THE CUP

Oliver Wood wearily descended into the green of the quidditch pitch. He could see the Fijians converging in midair upon the seeker who had just caught the snitch. “160–70”, the final scoreboard read. He shook the hands of Quintia Qarase, the Fijian captain and slowly walked back to join his teammates. He just couldn’t feel anything at the moment. He was numb to the defeat that surrounded him. “I had one chance. One final chance and I just blew it”, was all he could think of, as he started walking out of the quidditch stadium.

“England fail to qualify to the World Cup! Yet Again!”, the bold Daily Prophet headline could be seen through almost every shop at Hogsmeade. As he stepped out of his home, Oliver could see dozens of enquiring, even accusing eyes turn in his direction. He had moved to Hogsmeade from Puddlemere the year before. “Perhaps, it was a mistake? Shall I crawl into a hole where no one can see me?”, he thought to himself.

It was a bright and a sunny day. Conditions were perfect for quidditch, yet his heart was not in it. He walked slowly towards the post office. He remembered the first night he ever flew. It was a Comet 260. He remembered learning quidditch from the legendary Charlie Weasley. He remembered the times when he captained Gryffindor to victory with the now all famous Harry Potter in the team. He remembered rising through the ranks of Puddlemere United, step by step, ultimately winning the league with them three times consecutively. And now, it had to come to this.

Oliver had no regrets. He wished it had ended better. That one cup, the crown jewel of quidditch trophies, had evaded him forever. In his hands was clutched a letter that he meant to send to the England Quidditch Association. He had written with emerald ink in it, “I resign from the post of the captain of England Quidditch team with immediate effect — Signed, Oliver Wood”. He couldn’t bear to write more. Just as he was about to send the tawny owl to which he had attached the parchment, he heard the quick rustle of someone apparating besides him.

“I knew you would be in here, Oliver” said Katie Bell, the chaser with whom he had shared the dressing room for the longest time and had established a great working relationship over the years.
 “Well, what else did you expect me to do? We were thrashed. We couldn’t even qualify. I somehow keep failing at the last hurdle”, said Oliver.
 “We can get the cup, Oliver, if you take heart. Don’t resign”, Katie wanted to reimburse faith in him. But, she could see she was clearly failing.
 “How, Katie? How will that happen? I am thirty-eight. By the next world cup, I would be forty-two. There is no way my body would be able to take to the skies again. What did we do wrong? We last won the world cup in 1958. It’s going to be sixty years and we are yet to break that jinx. I guess I need to hang up my keeper’s gloves at last. Even if I wish to play, do you really think the wizards and warlocks of England would want me to represent them? They want me to go. And I’ll give it to them”, exploded Oliver.
 “Relax Oliver. Krum plays even now. He is forty-two. That Norwegian seeker Sigrid Kristofferson is forty-something too. Please don’t do this” said Katie with exasperation.
 “I’ve made my decision, Katie. I am not changing it”, Oliver said firmly as he began attaching his letter to the owl.

“Two sickles to send to London”, said the witch at the desk as he began pulling his money out of his pocket. Just then, a group of third years from Hogwarts walked into the post office. “Doesn’t he look like Oliver Wood?”, whispered a boy to his friend. “Yeah, he is. The captain who just got pummeled yesterday” his friend said. 
 “Also, the captain who gave his sweat and blood to get England the World Cup. Do you think he’ll wait till I run and get my broom for him to sign on?” the boy broke into a quick scamper.

Oliver Wood was watching this exchange dumbstruck. He gradually found his voice. He walked slowly to Katie Bell who had an amused expression on her face. He put the letter down, mustered up all the strength he had left for one final attempt and said to her, “For the next four years, we live, think and breath quidditch. We fly like hippogriffs and are not coming back without that damned cup”.

Years started rolling by. Come sun or rain, Oliver made his team practice relentlessly, as the time for the cup came close by. Every day, as they walked out into the quidditch pitch, Oliver reminded them of what was at stake. “Geez, Oliver! Take it easy, we’ll ensure that you somehow get your hands on that cup”, his team joked back. The team was shaping up well. The two other chasers, Dan Thompson and Anne Smith, were forming a great partnership with Katie Bell. They played quidditch for Falmouth Falcons. His beaters, James Brown and Gary Webb, were up and coming. They still hit a bludger or two off target, but it was their seeker whom Oliver was most worried about. Benedict Jones, from the Montrose Magpies, was still having trouble finding the snitch. He was the best the association could find. Oliver secretly started wishing his most trusted seeker, the current head of Aurors, would resign his job and come and play quidditch with them.

