April 11, 2011

How do you top a World Cup win?

Some said the World Cup success would increase the fans' appetite for the IPL. That seems optimistic

It's best called the idiot smile, and most sports fans can relate to it. It's usually accompanied by the faraway look. You can see a lot of them around India these days - in the stands at cricket matches, in restaurants and airport lounges, at office workstations.

Behind the idiot smile lies bittersweet emotion. It's prompted by recalling the highest of highs, but it also comes tinged with the realisation that life will never get better. Spanish football fans experienced it at Soccer City last July, and the Fenway-Park faithful felt it come on when the curse of the Bambino was finally overcome. Now it's the turn of the Indian cricket fan.

The Indian Premier League's opening game, in Chennai, didn't attract a full house. A day later, in Kochi, the massive Nehru Stadium was less than half-full for the Tuskers' first game. The state assembly elections, to be held this Wednesday, might have been a factor, but the vast swathes of empty seats would certainly be of concern to owners who hadn't been especially keen to play in Kerala in the first place.

What did we expect, though? After India won the World Cup, there was a school of thought that suggested interest in the IPL could only increase as a result. Such people clearly haven't watched much sport. Or if they have, they don't understand how the fan thinks.

When your team wins the biggest honour in the game, whether that's a World Cup, a World Series pennant or a Champions League title, you experience end-of-life sensations. It doesn't always need to be a trophy either. Just ask those who were at Headingley in 1981, the Eden Gardens in 2001 or Edgbaston in 2005.

I remember staring at the empty concrete stands in Kolkata in 2001, long after players and fans had left. It was the first Test match I had covered. It may as well have been the last. How do you top that? You don't, not even if you've seen 60-odd games since.

For an entire generation of Indian fans, April 2 was such a day. Many English and Australian fans get most nostalgic about Ashes campaigns. And while there are lots of Indians who prefer the longer version of the game, the country's cricket is inextricably linked with the 50-over version. It always goes back to 1983. Just as every goal Manchester United score is a tribute to the Busby Babes, every Indian run and wicket owes something to the spirit of '83.

There comes a time, though, when the weight of history and nostalgia can crush you. Nearly three decades after that Lord's afternoon, India were getting to that stage. A new set of fans, for whom Kapil's Devils were no more than Youtube footage, needed a new focal point, something of their own to hold on to.

It wouldn't have mattered to most if they had beaten Netherlands or Zimbabwe in the final. A win is a win. But the fact that it came after back-to-back victories against Australia, Pakistan and Sri Lanka - three teams with genuine big-tournament pedigree - made it all the more satisfying. MS Dhoni and his team breathed life into the cliché that you have to beat the best to be the best.

The casual celebrity-spotting crowd will still turn up for IPL games. But for the serious fan, recovery could take a while. And any comparisons with Ahmedabad, Mohali and Mumbai will invariably be unfavourable.

The players, too, haven't been immune from the morning-after feeling - both those who were part of history as it was made and those who missed out. Gautam Gambhir will have banked about $171,000 for the one run he made in Kolkata's opening-night defeat. But who could put a price on the 97 he made in a World Cup final?

When your team wins the biggest honour in the game, whether that's a World Cup, a World Series pennant or a Champions League title, you experience end-of-life sensations

RP Singh has won an IPL (with Deccan Chargers) and the purple cap given to its leading wicket-taker. On Saturday night, playing for a new team, he looked very much like a man conscious of the fact that the most important bus had been missed. For someone who was part of the national team when the push to glory began under Dhoni and Gary Kirsten, IPL riches are poor consolation.

The discerning fan will also have noted that the expansion to 10 teams has made the gulf between the great and the average all the more apparent. It means 70 Indians are guaranteed starting places. Not even half that number have what it takes to compete on equal terms with international cricket's finest.

Had Mahela Jayawardene been captaining Sri Lanka instead of the Tuskers, he'd have thrown the ball to Lasith Malinga for the 18th over on Sunday. Instead, he looked around at a threadbare attack and settled on Raiphi Vincent Gomez. Three mighty AB de Villiers sixes later, the match was as good as over.

Even if the overseas quota is increased to five players - and for that to work, Pakistani players will have to be welcomed back - most teams will still have a popgun bowler or out-of-his-league batsman who can be picked on. However great the hype - and the commentators seem to be outdoing themselves even in Lalit Modi's absence - the lack of depth can't be wished away.

