The difference between the Indian team that won the World Cup in 1983 and the one in 2011 is an uncomplicated one: the economy. The 1983 victory was a consequence of talent, extraordinary self-belief and some luck. In 2011 the Indian cricket team is by far the richest eleven in the game, sucking the oxygen out of other sports, a template for ambition in homes across the small cities that will become the Delhis and Mumbais of tomorrow, a magnet for middle class and rural India which understands that the distance from obscurity to superstardom is a game that bypasses the educational demands of conventional professional upward mobility, and fetches rewards quite outside the zone of merit and salary. Cricket has become a supreme totem pole of the Indian economy, both on an individual as well as a collective level, a classic instance of the virtuous cycle in which money breeds success and success generates greater profits. India begins with a substantial advantage over the other cricket teams of South Asia. Victory and defeat are determined of course by the human element, otherwise sport would be too dull to bother about; but the institutional spread offers both a massive pool of talent as well as the motivation that only an exploding bank account can bring. Yusuf Pathan cannot find a place in the final eleven, but is nearly Rs 10 cr richer out of the IPL, which will follow the World Cup. He was born in circumstances where such a figure was beyond imagination.
How much better, therefore, would the brilliant players of Pakistan and Sri Lanka have been had they had the good fortune of such an economy to hone and add lustre to their superb capabilities? The tragedy of a negative environment is profound: when Pakistan players make a mistake (and they made too many in the semi finals against India to be forgiven) cruel whispers of match-fixing swirl around. The post-match talk is all about whether the Pak interior minister had been briefed by his intelligence agencies when he publicly warned the team about throwing the game away against India. The logic is mathematical, rather than moral. There is immediate and continuing monetary reward for an Indian player which makes the risk involved in a fix a stupid option. A crook might be able to continue playing cricket, but no crook is going to get paid to appear on an advertising billboard. But if a player is in the unenviable situation where cash from illegal betting is higher than legitimate earnings, temptation will always hover inside the dressing room. It hardly helps that some Pakistani players were recently caught making deals with bookies, despite high levels of vigilance imposed by ICC. In Mohali, the Pakistan captain Shahid Afridi won millions of Indian hearts when he accepted the adversity of defeat amid a cloud of inevitable suspicion, with the grace of a great champion: how much more would his genius have flowered if he had lived in a more stable age of Pakistan's history!
Dropcap OnThe tortured internal conflicts within Muralitharan's soul can barely be imagined: a Tamil who got an impossible 800 Test match wickets playing for Sri Lanka during decades shredded by a civil war between a Sinhala-majority government and the Tamil Tigers. Did the ferocity in his eyes belong to inner demons? If they did, he is a man of great character, for he silenced them through a display of commitment to his team and flag that has made him a hero of his nation. No genius plays only for himself: talent might belong solely to the self, but withers when it becomes selfish. Murali and Sachin Tendulkar have achieved much more than their ability warranted because they also surrendered their genius to a higher, national cause. Neither needed to be captain to prove they were superior; the responsibilities of captaincy diminished Sachin. Those of us who delight in cricket should consider ourselves blessed because we will see, on Saturday, the finest batsman in history compete with the greatest spinner ever born in a match of wits that could define which side will take the cup. This is obviously written before the result, but the result is only going to be a statistic. A statistic has no place in an epic. We shall see the last, dazzling burst of meteors that have enflamed our firmament.
So far, Sri Lanka have been the best team in the tournament. They have been so good with the bat that we do not know how good, or indeed how fragile, they are down the line. The partisan within me admits this reluctantly, but the past is, in such an event, irrelevant to the present. Murali will bowl his last ball in a World Cup, and Sachin stroke his final off-drive through a motionless field. Those are memories that will mature into magic as we weave our own way to our last days.