India's World Cup journey: Leaving with heads held high
Team India arrived in Australia some time around the first or second week of November. The regular captain was out injured. Many speculated that this was because of the ongoing legal tussle between the Indian cricket board and the derecognized Cricket Association of Bihar, a to & fro battle in which top names of Indian cricket were thought to be involved. In the midst of all these controversies, Virat Kohli, the stand-in skipper, spoke of things such as ‘character’, ‘ability’ and ‘positivity’ ahead of the long & gruelling tour.
What followed was an absorbing high-intensity four match Test series that was fought tooth and nail. And even though the scoreline suggested that Australia had won it 2-0, what separated the Indians from wins were perhaps just a few key moments.
Right after the energy-sapping Test series came one of the most redundant tri-series one will ever see. A largely dispirited Indian team got wallopped by the home team and a rather mediocre English line-up. Stuart Binny was opening the bowling, Ambati Rayadu was batting at three, the battery of injured fast bowlers were playing musical chairs and so on.
India entered the World Cup as defending champions, but even the most ardent Indian fan had given up hope. The hashtag ‘we won’t give it back’, launched as a part of a marketing campaign by the broadcaster, was ridiculed. Social media was flooded with jokes on Shikhar Dhawan’s form, Binny’s wife and Virat’s actress girlfriend. It’s almost as if the Indian team hadn’t gone to play cricket, but to amuse.
And when the warm up game against Australia was played out, in which India went for 371 runs in 48.2 overs, a repeat of 2007 seemed imminent. How would India win against Zimbabwe and Ireland, let alone South Africa and Pakistan.
One fine day in Adelaide, on the 15th of February, with the ‘Mauka’ ads in attendance, India stunned Pakistan. An outfit lacking in confidence after their two month tour Down Under, came face to face with their arch rivals and neighbours to the west. And as if on cue, the competitive juices started flowing again.
The opening duo of Dhawan & Rohit Sharma who could hardly score any runs, started middling the ball again. Dhawan scored a strong 73 and Kohli followed it up with a resillient 107 as India put up 300.
But the biggest surprise of the night was saved for Pakistan’s chase. The very same fast bowlers who had been the butt of all jokes till just a week ago, started showing spirit. It’s as if an invisible magnet started pulling Shami’s deliveries from outside leg stump to just where he had been supposed to bowl all summer. Outside off, back of good length. Umesh followed, and Mohit Sharma, who wasn’t supposed to be in the team in the first place, made sure that Bhuvneshwar Kumar wasn’t missed.
Pakistan were beaten by 76 runs, a thumping victory. Next stop was Melbourne; opposition: South Africa. Surely the Proteas would win hands down. Surely the Pakistan win was more due to Pakistan’s performance than India’s resurgence. Hang on. The margin got bigger – South Africa, beaten by 130 runs, and in their own game. India played more like the Proteas than the Proeas themselves did. Fielders threw their bodies on the line, every single was stopped, some brilliant outfielding, some stunning run-outs.
Pakistan, check. South Africa, check. UAE, check. West Indies, check. Ireland, check. Zimbabwe, check.
Effortless, clinical, masterful.
If the chase against West Indies needed MS Dhoni’s calm, then the chase against Zimbabwe needed Suresh Raina’s elegance. UAE were brushed aside like flies, and Ireland was like a practice game all over again. It did not turn out to be 2007 again. India in fact went one step higher than 2011 in a way, they topped the group.
By winning every league game India booked a quarter-final date with the buoyant bunch of Bangla Tigers. Every team barring a rampaging New Zealand had lost one game or the other, but India hadn’t, and so deserved the weakest opposition out of the eight quarter-finalists.
In a one-sided game, Bangladesh were brushed aside and India stormed into the semis with a couple of distinct feats under their belt. They had bowled out their opposition seven times in the last seven instances. Their captain had hundred ODI victories under his belt, joining the league of Alan Border and Ricky Ponting.
The semi-final against Australia at Sydney was never going to be easy. India were looking like a well-oiled unit though. Almost every aspect of their game had been top-class, every player had clicked. Add to that, the fact that they were defending champions. It was always going to be 50-50.
The game turned out to be otherwise. After losing a crucial toss, India were sent in to bowl.The early wicket was taken, but the pitch was too good to bat on. Just when a 350-plus total seemed round the corner, the Indians pulled it back. Showing just why they deserved to be in the semi-finals.
A legendary cricketer turned commentator, who started his first stint by making bizzare predictions such as Australia would score 400, had to tone down his expectations. Australia will need to do a lot to reach 300 from here, he later quipped. In the final few overs however, some errant bowling and bad fielding gave Australia 25-30 easy runs. Chasing around 330 in a semi-final was always going to be difficult.
The World Cup victory of 2011 was achieved on a territory far more familiar than the one the batch of 2015 was exposed to. That squad had legends, and some big names. This time around, very few had had the prior experience of playing in Australia. But they showed spunk. Spunk of a tremendous kind. Never since 2001/02 had an inexperienced side such as this done so well on foreign land. Led by an inspirational captain, the team achieved what no one had expected them to. They won, and continued winning till a more deserving victor came along.
This might not just be MS Dhoni’s final World Cup. He is 33 and fit as a fiddle. He eats and sleeps the shorter format of the game, and has a bunch of cricketers who would have learnt some invaluable lessons in life and cricket over the last few months from ‘Captain Cool’.
2019 will be played in England – a place where India has done well in recent times. For the romantic out there, there might just be another chance to see an Indian captain at the balcony of Lord’s grinning with the World Cup in hand. Who knows.
But saying all that, it was a great performance by Team India. If the 2003 final had made me distraught as a kid, the 2015 semi-final will make me proud. Proud for the manner in which India played. And as the bulawa arrives from India, MS Dhoni’s boys can walk out with their heads held high.