A sucker punch to the stomach – It leaves you reeling. The pain from the blunt impact, whether you see it coming or not, is instantaneous, and makes its throbbing way through the rest of your body. You are dizzy. You cannot see clearly. You are woozy and are ready to keel over. It is usually the last punch thrown in a fight.
You don’t need to be part of pub brawl, or have been in a boxing ring, to understand the full effects of a sucker stomach punch. Just follow a sports team passionately. Pledge your support, heap your faith, cross your fingers and sit tight for your beloved team to come through. When that moment happens, the play where it hits home that this isn’t going to be your night, when the stark reality of victory and defeat descend upon you, you know you have been sucker punched to the stomach. And you reel from it.
That sage from Massachusetts, Bill Simmons, has a definition for a “Stomach Punch” game in his “The 13 Levels of Losing”: “[A]ny roller-coaster game that ends with A) an opponent making a pivotal (sometimes improbable) play, or B) one of your guys failing in the clutch … usually ends with fans filing out after the game in stunned disbelief, if they can even move at all … always haunting, sometimes scarring.”
Call up your nearest South African cricket fan. Make sure you bring an extra box of Kleenex if you are going to hear his/her horror stories. In the last 2 decades, no fan of any other team has undergone as much pain as the South Africans. Whether it was an idiotic rain rule in 1992, or a captain not sure of his math in 2003, or worst of them all, the absolutely calamitous brain freeze in 1999, they are the modern day veterans of stomach punch recipients.
There has been a generation of Indian cricket fans who have had nightmares over the very mention of the names Javed Miandad and Chetan Sharma. In fact, it wasn’t just the fans. Miandad had cast a spell on a generation of Indian cricketers. With one resounding swing of the bat, he made grown up men, who have had the courage of conviction in their abilities to have chosen cricket as a career and have come to represent their country at the highest levels of the sport, to doubt themselves, over and over again.
The pain lasts from a few hours to a few days and for some, even years. A veteran who has been punched in his/her gut and has had his/her heart ripped out, knows to cope with it, but the pain of defeat doesn’t ever NOT happen. Every time your team falters at the biggest moments, or when it has had the carpet pulled out from under its feet, the pain is still there. And yet, we never forsake the team. We do not wash our hands off of them. We just do not know any better. We are suckers for it. We want to be there when our team plays its way to the mountaintop. We want to have that afterglow of a mother who has just given birth, when we walk the streets, wearing that stupid grin after our team has won it all.
I had never seen an international cricket match live – in person – till I was 30. I spent the first 21 years of my life in India and the only Cricket matches I had seen live were those that my brothers used to play in, in the small town I grew up in, in Tamil Nadu. We were too far from international venues and were too poor for them. When I finally acquired the means, I was in the United States. Taking days off at a time to travel to another country to watch a cricket match was a luxury my graduate school schedule (not to mention the visa headaches) couldn’t accommodate.
We stood around the Philips Shortwave Radio in our kitchen listening to commentary wafting in from Chepauk and Sydney. We went to the neighbor’s houses to catch the highlights on their Black-and-White Solidaire, to see whether what we imagined to be the action, had actually happened. We devoured the pages of The Hindu and The SportStar, recreating the lush green outfields of the mythical Lord’s, pieced together from pictures of what it must have been on that June afternoon in 1983. Oh, how we wished we could be in the stands when the last runs were scored for a momentous win, jumping out of our seats, arms aloft, heads thrown back, throats dry, high-fiving strangers tied together by a sport! Some day! One day!
We lived through the horrors of Sharjah, humiliations in Australia amongst many other disappointments. But the 90’s gave way to a team that competed everywhere and produced significant victories. There were occasional stomach punches, like the 1996 World cup semifinal, 1999 Chennai Test, 2007 Cape Town test and the 2003 World Cup Final. But there were also over the top dramatic victories, like the 2001 series versus Australia. The Indian team had become the top ranked test team and had also won the World Cup in 2011. There were plenty of back-to-the-wall comebacks that infused the fans with the notion that their team, if nothing, when pushed into a corner, knew how to fight back.
I had written this on the evolution of the Indian cricket fan in me: “I have reached a mental space where I am thoroughly confident in the abilities of this team and its stewardship, that I have the belief that they are going to win more often than not. I know they are not going to give in without a fight and they usually never beat themselves – core characteristics of a champion side.” Famous last words.