Club football is a different beast. With no salary cap in place, the likes of Real Madrid or Chelsea can hoover up available talent, even if that means stars rotting on the bench. The IPL's insistence on a homegrown quota makes it relevant to a local audience and keeps the playing field even, but it also means that you won't ever see a team that can match the excellence of Ponting's Australia (2003-07) or the batting depth of Dhoni's India.

One of the most eloquent takes on the nature of fandom, its ecstasy and agony, is Colin Schindler's Manchester United Ruined My Life. Two decades from now, you can expect a similar treatise from a middle-aged Indian. Only, this one will be called How Dhoni Ruined Everything. One fluid swing of the bat, the ball soaring into Mumbai's night and a foothold on cricket's highest peak. You can only go downhill from there.

Dileep Premachandran is an associate editor at ESPNcricinfo

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Arun on April 14, 2011, 21:02 GMT

    Not to worry.. the crowds will return next year when there's no World Cup win to cheer about. And even now it's not all that gloomy. You see the stadium half empty, I see it half full.

  • Muthuvel on April 14, 2011, 19:09 GMT

    Accurate article, the casual fans will throng the ipl for the die hards it would take some time. but IPL does give a chance to those who missed out on the WC narrowly to release some frustration.

  • Syed on April 14, 2011, 12:26 GMT

    As I read this article I felt I am expressing my thoughts in writing. Brilliantly written. I am an ardent anti-IPL guy and was so much happy that World Cup was scheduled before IPL. At least we got the chance of playing fit guys. Last 2 years in ICC tournaments we had seen the after-effects of IPL. The feeling of winning the World Cup is still fresh and IPL seems a unlaughable joke in front of that.

  • Natarajan on April 13, 2011, 15:16 GMT

    you are right, post WC win this IPL is nothing! In fact who cares man???I just tune in to see Sachin smile :) April 2nd images will never leave my heart. You rightly mentioned, for a whole generation April 2nd will remain their DAY for Indian cricket.

  • Dummy4 on April 13, 2011, 7:30 GMT

    Indian team may go downhill from this "high" as Dileep says, but lets hope its the beginning of an era- Indian era in cricket for a long time to come, with India climbing many more such Mount Everests...Go India Go..may it be the beginning of a never ending pursuit of excellence!

  • Narayan on April 13, 2011, 2:38 GMT

    Pleasure the writers and fans get is essentially vicarious. Players on the other hand get the pleasure out of playing. Look at Tendulkar. I odn't think he, though overjoyed, winning the cup is back to the act which probably gives him additional joy. India probably should pick him in T20 World Cup; it appears that he is doing better than most. He is not loosing any interest in IPL. Then there is Kallis. Who might have let down momentarily but back to his best in IPL. There is lot of life after winning the World Cup. Attitude should be, as shown by Tendulkar and Kallis, "You ain't seen nothing yet".

  • Dummy4 on April 12, 2011, 23:32 GMT

    Downhill - ohh its acceptable for me! atleast I can die knowing very well that I have seen that momentous scene and experienced that out of this world feeling of knowing that my team are world champions..Good article!

  • cric on April 12, 2011, 23:29 GMT

    India's famous batting lineup stood up and delivered when it was needed. Both against Australia and Sri Lanka they chased a reasonable target and the middle order did not cave in. Bowling attack wasn't too bad. Both Zahir Khan and Harbhajan took wickets whenever the opposition seemed to be getting away with the game. The most important piece in the jigsaw was Yuvi's bowling which plugged the gap and didn't allow the opponents to post mammoth totals. It was a win based on team effort instead of individual brilliance because every player played their part in the overall win. India looked hungry, determined and willing to win at all costs and that self belief eventually paid off because they kept their focus and peaked at the right time.

  • Dummy4 on April 12, 2011, 22:51 GMT

    Hey even a big cricket fan like me and many others , cant relate to IPL this season. The euphoria , the pride, the high after that last six is still not settled down. You need to give rest your imagination and apetite for glory after this..and I am referring to a Cricket fan's heart here.

    C u empty stands, till we see Bleed Blue again !!

  • Prem on April 12, 2011, 20:45 GMT

    BCCI was RICH, even before IPL I, why in the world they want to be more RICHER? I JUST DO NOT GET IT, why make our STAR WC winning and No.1, Test players so mentally and physically FATIGUE? what is MORE important than defending or being at the TOP in test and ODI and WC winner? or BEING a SUPER RICH, but at the Bottom of the List, like Zimb and Bangladesh or Like KENYA?, what is more important? Super Rich (being at the bottom) or No.1 side in TEST, ODI AND WC WINNER?

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