Kabir Khan’s 83 is based on the Indian cricket team’s iconic 1983 World Cup-winning campaign in England. Even for the younger generations of fans more familiar with the modern superstars of Indian cricket, 1983 remains a sacred number. As does 183, India’s total in the final. Or 175, captain Kapil Dev’s miraculous (untelevised) knock against Zimbabwe in the same tournament, or even 17/5, India’s notorious score before he launched his attack.
I was born in 1986, but I spent much of the nervous ‘90s – a decade when India’s cricket swayed between mediocrity and Sachin Tendulkar – reliving memories of an event I had never experienced. My father’s VHS cassette of ‘83 was my favourite escape every time a batting order collapsed after the dismissal of Tendulkar. Over time, the 1983 triumph became the bible of unfulfilled nostalgia: Kapil’s back-pedalling catch to dismiss Viv Richards, Mohinder Amarnath’s post-win sprint into the dressing room and boozy celebrations on the Lord’s balcony, an unlikely bunch of (mostly) moustached everymen lifting a trophy in front of the best team in the world in the land of their former colonizers. Naturally, it made for compelling cinema. It was only a matter of time before the movies found it.
However, there have been Indian cricket “moments” – tournaments, series, victories, defeats – not as famous as ‘83 but perhaps just as fascinating, and equally deserving of a big-screen rendition. It isn’t just about the game, but the overall narrative – the context, the humans, the controversies, the stories within the stories, the history behind the future. The commercial release of 83 may have been indefinitely postponed due to the pandemic, but it doesn’t hurt to dream a little. Maybe it’s a good time to reflect on the creation of an Indian cricket-film universe. Like a superhero franchise, but better. On that note, here are five other movie-worthy cricket stories:
(Note: The 2011 Men’s World Cup is excluded from this list because it’s too obvious, and there’s more to cricket than World Cup titles. Or at least that’s what current coach Ravi Shastri’s record seems to suggest)
‘83 may have been India’s coming-of-age in the limited overs format, but arguably the most significant milestone in Indian cricket came twelve years before that. Before the first one-day international was ever played, Garry Sobers’ West Indies had already established its dominance in Test cricket. But India’s 1971 Tour of West Indies, under captain Ajit Wadekar, shocked the sporting world. History says that Wadekar’s India won the 5-match series in the Caribbean 1-0. But the 11-week tour was so much more than the numbers. It was an ancient-day miracle, with all kinds of potboiler elements: India was demolished 5-0 in the previous tour; a 21-year-old Sunil Gavaskar made his international debut; India reached a day late after missing their connecting flight in New York; Gavaskar picked up a finger infection and missed the first Test; Sobers and Rohan Kanhai were the two finest cricketers in the world at that moment; Dilip Sardesai rose from ashes of his career; Gavaskar’s test debut became India’s first-ever Test victory against the mighty West Indians; India’s future Test legend finished his first tour with a record 774 runs despite missing a game. Now imagine shooting in the Caribbean, and the number of beach-party songs that can organically inform the “period” drama. Given the universal coolness of West Indian cricketers, though, there might be no Lagaan-style villains.
Many call this, along with the 2005 Ashes, the “Greatest Test Series Ever Played”. A new India, still recovering from the crippling aftereffects of the match-fixing storm, went up against a history-making Australian team. Led by an unlikely captain in Sourav Ganguly, India started the series as no-hopers – they were destroyed by Steve Waugh’s men in the first Test in Mumbai. Then came the Eden Gardens follow-on, the Harbhajan Singh hat-trick, the Laxman-Dravid partnership, the Gilchrist horror show and a 2-1 counterpunch that nobody expected. The rest of the series played out like a miracle unravelling in slow-motion. Much of it defied logic, but the sociocultural context transcended the action. The script was writing itself: A single series rescued an entire nation reeling with cynicism and heartbreak, after their faith in the sport had been shattered by a scandal. Imagine the scenes in households across the country – especially the ones that had reached an awkward ex-lover status with the sport. And in schools, where kids were desperately hoping that cricket was still only about bat versus ball. The timing, like a VVS Laxman flick, couldn’t have been better. 2001 marked an occasion where cricket, ever so briefly, felt like an act of God. Also, imagine the title. 2001: A Pace Odyssey. (“Pace” just sounds right, though we actually spun them out).
The buildup is a screenwriter’s dream. An in-form Indian team enters the 2007 World Cup in the West Indies as joint-favourites. But the atmosphere inside the dressing room is divisive. The Ganguly-Chappell spat is still fresh in public conscience. Dravid is the captain. The newest member is a young, long-haired wicketkeeper. The team crashes out of the group stages after losing to Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. The seniors take a break. Fans burn effigies. Cricket becomes a cuss word. While nobody is looking, only in its first year, the international 20-over format culminates in the inaugural T20 World Cup. The management sends a new-look, next-gen Indian squad to the tournament in South Africa: Yuvraj Singh is one of the few “senior” members. The captain is that long-haired keeper, only in his third year of international cricket: MS Dhoni. Over the next few weeks, India money-shots its way to the final, and then defeats traditional rivals Pakistan in a last-ball thriller. Overnight, rising from the ruins of their most humiliating World Cup performance, India wins their first World Cup in 24 years. Without their superstars. With just a bunch of character actors looking for a meaty part. In the slow-burning romance of Indian cricket, 2007 was its biggest plot twist.
Rajasthan Royals winning the inaugural IPL edition could be Hindi cinema’s version of Moneyball. In the much-hyped first edition of the Indian Premier League, nobody had given the Royals a chance. There were flashier teams – Mumbai Indians, Kolkata Knight Riders, Chennai Super Kings – and richer teams. All RR splurged on was Shane Watson and Shane Warne, the best captain Australia never had. They had spent the least amount of money in the auction, picked a series of unknown Indian youngsters (Swapnil Asnodkar? Ravindra Jadeja who?), and went in almost as unfavoured as Leicester City in the 2015-16 EPL season. (I said almost). By the end, the Royals became the biggest underdog tale of the year, defeating Dhoni’s CSK in the final on the last ball, and winning the confidence of a fanbase cagey about the shortest format. Bonus: Imagine the long, brooding scenes between Shane Warne (doing a Brad Pitt) and a nerdy Indian stats whiz (say, Rajkummar Rao) in the dressing rooms, quietly conceiving a formula to beat the house.
Picture Chak De! India but with a not-so-happy ending, yet with an ending that makes a nation sit up and finally take notice of the women who have for years played in the shadow of their famous male counterparts. Even though Taapsee Pannu is already doing a Mithali Raj biopic, it was the 2017 Women’s World Cup in England – and India’s heroic run to the final – that specifically captured the imagination of a male-dominated culture. Led by Mithali, the Indians came into the tournament as fifth favourites at best. But they defeated England in their first game and won four in a row before finishing third in the league stages. New names like Smriti Mandhana, Harmanpreet Kaur, Punam Raut and Deepti Sharma started to seep into everyday discussions, beyond the Mithalis and Jhulan Goswamis. India defeated the overwhelming favourites, Australia, in the semifinals, and suddenly found themselves odds-on favourites to win their first-ever ICC final. At 191/3, chasing a modest 228 in the final against the hosts, the dream was real. The finish line was visible. Suddenly, 7 wickets were lost for less than 30 runs, and India blew a soul-sapping final by 9 runs. The tears weren’t limited to Lord’s. A country wept on that balmy June evening, for a group of athletes that had to defy more than just rival teams to make that final. “India lost,” we said, without having to specify a gender.
Vidarbha winning the 2017-18 Ranji Trophy.
India winning the 2012 U-19 World Cup.