Love in the time of World Cup 1999
If you ask Pakistanis about their favourite cricket World Cup, most will mention the ’92 version. The reasons are obvious and manifold. Pakistan became world champions in typically dramatic fashion and unearthed stars which were to dominate world cricket for years to come.
The 1992 World Cup had aging stars and new ones, Imran Khan and Ian Botham rubbing shoulders with Sachin Tendulkar and Brian Lara. It had a testing format in which each team played each other at least once and was played in superb grounds. An entire nation yearns to relive the tournament which produced several nuggety moments including the much-mentioned ‘Cornered Tigers’ toss interview and those two deliveries which sealed the final. For me though, the ’99 world cup tops everything and not just because of cricket.
World Cup 1999 arrived in my late teens, an age with infinite possibilities and all the time in the world to achieve them. As Wordsworth said:
“Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,
But to be young was very heaven!”
Memories of youth are usually sharp and flawless and the ‘99 World Cup stands out like no other. Cricket was by then a real passion and not something in which you take interest only when Pakistan is winning. Sixes and fours were appreciated and applauded but so was seam bowling and intelligent field placements.
The World Cup coincided with another happy occasion in any teenagers’ life: the start of summer vacation. It started at the end of the school year and I watched the opening ceremony and the Sri Lanka-England match that followed it at a school friend’s home. J lived close to St Patrick’s High School and we bunked the afternoon class to make sure we wouldn’t miss a ball. To this day, the summer hues of green remind me of Pakistan’s jerseys and the grass of the cricket grounds. I had also recently gotten my heart broken and took to cricket like an Indian movie hero would take to a bottle of Vat 69 whisky.
Personal reasons are one thing but the nostalgia is all the more poignant for a different time and era. The World Cup took place before the war on terror began and the country became a security state. Karachi’s saga of violence was being sung sotto voce, flanked by the cacophony of early 90s and the concerto that was to come soon after and continues to this day. Doors, while not completely ajar, were still not barred and walls were crowned with shrubbery and not razor wire. Family visits were not bound to big occasions and everyone seemed to have more time for each other.
Instead of gathering at different commercial spots to watch matches on large screens, we would troop into each other’s homes for cricket and get tea and pakoras in the bargain. For weeks, it seemed the entire neighbourhood was one vast cricket stadium. We would play cricket on the roads until start of play and I can recall with lucidity the matches I saw at relatives’ or neighbours’.
Pakistan’s opening match was against the West Indies and our play was interrupted by a cousin announcing that Shoaib Akhtar’s first ball has gone for a six. In fact, it was a top edge and only increased our awe for Pakistan’s latest speed merchant. Glenn McGrath’s demolition of India in a must win game was witnessed at an aunt’s who lived two streets down and Shane Warne’s magical spell against South Africa in the semi-final was cheered on at another cousin’s. Pakistan’s depressing slide against Venkatesh Prasad spoilt an otherwise perfect family barbeque and Neil Johnson’s all round performance against Australia was celebrated with biryani at an aunt’s, known for her mastery of the dish.
There would be screenings but only by happenstance and courtesy of a small TV and a considerate host. The Pakistan-Australia group match was seen at a family function with only one TV to satiate the guests, and dinner was delayed until we closed out the game. The antenna was precariously balanced and the host’s son spent most of the event twisting and turning the dials for uninterrupted play. Dodgy antennas were one thing but our ire was reserved for the KESC. With generators a luxury and summer load shedding a common theme, the best friend a cricket tragic could have was the trusty radio.
Steve Waugh’s epic century against South Africa in a must win game was played out in my head as I lay on the terrace in complete darkness with Chisti Mujahid’s commentary for company. He did a superb job but faltered when Herschel Gibbs dropped Waugh and in the process the World Cup. Even his eloquence couldn’t do justice to what was, in fact, an indescribable moment. Radio was also a constant companion when we were on the move. With no smart phones and mobile internet, no Cricinfo or social media, the radio was all we had to keep with the matches. I didn’t have exams but those giving their A’ levels would hide them in their rooms as they ‘studied’ and only the sound of muffled cheers could uncover the deception.
Pakistan’s famous victories would be celebrated with oodles of ice cream and meethai, the fusillade of gun fire that marks them now is still an unknown phenomenon. After the semi-final victory over New Zealand, we begged an indulgent uncle to take us for ice cream to the nearest Snoopy’s ice cream parlour and the whole way were serenaded by honks of passing cars and impromptu singing sessions of Dil Dil Pakistan.
When someone knocked on the car windows, it was to flash a victory sign or give a flag we would wave with delirious pride. Today, a similar knock would usually mean a mugging or worse and public celebrations are considered gauche by many. When the festivities finally ended at the final, we were left distraught, but it had been a great summer, the memories of which still invoke laughter and heated discussions.
So much has changed since then and with it how we interact with cricket. Homes are secure forts, neighbourhoods no more a backdrop for a vibrant community. There is much razzmatazz but the comradeship is missing. With the World Cup imminent, the mind travels back to the summer of ’99, the summer of my bygone days. I had started with a broken heart but along the way found a new love. It wasn’t cricket. It was my neighbourhood, my mohalla.