Mar 26, 2003

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Though people have been so unusually forgiving this time, the fact remains that we lost by a large margin, we had more than just can be explained by an off day and there wasn't much left even to pray after the first 10 overs had gone by.
It was easily the biggest match in terms of importance I watched in my life, but for most of the time, it quite didn't seem that way, nor did it turn out that day. This World Cup has been cruelly severe on any weaknesses, fully shorn of any romantic results and the mild, weak and meek had no gifts coming their way. Contrast this to earlier Cups: Pakistan's incredible escape from England thanks to the showers that also unceremoniously dumped the South Africans like an irate schoolmaster mercilessly failing the class dunce not once but twice. Or a fist pumping, "Comm-onnn" yelling, leg break turning Shane Warne getting rid of Gary Kirsten while the Turbanator couldn't believe his eyes on this dual-in-one spinning/seaming wicket at The Wanderers. Or Kapil Dev's unrecorded moment of magic at Tunbridge Wells: contrast it to a well watched Fleming against the South Africans (why are they in every wow-story in the Cups?). Or at least a modern and aging Arjuna late cutting to third man to complete the grudge that began with many allegations involving colours, ancestries and most of all, the saga of the right-elbowed bowler and the right outstreched hand of a portly man: All we got close this time was Ganguly waving goodbye to the Kiwis. Rhodes broken, Donald shaken and stirred, De Silva running out, Warne medicated, Hussain? na-ssir!, What are the memories of this World Cup? Rain teasing millions of Indians threatening to be the saviour in the final? The quickly clearing clouds stamped home the message: expect no freebies.

And for the umpteenth time, yes, we got it dead right by bowling first, for proof, please refer the New Zealand v India match in the Super Sixes. There on a pitch that seemed more placid than at the final, Ganguly called correctly with Zaheer & co. reducing the pre-tourney tormentors to 140-odd. I say this though I believe in big games it is better to bat first and let the opposition chase: it only takes 10 good balls to get 10 wickets, even if the total is 150, but chasing 350+ is going to probably happen only once in the history of the game.
For those who have only watched the final, it would be an abject display of India's past failings, but we believers would have to look at the overall tournament and say: "Not too bad". But even we must remember: "Opportunities like these don't come knocking each day!". Look at Pakistan: 4 years ago, steaming down the pitch and now en masse exiles. Except for New Zealand and India (that too over the last 18 months), every team has gone downhill. Except for Australia, who are increasingly being left out of everyone's thoughts about cricket because they've managed to raise themselves psychologically into a bracket above the rest. Zimbabwe (pardon the unkind pun) de-Flowered after losing Johnson and Goodwin earlier, South Africa mentally disintegrating, so much that for the first time probably since the Nawab of Pataudi, the cricket world sees a young captain, chosen more for his brashness (Aussie-copying?), an admission of empty barrels, England who are great cricketers only in the fertile minds of the English press, the Lankans bumbling their way about, and the Windies trying their best to undo their gains of the last year. It has got so bad for the Pakistanis that even the Indians are feeling sympathetic for them. Will we see the Wasim magic again? Me thinks not.

With all the nosediving of cricketing standards being brutally exposed in the World Cup by upstarts and champions alike, the only happy time was had by the Indian fans. Gone were the days when we would hope to sneak into the next round through the cat-door, hoping to metamorphose into a lion (for one day only) in order to win the finals: we, more than anyone else (barring our immediate Western neighbours) have taken full advantage of the "uncertainties of cricket". This time, we kicked the door open, marched in boldly, much in the vein of Yuvraj Singh leaping over the gates at Lord's under the noses of the snooty gatekeepers that magic day in the Natwest Trophy. And ironically, the one thing that we had harnessed, we chose to leave at the hotel rooms: our strength of mind. Indian teams of the past hardly expected to win: when it happened, there was always something left unexplained, unrepeatable, defying analysis. This time, it was un-miraculous, expected, players saying "kya yaar, Kenya se kyu.n haarenge, mai.n dikhaataa huu.n 40 for 3 se kaise jeetna hai.n". And that's the way it was, hiccups dissolving in measured sips of water. That's why the final baffled. Much in the mould of the mysterious Ronaldo seizures of 1998 afflicting more than a player but a team. But by assigning mystery, one places the defeat outside the scope of analysis. Which is wrong. Say it, we made a big howler. We didn't think. We lost it big time. We didn't say to ourselves "Do we want to let a mere attack of nerves spoil it for us?". We went blank, line-and-length lessons of a lifetime going poof! on the pitch. Srinath's late 90s brand of infuriating bowling re-incarnated. All this on a pitch that was assisting even spin! That's why we had to bowl first. And why did we even think about sledging! Tulsi Bhabi trying to play Bhiku Mhatre. I'm surprised Hayden didn't say "Tum jis school ke vidhyaarthii ho, hum us school ke headmaster reh chuke hai.n". But, giving credit to the Aussies, it was a near perfect batting display. An occasion when the phrase near chanceless innings applies not just to an individual but to the entire team. It was like being in a very, very bad dream, as an Indian spectator. It was too perfect to be real, but it was, it was. I cannot remember anyone getting to 300 plus scores losing only 2 wickets. Heck, they didn't lose wickets even in the slog overs. That batting display was a miracle, too superhuman even for the Aussies. But I saw it happen too.
Interestingly, the Indians fought, so much that probably the only person to take things rashly was Sachin Tendulkar. Even when Pakistan put up 314 in Dhaka (another innings that comes close to the final in terms of its depressingly (for an Indian) merciless innings), arguably, no one except Sachin, Saurav and Robin thought we would make it. The regularity of chasing 300-pluses meant that this team wouldn't mind taking a shot at it, but we've seem to have hit the magic thresholds in the 300 region that will be chipped away at in the manner of the 4-minute mile or the 10 second sprints, there will not be a mega-improvement in the psychological steeliness required for one attempting these Herculean, sporting tasks.

Messrs. John Wright & Co. came close but failed by a distance. In the process, they taught us interesting lessons: never take your eyes of the ball, go for your opportunities when they come because the rivers don't part to make way for you every time. They were right in talking about the final as just another game, thus hoping to rein in the monster, but failed to pull it off in reality. Little did Sandy Berger know that the threads would come loose after withstanding one buffet after another. We are the real story of the 2003 World Cup: we made the conversations interesting and in our loss, we have provoked more thought. But where will we go from here? I don't believe (unless we have an Australia-like 4 years, going from strength to strength) we'll have a super team again in the next Cup, but seeing that the Sehwags & Nehras emerged from the hinterland in the last 2 years, why not? Srinath won't be there and no Kumble too, maybe no Ganguly, Dravid won't be peaking again. And what does fate really have in store for Sachin Tendulkar? Only 5 digit aggregates and "arguably the best since..." arguments on the trophy cabinet? Will he have a peak or will it be a more spaced out mountain range? Will he get increasingly insecure about his place in the pantheons of gods (for the un-believers will start chirping soon)? The mental battles rage fascinatingly.

Post-script: Can't the people who vigorously slammed Dravid and waited for him to make a major mistake stand up and admit that he did pull off an almost unbelievable effort: no major messups (and what about Boucher & Sangakkara!) while maintaining a high average. This, for me, will be the most cherished memory of this underrated cricketer's, one of India's finest ever, contributions to his country's cricket. Hopefully, they will go back to dropping the seventh batsman and let Parthiv Patel, well, flower Flower-like.

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