They had breezed through the qualifiers without much of an issue. They beat Peru, Japan and Jamaica en route to the world cup at France. A combined performance from the team ensued that they had bet almost every team by a minimum difference of 150 points.

“So, Oliver, what’s the strategy?” asked Gary. Oliver explained “All right, team, listen up. Four games to the cup. We’re playing Russia first. If we win, we might play Uganda or New Zealand in the quarterfinals. In the semifinals, there is a mathematical probability of facing Nigeria, Brazil, Oman or Liechtenstein. But it is more likely, we might face Nigeria. The finals lineup is even more unclear at the moment. I’ve chalked out different strategies for any team that we might play. In the case that France beats USA and Mongolia beats Bulgaria, we’ll be playing France in the finals. If USA beats France and if Bulgaria beats Mongolia, you can be sure we’ll face the defending champions Bulgaria in the finals. Oh wait, USA can’t get past Malawi, Malawi would want to get the snitch early and finish the game off soon, USA plays the time delay game. So, we need to be prepared for any team eventually”. The six of them around him looked at each other and nodded. Gary solemnly said, “Oliver, you lost me right at “Listen up””.

Oliver shrugged and said, “Just play your game. Let us take things one at a time. We face Russia in the first game. Their chasers are well known for their Porskoff Ploy. The onus is on me to deliver.”

Anne moved up to him, looked at him in the eye and said, “And deliver, you will, Oliver.”

The first game went by easier than he expected. Oliver expected the Russians to attack in formations, but they were relatively random in trying to get ten points. He just let a single goal in while Katie scored four goals and Anne and Dan scored a couple each. They were leading eighty to ten when Benedict moved in and caught the snitch. Oliver was mighty pleased with the effort, but he decided to keep it to himself. The moment they stepped off their brooms, he called a huddle and announced, “Good work, team! Now onto the next game.”

They faced Uganda next in the quarterfinals. Oliver knew their seeker Peter Bagamba was their best player. He was swift with broomstick, good with eyesight and scanning and held the record for the fastest snitch capture in international quidditch. He expected him to go for the snitch right after they kick off and not to let the game last for more than half an hour. Oliver knew Benedict would probably find it tough to match the speed of Bagamba. He called up his team right before the match and said, “James and Gary, hit every bludger that you can find towards Bagamba. He must not get a chance to look for the snitch. Katie, Anne and Dan, it’s your job to ensure we have a lead of at least one hundred and sixty points. Remember, the game might depend upon it. Uganda’s front three generally play with a V pattern. Intercept and disrupt. I’ll man the goals. Ben, keep your eye on Bagamba. Feint and distract. Grab the snitch the moment you see it.”

The ploy worked. England rushed to an early lead of two hundred and fifty points. The game ended with a score of 270–180. Oliver had just let in three goals. Bagamba got the snitch, but Oliver ensured England won.

“So, next up, Brazil in the semifinals” said Gary cheerily in the dressing room. Brazil had pulled an upset over Nigeria in the quarterfinals.

The semifinal game was much more close and rough than Oliver expected. The Brazilian beaters began to clobber around the bludgers. The tackles between the chasers were rough. The referee kept awarding penalty after penalty. The Brazilian chasers kept attacking the goal posts all around. Oliver just circled around the posts without a break, doing everything he can to get every inch of his glove on the quaffle. The match was extremely close with Brazil leading with 140–120 points. But just then, Ben pulled off an incredible dive and caught the snitch. England were through to the finals after sixty years. The team celebrated right atop their broomsticks. They landed clapping Ben on the back.

“That’s it, guys. One game. One last game. The big one” said Oliver later that day. “They didn’t think we’ll get this far, did they?” asked Dan with a smile in his face. “Let’s show them we can go even far”, said Oliver without skipping a beat. “So, we are up against the defending champions in the finals, right? Let’s ensure that Krum cannot get another world cup” echoed in Katie.

The final match of the 2018 Quidditch World Cup was all set to begin at the footsteps of Alps at France between Bulgaria and England. The mascots of both the teams marched around the stadium with grand splendor. The Veelas were greeted with their usual fanfare, while the mascots of the English team, a herd of unicorns delighted the crowd.

Oliver shook hands with forty-six year old and still absolutely fit Viktor Krum, the Bulgarian captain. He went near the team to have one final word with them before the referee released all the four balls into air. “Oliver, you look like you could use one of your own long speeches now” whispered Katie to him. Oliver tried to hide his nerves with a quick smile. He put up a brave face and said to his team, “I have just four words for you today. Fly like the wind’’ just as the whistle blew.

