, and SL reached 254. Now India had to match, on a pitch that wasn’t giving up much.
Now, this is a match where the losing Pakistani coach was strangled in his hotel room. This is a country of one billion where the national religion is cricket, where cricketers are God, and where their property got attacked after the loss to Bangla. It is a great privilege to be an Indian cricketer, but also a great and heavy responsibility. Sri Lanka was in the next round regardless, but this was India’s last chance to earn a place in the next round, and preserve the dignity of their huge and proud nation. Not to mention their personal safety, and their kids ability to go to school undisturbed.
That is a lot of pressure, and cricket is a mind game, especially batting second. India had to come from behind and get more than 254 runs, all with time ticking away. Of course, it is possible for the last two batters to reach the goal, but a few outs in the beginning and a team loses momentum, and once you stop moving the weight of the nation descends. And this is where Sri Lanka shone. The batting was good but not extraordinary, but the fielding and bowling was fantastic.
Possibly the greatest batter alive – Sachin Tendulkar – and the rising star Dhoni were bowled out with no runs to their name. None. Those were powerhouses, and they were gone. India still had a remarkable batting order on paper, but it never congealed, and the fast bowling of Fernando and Malinga, steady Jayasuriya, and double-jointed spin of Murali was just too much. The Indian team crumpled, hitting nothing, singles, nothing. Near the end they just starting swinging, wildly, while Malinga sent fastballs whizzing at their heads.
When you swing wildly you mess up, and if you hit a pop-up without control you simply get got. On two pop-ups Murali the bowler surprisingly made confident and joyful catches, his smile the only thing you could see in the shade. From there India just folded, the momentum gone, needing an impossible 10 runs per over to catch up. You could see the faces fall, impotent Tendulkar and valiant but fallen Dravid in the stands. It was over, and they were all taken out, 69 runs behind.
In Sri Lanka, we were watching the match on Dialog TV, on an Indian feed. The ads are in Hindi, and feature Indian cricketers. The commentary after was Indian, pretty Indian women looking like she was about to cry. They said congrats to this ‘tiny island nation’, but you could tell they were heartbroken. ‘Never has an Indian team promised so much and delivered so little’. Millions of little kids will be miserable tonight, but tonight Sri Lanka finally has something everyone here can be proud of.
For so many Sri Lankans it is something that our world gives importance to, and it is somewhere we can prove ourselves. As we descend war and an oppressive government, everyone still agrees on cricket. There were (and are?) undeclared cease-fires on game days. Murali is a Tamil, and he’s a fucking hero to people all over. Sinhalese, Burghers, Tamils, Muslims, all unite for this one game, and for a blissful 8 hours. All the radios are tuned, there’s a big screen near Parliament, people stop outside Abans and electronics stores to watch through the shop window. People forget their pride and remember our pride, for that moment. In a World Cup full of rumored match-fixing, murder and bitter disappointment for India and Pakistan, there is great hope, promise, and unity for Sri Lanka. It’s 8 hours and it’s just a game, but I’ll take what we can get. I do wish safety to the Indian team, staff, and their families. Seriously.