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India's 'pigeon' woes at World Cups

The role of "pigeons" in playing the spoilsports in India's World Cup campaigns.

Glen McGrath crashed India’s World Cup dreams twice, ‘99 and 2003

When Australia sent India packing at the SCG in the World Cup semi-final earlier this year, it was their eighth win over India in eleven World Cup meetings. Coming out of the 1987 World Cup, India held a 2-2 head to head record against Australia. This record, however, was to be severely dented in the four subsequent editions when Australia entered a phase of world cricketing dominance.

If Dean Jones won the India encounter at the 1992 World Cup for his side with a well-made 90, it was Mark Waugh who stole the show at Mumbai in the 1996 edition with a magnificent 126. And while everybody remembers how Ricky Ponting drove Mandira Bedi to the brink of tears in 2003 final, it was a tall New South Wales fast bowler who proved to be India’s nemesis in two successive editions.    

When the former New South Wales all-rounder Brad McNamara first cast his eyes on a young Glenn McGrath, he is believed to have said, “You've stolen a pigeon's legs McGrath”. Little did McNamara know at the time that not only would the nickname stick, it would also turn out to be one of the most endearing epithets in world cricket.

Despite being a welcoming personality off the pitch, McGrath’s actions on the field were anything but friendly as he often indulged in on-field duels with batsmen. Yet, with sheer focus, immaculate precision and subtle movement off the pitch, he terrorized batting line-ups for fourteen years. His career haul of 563 test wickets and 381 ODI scalps is a testimony of his relentless intent to dismiss batsmen.

Over after over, McGrath ran in and delivered with an action so correct that it almost seemed robotic. Renowned for never permitting the batsman to score freely, he finished with remarkable ODI bowling figures – an average of 22.02 and an economy rate of 3.88. Interestingly, it was against India that his ODI record seemed to pale a tad bit – an average of 26.76 and an economy rate of 4.41 from 25 matches. That said, if there were battles that he enjoyed particularly, they were the ones that involved a certain Sachin Tendulkar.

The match-winning spell at London

When the cricket world congregated in England for 1999 World Cup, McGrath was already a proven force with six years of international cricket under his belt. Having lost two of their first five games, India’s campaign held promise but was brittle at the same time.

And when Australia squared off against India in the first Super-Six game at London, the fast-bowler seemed thrilled to rekindle his duel with the “Little master”. When the game kicked-off with Mohammed Azharuddin sending Australia in, the Indian skipper wouldn’t have foreseen that it was to be the beginning of a heart-ache that would be felt years later as well.

Set a formidable 283 to win, India needed Saurav Ganguly and Tendulkar to get them off to a good start. But McGrath had plans of his own. By the time he’d completed his fourth over, he’d sent back Sachin, Rahul Dravid, and Azhar. The game was beyond India’s grasp in a matter of seven overs with the side reeling at 4/17. Despite a valiant hundred from Ajay Jadeja and a 141 fifth wicket stand that he shared with Robin Singh, India were handed a 77-run defeat.

Had McGrath not bowled that decisive spell, India could well have fancied their chances as their top three in Ganguly, Tendulkar, and Dravid had all scored hundreds leading up to that stage in the tournament. Bowling with venomous seam movement, McGrath had single-handedly turned the tide in his team’s favor and was rightly adjudged the man-of-the-match.

While the McGrath show that day was typical of an intimidating Australian pace bowling unit knocking over the opposing top-order, what was uncommon though was the bizarre sight of pigeons on the ground being felled - akin to target practice. It happened during India’s run chase.

The first bird met an untimely death when it caught a Paul Reiffel throw from the deep. Incidentally, Reiffel was looking to run out a scampering Ajay Jadeja. The second unfortunate bird was struck down at short-third-man. This time, it was a leading edge from Jadeja’s bat that brought about this peculiar occurrence of twin pigeon-deaths on a cricket field. Although clearly unintended, it was as if Jadeja had revenge on his mind against the pigeon community in response to McGrath’s earlier opening burst. But McGrath would return to haunt India four years later.

Déjà vu

In the 2003 World Cup final at Johannesburg, when Ganguly put Australia in, the events that unfolded bore an uncanny resemblance to the 1999 World Cup encounter between the two nations. Only here, a mammoth 359 that the marauding Ricky Ponting helped amass was a gut-wrenching reminder of the force that Australia was. If all of India said a prayer, its Godly avatar in Tendulkar walked out knowing all too well that he had to score if his side were to make a match of this run-chase. The burden of the total notwithstanding, Glenn “Pigeon” McGrath had to be dealt first.

Tendulkar gave the country hope in the first over when he carted McGrath for a boundary. In response, the Aussie stalwart dug the next one in short to induce a top-edge off an intended pull-shot. As the ball hung in the air for an eternity and McGrath positioned himself under it, Indian fans across the world accepted their fate.

With one stirring short-ball, McGrath has altered the course of the game. He would pick up two more wickets that day, but neither was as significant as that of Tendulkar. Despite a fighting 82 from Sehwag, India was to go down to a superior Australia.

In the years since those matches at London and Johannesburg, McGrath’s opening bursts still stand as pivotal moments that propelled Australia and sunk India. For India though, it was a case of lightning striking twice – a stark reminder of the defeats induced by the man they called the “pigeon”.  

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