Oliver Wood had flown plenty of times before. Air was his element. He knew the whims and fancies of his broom like the back of his hand. But, this time was different. There was a combination of emotions that ran through his mind — a rush of happiness, a tinge of excitement, a sense of confidence and a tad bit of nervousness. But above all that was a nagging question, “What if I fail? What if after all this, after hours and hours of training, weeks and months of dreaming, go back with an empty hand? What if I couldn’t?”. Oliver decided to bury his doubt within him and focus on the task on hand instead.

The next few minutes proceeded rather slowly. The Bulgarian chaser Stoyanka Grozda made an attempt to get the ball across his right goal post. Oliver pushed the quaffle away with some difficulty. He was surprised that the ball had a bit of spin in it. There were a couple more attempts at the goal, but Oliver held on somehow and kept them out of the post. Meanwhile, Anne had scored a couple of goals.

Oliver wasn’t sure how it began. It was all normal, but suddenly, it seemed to him as if the Bulgarian chasers Levski, Vassileva and Grozda were on rampage. It was as if they had suddenly drunk Felix Felicis. Each seemed to target a separate post, but they curved their balls so much that he was never able to guess the quaffle’s trajectory. He could never make out which post the chasers were aiming for. All he could notice was the quaffle waltzing past him into the goal rings. Each and every time he moved over to stop the quaffle, it would slip away and go in through the ring. Oliver was furious with himself. He hadn’t counted on the spin attack from all the three chasers. He felt as if his vision was blurred, his judgement clouded and reflex numbed. He was tiring. Wave after wave of Bulgarian attack left him frustrated. With the scoreboard now reading 180–30 in favor of Bulgaria, he felt the cup slipping away from them. He had come all this way just to falter again at the final hurdle. He wanted to shout, “I need a miracle”.

Exactly at that moment, near the goalpost, he saw a glint of gold whiz past him. Two figures, one in red and the other in white, were racing behind it. The red figure pulled into a dive, but suddenly the snitch decided to do a random flip, changed directions and darted right past the red figure. And Ben, clothed in white, caught it straight out of the air. The score was tied with both Bulgaria and England at one eighty points each.

The teams landed back for a quick break. Everyone was beaten and tired. “What happens now?” asked James. This was the first time there was a tie in the finals of a world cup. “Referee says the cup will be decided on penalties. Three for each team. Each chaser takes one” said Oliver. There was complete silence from the team. They wished each other good luck and went up to take their respective positions.

The shootout began. The first chaser was Vassileva. Oliver thought he was aiming for the left. He felt the same disappointment that he was facing through the night as he felt the quaffle slip past his hands and into the center ring. To add to his misery, Dan took the first penalty and missed.

And then, he did the unthinkable. Spurred by instinct, he curled around one foot of his around the broomstick, grabbing it just by the edge of his right hand and stretched out both his arm and leg. He thought to himself, “If you think I cannot block all three at the same time, I’ll do that somehow even if it means hell to me”. Ben cried out aloud, “Starfish and Stick, no, Oliver, don’t do that”. As Grozda took the penalty, through a beastly impulse, he kicked the ball away from the left post. Anne ensured his efforts didn’t go in vain as she shot the quaffle past the Bulgarian keeper. England lived to fight through the next penalty.

It seemed like an eternity for Oliver as the chaser Levski took the quaffle. He did the Starfish and Stick again. Every stretched muscle, every extended sinew, every cracked joint hurt. But, he decided to bite the bullet and wait for the penalty. He watched the quaffle move towards him. It was slow and surreal. His body did the job more than his mind. His outstretched hand managed to knock off the approaching quaffle. It all came down to Katie Bell scoring the last penalty. And Katie with her years of experience didn’t disappoint. She did a little feint and shot the quaffle right past the center ring.

The stadium exploded the moment they saw Katie score. But Oliver heard nothing. Only after he landed did it dawn upon him that he had just achieved his childhood dream of many years. When he first won a trophy for Gryffindor, he sobbed unashamedly. But now, all of it felt different. His realization that he had won the cup still didn’t affect him much. Victory and defeat were no different to him now.

As he walked up the stage, flanked by his team, with an applauding Minister for Magic Granger on stage, to accept the trophy from the French minister, he remembered why he started playing quidditch in the first place. The sheer joy of playing quidditch lured him towards it. Nothing else mattered. As he accepted the trophy, he thought about the millions of fans who will be celebrating at that moment. He remembered his team’s first enthusiastic fan, the first fan who wanted a photograph with his team, the boy who died fighting injustice, the boy whose body he moved personally amidst grief. He lifted the trophy well into air and muttered to himself, “This one’s for you, Colin”.