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Never Undermine An Underdog

1983 Cricket World Cup

The story of Lagaan is an interesting one. What is essentially a tale of the British Raj going about with its business in what is the crown jewel of her majesty’s colonial empire, suddenly turns into the ultimate underdog story. Central to the movie’s narrative is also the British officers using all means to deter the Indians in their quest to win the challenge. In one scene, the hapless Lakha ends up cutting a deal to do the bidding of the British. In another scene, the complexity of the rules is used to halt Bhuvan from going on strike at a critical juncture in the chase. The British feel they’re guaranteeing victory but in reality, their dastardly acts are the proverbial fuel to the fire of a motley bunch that didn’t know the C in Cricket till a month ago.

Perhaps, every Indian will be cognizant of our most celebrated underdog story. Coincidentally, like the earlier story, this too had a connection with the Empire. Kapil Dev’s team were rank outsiders going into the World Cup in 1983, but nobody told them that. After a stuttering start, the Indian team got better, a transformation symbolized by their captain’s immortal 175 against Zimbabwe. But in the final, they faced a West Indian team stacked with talent and were the defending champions to boot. When India was bundled out for a paltry 183, the chase seemed a formality. And when Vivian Richards was going hammer and tong, it felt that’s exactly what it was turning into.

But somehow, Kapil and Co. stuck around long enough for a little hesitancy to shackle the mighty Windies. Richards left to a moment of brilliance on the field from Captain Fantastic and there began the collapse. Soon enough, India were World Champions for the first time. There are underdog stories that get lost in the grand narrative of a sport. But on June 25, 1983, this underdog story became the start of a nation’s obsession with a sport.

In sport, the dominant force trying to undermine an underdog has been seen since time immemorial. On the surface, these attempts are always to crush opposition but look deeper and you see a trend which goes something like, ‘this bunch isn’t all that but let’s put an end to them before they become a threat.’ But it seldom works out that way.

Another glorious example of this is the 1950 World Cup final in Brazil. The Seleção came into the final, against their neighbours Uruguay, as odds-on favourites. But prior to the game, the Brazilian public was already in a celebratory mood as newspapermen declared victory days before the final. The heights of hubris were scaled by the fact that 22 gold medals were already made with each Brazilian player’s name imprinted on them. Naturally caught up in all this was the mayor of Rio who trumpeted, “You, players, who in less than a few hours will be hailed as champions by millions of compatriots!” The Uruguayans knew they were the underdogs but the manner in which the Brazilians were treating the match as a bygone riled them no end. Let’s not forget that unlike their hosts, Uruguay had one World Cup under their belt and was arguably the next best team in all of Latin America.

As sport so often does, it gave the underdog a shot at Goliath. Close to a 170,000 packed the Maracana and watched in horror as Uruguay came back from a goal down and won 2-1. The shocking turn of events enveloped Brazil with such a strong bout of fatalism that they even gave it a name. They called it the Maracanazo.

In both cases, it is interesting to see that beating the underdog wasn’t enough. The dominant force had to do everything to needle the ‘lesser’ team and might have gotten away with it but for a cataclysmic twist of fate. The lesson here is to compete, irrespective of how favoured you are, and try and win and leave with dignity. When this isn’t adhered to, it doesn’t end with a mere loss but in eternal embarrassment.

Sanjeev AnandThe author, Sanjeev Anand, is Country Head – Commercial Banking and in-charge of Sports Vertical, IndusInd Bank and an avid sports enthusiast.

Views of the author are personal and do not necessarily represent the website’s views.

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