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Saturday, April 2, 2011
Unbridled joy in India's championship

By Amar Shah
Special to ESPN.com

Indian cricket fans
Fans exult as India wins a dramatic final at the Cricket World Cup.

LAKEWOOD, Calif. -- For more than 20 years, Sachin Tendulkar carried on his shoulders the dreams and expectations of a billion people. This time, his team carried him.

On Saturday, captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni smashed a sixer in the 48th over, leading India to a thrilling, come-from-behind victory over Sri Lanka in the ICC Cricket World Cup final.

Tendulkar attained the one goal that had eluded him in his illustrious career. He was a World Cup champion. Our champion.

In a dark, packed cineplex in Lakewood, Calif., hundreds of us Indian fans watched in nervous dread in the early hours of the morning as our hero Tendulkar reached for a Lasith Malinga outswinger and nicked the ball into wicketkeeper Kumar Sangakkara's hands. Nothing but silence. No 100th century. He was out for 18 runs in the seventh over. This was not how the script was supposed to go.

Earlier, Virender Sehwag left the crease without scoring a single run out on the second ball. India was 31 for 2 and chasing a 274-run count. My brother in Florida called me to say it wasn't looking good. My brother-in-law in Mumbai said there was no hope. Even my wife, Tejal, forever the believer, shook her head in disbelief.

"We're done."

We'd arrived at midnight full of optimism. The former champ, Australia, was out of the way, and Pakistan crumbled against us in the semifinals. All that was left was Sri Lanka and the legend would be complete.

This was our day. This was a day we would regale our families with for years to come. The Master Blaster wins the World Cup. History would be made in front of us on the big screen.

The theater was packed. Drums and thundersticks provided the soundtrack. On the screen, we saw the stadium full of Mumbai's glitterati and Bollywood stars. Sri Lanka won the toss. Twice. It decided to bat.

At first, everything appeared to be heading India's way. Three of Sri Lanka's main batsmen fell, leaving the team 122 for 3. Only Mahela Jayawardene was left. He didn't disappoint. He scored at will with shots so smooth they seemed tapped with a feather. His century was soon to come. India looked as if it might escape chasing only about 250 runs, but Sri Lanka exploded for 18 runs in the final over, including an emphatic sixer by Thisara Perera.

The mood between innings appeared sanguine, but bubbling underneath was fatalistic caution. Sri Lanka had a dynamic bowling attack led by Malinga and Muttiah Muralitharan. More importantly, no team had ever won a World Cup final while chasing the run total Sri Lanka put on the board.

Yet, we convinced ourselves that, as long as we had Sachin, we could do it. But he was gone, along with Sehwag, by the seventh over. It was now up to Gautam Gambhir, a talented batsman prone to mental mistakes, and 22-year-old Virat Kohli, the future of Indian cricket. In their young hands, we entrusted our faith. And, like Magic Johnson's performance in Game 6 of the 1980 NBA Finals, they stepped into the limelight -- teaming up for 83 runs and helping stabilize a crumbling batting lineup.

Kohli's run came to an end with an amazing bare-handed snag by Tillakaratne Dilshan.

Up next was our captain, Dhoni, known as Captain Cool and the Ice Man. Singh's leadership and decision-making helped India advance to the final, but his offense was a nonfactor. On Saturday, he came to attack, even when fighting cramps and back spasms. Along with a Gambhir, Dhoni's bravado with the bat gave India a fighting chance. After Gambhir departed with 97 runs, Dhoni was joined by Yuvraj Singh. They needed 52 runs to win with 54 balls remaining.

Tejal nudged me and winked. Maybe we did have a shot. Dhoni and Yuvraj pulverized Sri Lanka's bowling and made Malinga and Muralitharan simply irrelevant. When the power play was implemented in the 45th over, we sensed something permeating the theater. A sense of divine destiny. In the 48th over, India needed five runs with 12 balls left. Yuvraj scored a single.

The crowd rose. Whispers became loud roars. We were all trembling. Tejal held my hand. Then KMDN Kulasekara trotted up and bowled to Dhoni.

"It was the sweetest sound ever," Tejal told me when Dhoni clubbed the sixer to win.

The frenzied euphoria began. We started to dance in the aisles. We high-fived and hugged people we had never met. There were tears in our eyes. Everyone sang "Vande Mataram," India's national song. Family from all over the world began to call. Indians in all corners of the globe rejoiced.

On the screen, the Indian team began to celebrate. Then he appeared -- Sachin on the shoulders of his teammates draped in the Indian flag being led around the stadium in a victory lap. It was about time.

A billion dreams had come true. A billion prayers answered.

Amar Shah is a writer and producer living in Los Angeles. He is developing a romantic comedy screenplay set in the world of cricket. He can be reached at shahespn@gmail.com or on Twitter.