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By Suresh Menon
Less than 18 months ago, India won a World Cup. That tournament began with a boundary by Virender Sehwag and ended with a six by Mahendra Singh Dhoni; had India not won, it is entirely possible that the 50-over format might have disappeared. Already the new kid on the block, T20, and its many 'domestic' avatars was taking over the focus. The IPL, daddy of 'em all, was beginning to cause the kind of excitement not even the early days of the 50-over game generated.
Yet, within months of the 2011 win, the magic had oozed out. This had partly to do with the horrendous results in England and Australia, and partly with the shorter life span of modern sporting heroics. While even those who did not take the field in 1983 were guaranteed resurrection in the media (“tell us about Kapil Dev's century at Tunbridge Wells...”) every four years, and a kind of recurring fame, it remains to be seen if the Class of 2011 will be given the same treatment.
The T20 World Cup is a different animal altogether. Already the 2007 win, with many of the current lot and under the same captain, does not evoke great nostalgia. In T20, more than in any other format of the game, you are only as good as your last performance. And India's last two performances haven't been anything to write home about. Thus, ironically, while they will continue to be one of the favourites in the 50-over World Cup for a while yet, they don't carry the burden of expectations in Sri Lanka for the T20 World Cup.
The first thing skipper Dhoni – or whoever else is deputed to speak to the media – says is that the team feels no pressure because they are not the favourites to win.
Once again, this can be a double-edged sword. Should India do badly, and given the current state of the IPL with its banished team and court cases, it is just possible that the interest in the format might waver. Public memory is notoriously short; what is even shorter is corporate memory, and the millionaires who had advertisers chasing them will suddenly find that, like Robert Benini's character in Woody Allen's new film, the interest in a person (or format or tournament) can end as abruptly and as inexplicably as when it began.
The patriotic babble that Indian players are so fond of spewing – about winning for the country etc – takes on a slightly false note when applied to T20. For this is the format which makes cricket an individual sport. You win not for the country or the team or grandmother's chicken curry, but for yourself. No one will admit it, of course, at least not publicly. But a win in Sri Lanka will mean bigger advertising deals and a pay hike in the IPL players' market.
The pressure to win, therefore, exists regardless of the spin by the Indian team. All the world loves a winner, especially the corporate world looking to sell toothpastes and cars and credit cards and fizzy drinks.
In the 50-over format, there was always pressure on the organisers to work out a system where India played Pakistan. When both teams were knocked out early in 2007, there was much mourning among television executives.
In Sri Lanka, however, the problem of an India-Pakistan meeting not materialising in the regular course of the tournament has been solved by getting them to play each other in a 'warm-up' game. The organisers are happy, television is happy, and so too are those for whom a World Cup in any format is merely an excuse for India to play Pakistan.