I was fortunate enough to get a guided tour of The Lord’s in 2010, thanks to a friendly Lord’s Taverner. I decided right then that I shall be coming back to that very ground when India were to be touring England in the summer of 2011.
I stood along with thousands of others in a line that snaked around St. John’s Wood for a ticket to witness something possibly historic on the fifth day of the first test between India and England. India needed to get a seemingly impossible 378 on the final day with 9 wickets in hand. Dravid and Laxman were in, and there was that possibility of something magical from Tendulkar. Stomach Punch.
As the tour moved to Nottingham, India made a promising start by bowling out England for 221, and seemed be on their way to wiping away their first test blues and conjuring their comeback magic, as they had done many times in the last decade. Dravid made a wonderful century and put on big partnerships with Laxman and Yuvraj but a Stuart Broad hat trick delivered an upper cut and soon England were on their way to piling on the runs and batting India out of the test. Already 1-down in the series, India needed to draw the test to have any chance of winning/drawing the series.
Facing more than five sessions of batting and a mountain of runs to survive in the series, Dravid was dismissed before lunch on Day 4. There was still hope. VVS Laxman, despite his frail record in England, represented it. He had been in hopeless situations before, most famously turning things around in 2001. He needed to get stuck in, and in the company of Tendulkar and others could lead India out of the tight spot. He had done this before. I believed.
A huge roar went up almost immediately after play resumed in the 2nd session. I was finishing my lunch outside the ground and getting ready to enter the ground. My heart sank, and I kept wishing it wouldn’t be Laxman. Stomach Punch, the biggest of them all in, a series that quickly got out of hand and ended 4-0 for England.
I made my way back to my seat, hoping against hope that there was still some miracle left in the match. After all, that is all we have as fans. But it wasn’t to be.
Date: 29 December 2011. Venue: Melbourne Cricket Ground. Occasion: Post lunch session on Day Four of the first test between India and Australia.
India were set a target of 292 runs to achieve victory at a ground where this group of golden era men had never won before, and more importantly, lose the tag of “slow starters” by winning the first match of the test series and save themselves from performing the Herculean task of playing catch up in enemy territory, thereby checking “Test series win down under” off the bucket list.
There were a couple of early setbacks. The openers were back in the hutch with the scoreboard reading 39. A quickfire 50 from Sehwag could have set the stage for a remarkable chase, as he would have handed over the reins of the chase to the two elder statesmen of the game. Chennai 2008 wasn’t going to happen, but there they were, Sachin Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid, building a partnership and reviving the innings with the openers out so cheaply – just like old times. No blistering 50 from Sehwag, no problem. Or, so I thought.
This wasn’t just a false hope. There was plenty of evidence from the first innings. Dravid and Tendulkar put on a 100+ run partnership, with Tendulkar in particular batting like a dream, till one inspired spell from Siddle knocked Tendulkar over in the last over of the day.
But within the space of 23 runs and 43 deliveries, and a series of upper cuts from the sustained Australian pace attack, the sucker punch was delivered, with Tendulkar – the one man who could have made it on that pitch – walking back. And with that, any hope of victory.
After Day 1 of the test at Sydney, it was obvious that it was an uphill battle and soon, the entire test series fell apart. My friends and I went to the ground every day, stuck around till the bitter end, hoping for a miracle. It wasn’t to be. The last day at MCG and the first day at SCG laid this Indian team to waste, and led to another 4-0 series loss away from home.
Test Cricket is quite different from any other team sport in the world with respect to how the eventual outcome of the contest is arrived at. It is, in fact, like a boxing match. A series of jabs, some hooks, and a few moves to glance off the blows, opening up the cuts and making the opponent’s eyes swell up. As the opponent starts to lose steam, and show the slightest sign of stumbling, a furious array of punches knocks him out cold. All this spread out over several rounds. As with boxing, where there is a great sense of occasion as the knock out punch is eventually delivered even, Test Cricket also provides its own stomach punch moment when you know you aren’t coming back into the contest.
The prizefighter that has been sucker punched needs to pick himself off the ground, get healthy, get better and get back in the ring. That’s where he belongs. It may take a few weeks or it may take a few months. But he will be back. He and his supporters.