The heady high of success at home

Updated: 16 August 2013 13:50 IST

At the picturesque Galle International Stadium, Muttiah Muralitharan bid adieu to Test cricket like only he can. Come Moscow and the opportunity to enthrall and entertain her home fans, and Isinbayeva somehow found a second wind.

The heady high of success at home

It was showmanship at its absolute brilliant best. An expectant home crowd waiting with bated breath, the gold medal already in the bag, the rest of the evening's action over and done with, all eyes trained on the diva, who milked the moment. It made for compelling viewing even on television; one can only imagine what the atmosphere must have been like thousands of miles away, at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow.


The stage was the World Championships of athletics, the person in question the peerless Yelena Isinbayeva. At 31, the awe-inspiring Russian is the undisputed queen of pole vault. She has been there and done that, stacking up an impressive list of accomplishments on her own that many countries will be hard pressed to match. Coming into the Moscow meet, Isinbayeva had in her cabinet two World Championships gold, two Olympic Games gold, four World Indoor titles and a whopping 28 world records to her name. These are staggering numbers, and the word staggering isn't used loosely.

Isinbayeva came into the Worlds short on form, upstaged by young pretenders confident in their abilities to beard the ageing lioness in her own den. They had their reasons, of course. Isinbayeva's career was on the downward spiral - she had failed to win a medal at each of the two previous World Championships, and had to settle for bronze at the London Olympics last year. For four years, especially outdoors, she had struggled to keep pace with the younger guns, perhaps a victim of her own success, which left her a little short on motivation.

Come Moscow and the opportunity to enthrall and entertain her home fans, and Isinbayeva somehow found a second wind. The Worlds had struggled to fire the imagination; not even the electrifying presence of Usain Bolt had succeeded in bringing the event to life, and huge names in athletics professed disappointment at lacklustre turnouts and hesitant crowd participation in the Russian capital.

All of it changed that emotionally charged Tuesday night as Isinbayeva grabbed the spotlight and made sure it remained trained only on her. One challenger after another faded away, even as Isinbayeva rode an emotional rollercoaster. She grimaced and grinned, frowned and celebrated, and the packed stands shared every emotion with her. She egged them on, and they responded magnificently. In the end, Isinbayeva cleared 4.89 metres - her best effort outdoors in four years - and a third World gold was as much hers as the Moscow crowd's.

Pro sportspersons are as much entertainers as they are performers. They are immensely talented, of course, but especially those at the top of the charts have massive egos - and I mean that in a good way. They feed off the energy and frenzy of the fans, or at least a majority of them do. And if there is one thing they absolutely hate, it is to perform in front of sparse stands, without vocal encouragement or active crowd participation.

Not everyone, of course, is fortunate enough to have the opportunity to perform in front of home fans. Isinbayeva recognised that she had a rare chance; she is going to take a break of three years to have a baby, and while she has promised a comeback at the Rio Olympics in 2016, who knows what the future holds. In all likelihood, this was to be her swansong at a major event in Moscow, and she was determined to make it memorable for herself, and for her legion of fans and admiring countrymen.

As I watched transfixed, she played the crowd like a virtuoso. It made for great theatre; it also took my mind back some 17 years, to the M Chinnaswamy Stadium in Bangalore, when two men more renowned for their bowling turned unexpected batting heroes in a One-Day International against Australia.

It was Deepavali night, and what a night it turned out to be! Australia made a modest 215 for 7 against an Indian side containing six Karnataka players, and India replied forcefully with Sachin Tendulkar in the forefront. But with neither Sujith Somasundar nor Rahul Dravid contributing and the middle order caving in, India stared defeat in the face at 164 for 8. Fifty-two was a tall order against McGrath, Gillespie, Fleming and Hogg; at the crease were Anil Kumble and Javagal Srinath, with only Venkatesh Prasad to follow. Game over? No, just game on.

So Kumble and Srinath believed. So did nearly 50,000 people at the Chinnaswamy Stadium. This was the ground where they had cut their teeth as young cricketers, this was the ground whose every blade of grass they knew like the back of their hands. Every run threatened to bring the roof down; as the cameras panned to the Players' Box, two ladies celebrated each run with gusto, oblivious of who was looking on and completely caught up in the moment.

These weren't just any two ladies. They were the mothers of the two protagonists in the middle. I can't even start to think what pride and joy they must have felt at watching their sons transform into heroes in front of their own eyes, at their hometown. It was exhilarating stuff; an enterprising TV producer made sure the two ladies got as much screen-time between deliveries as their sons did when play was on. It made for a series of goosebumps moments, and by the time the two local lads brought up victory, everyone was exhausted and mentally drained. But also in semi-delirium because, as we said before, there is nothing like a homegrown hero to fire the imagination.

A distant parallel is Steve Waugh's farewell series, in 2003-04 against India. Every time Waugh went out to bat, the crowds gave him a rapturous reception and a raucous farewell. It all came to a head in the final Test at the Sydney Cricket Ground as Waugh came out to bat with India on top, and scenting their first series triumph in Australia. How could Waugh, the steely warrior who never knew what a backward step was, take it lying down? Chasing an impossible 443 for victory, Australia were 170 for 3 midway through the final day when Waugh strode out. It soon became 196 for 4 and India sensed an opening, but they ran into a tartar in the older Waugh twin, who made 80 of his most crucial runs to save the day. It was archetypal Waugh, all in-the-trenches resolve and grim determination.

Several years on, at the picturesque Galle International Stadium, Muttiah Muralitharan bid adieu to Test cricket like only he can. Murali had given himself only one Test in the three-match series against India to move from 792 to 800 Test wickets, and he looked well on course for the most part until he ran into determined Indian resistance on the final day. For 141 deliveries, he wheeled away, those expressive eyes growing wider and wider, the fans and his teammates getting restless and anxious, as he remained stuck on No. 799. Then, Pragyan Ojha edged to slip, Mahela Jayawardene flung himself to his left and No. 800 was in the bag. It was the last ball of the Test - Sri Lanka won by an innings - and Murali's last delivery in Test cricket. How is that for a glorious goodbye?

The scenes at the Wankhede Stadium soon after India won the World Cup in April 2011 and Sachin Tendulkar was carried around the ground by his mates were as much lump-in-the-throat ones as Isinbayeva's stirring triumph in Moscow was. One a collective triumph spread over six-and-a-half weeks, other an individual accomplishment in a fraction of that time but both having the same effect on the mood of a nation. Sport, oh glorious sport.



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