There was a time, back in the 17th and 18th century, when nostalgia was considered a mental disease. Some physicians treated it on par with paranoia and one French doctor recommended that it be treated with inciting pain and terror. Over time medical science has moved on. And these days nostalgia is sometimes even considered a virtue, a means of clinging on to an age long gone.
For a few hours on Saturday, New York's Citi Field was soaked in nostalgia. Waves and waves of cricket fans (large numbers wearing Indian and Pakistani jerseys) wound the clock back to the 1990s and early 2000s and cheered on players who had meant so much to them in their impressionable years. For those between 20 and 30, this was a return to their childhood, watching players who they had imitated in their backyards with their first cricket kit. For those between 30 and 40, it was a return to their adolescence, a time when they had sought out heroes and aspired to world dominance.
They weren't alone. A tiny fraction watched their first cricket match; a group of fans had flown in from Trinidad just for this game; there were a smattering of Australian, English and South African expatriates; men waving Sri Lankan flags; a bunch of middle-aged men in fancy dress attire (with fake blond wigs); a couple of dozen fans wearing Guyana Amazon Warriors jerseys; and a group of young men and women in Jamaican hats. The entire mass of human bodies combined in Mexican waves and high-decibel roars. The team announcements before the game was met with delirium.
Virender Sehwag, Brian Lara, Shane Warne, Wasim Akram, Shoaib Akhtar: mad cheers. Sachin Tendulkar: the stadium shook.
The final result, in case you were wondering: Warne's Warriors beat Sachin's Blasters by six wickets. The stadium was small, the setting intimate - Ricky Ponting admitted that it was the first time in his life that a fan had clicked a selfie with him when he was fielding at the boundary. Most of the former fast bowlers used short run-ups and were mostly military medium (though Shoaib cranked it up for a few overs, getting Kumar Sangakkara and Matthew Hayden with short ones, and hurrying Jonty Rhodes with a sharp bouncer). Had Curtly Ambrose and Courtney Walsh faced their own bowling, they might have fancied getting half-centuries. And Allan Donald has not only halved his run-up but also his pace.
But all that was not the point. Through the game there were moments when the mind took a journey back in time. When Tendulkar and Sehwag walked in to open (with Sehwag, as expected, taking strike); when Akram, running his hands through his hair in that classical I-have-such-sleek-hair-that-I-can-crush-your-toes-and-burn-your-stumps-while-whistling-my-favourite-Nusrat-tune, ran in to bowl to Tendulkar (the memories! gosh, the memories!); when Warne set his field to bowl to Tendulkar (nightmares, here we come); when VVS Laxman came down to Warne (exactly like in Kolkata in 2001) and tried to slog him, cross-batted through midwicket (exactly not like Kolkata in 2001) to be stumped; when Muralitharan, eyes aglow, his hair in Jheri curls, a Colgate grin plastered on his face, appealed by wiggling his index finger at the umpire.
These may have been retired cricketers having a bit of fun in the park but seeing them in action put spectators in a time-capsule. When Lara strolled in, as if he was on a beach; the mind could do little but pop up a string of numbers: 277, 375, 501, 213, 153, 400, 221…
For some fans in the stadium watching these cricketers and the individual contests transported them to a phase of life when cricket was all-pervading. When coursework took a backseat, when the match scorecard was more important than mid-term report cards. Yes, fans remember Tendulkar hammering Warne in Sharjah - but many also remember where they were and what they were doing. Sure, they recall the scores and stats but they are intimately in tune with how upbeat those innings made them feel, how deeply connected they felt with both the man and the game as a whole.
And each time they picked up on some action that triggered a new memory, the chants got louder, the flags waved faster, and the mood was filled with a sense of gusto. It is not far-fetched to assume that those who attended the game - especially those between 20 and 40 - were filled with a sense of gratitude: thanking the cricketers for being there when cricket meant the most.