Indians went into the 2003 World Cup in South Africa without any expectations. A sound thrashing at the hands of New Zealanders where the batting looked out of place meant people looked elsewhere when asked about India’s chances.
The controversial selection of Dinesh Mongia who was preferred over VVS Laxman raised many eyebrows. It helped matters that Rahul Dravid agreed to keep wickets.
Sourav Ganguly the captain himself was under immense pressure. After the customary warm-up matches, India faced the Netherlands in their opening encounter. Sachin Tendulkar and Sourav Ganguly opened the batting after India won the toss. Ganguly was out for 8 which was scored at a snail’s pace and India huffed and puffed to 204 thanks to Sachin’s half-century and Dinesh Mongia’s 42.
The Netherlands never looked threatening and were all out inside 49 overs - Javagal Srinath who came out of retirement earlier after Ganguly’s request got his 300th wicket in the course of the match- the only Indian fast bowler to achieve this feat till date.
The second match was proof of the dominance Australians had over virtually every other team then. The only memory Indians would like to carry over from this match would be Harbhajan Singh’s six of Brett Lee. Sachin Tendulkar was done in by a slower delivery from Jason Gillespie and Australia romped home comfortably chasing 125.
It was at this point that Indians decided to change the batting order- Virender Sehwag was sent in to open with Sachin Tendulkar and the move paid off against Zimbabwe. 255 proved too much for Zimbabwe and even Ganguly was among the bunch of wickets.
The match against Namibia was what it was supposed to be- a one-sided affair. With Sachin and Ganguly scoring centuries, India could test their bowling depth - the result was Yuvraj Singh ended up getting 4 wickets.
England was brushed aside by Ashish Nehra’s supreme bowling. He looked unplayable that day after Indians had put up a less-than par total of 250 - with Andrew Caddick’s last over reaping 4 wickets. Flintoff’s innings was a flash in the pan and England were all out for 168. Nehra ended with figures of 6-23.
Emotions soared at Centurion for the much awaited, mouth-watering clash against Pakistan on March 1, 2003 - Sivaratri was being celebrated on the same day. Pakistan started well before they lost Taufeeq Umar. Rahul Dravid’s diving catch to dismiss Abdur Razzaq proved that he was safe behind the stumps.
Inzamam Ul Haq was run out again as Anil Kumble celebrated after dislodging the bails. With Saeed Anwar scoring yet another century against India, Pakistan put on a fighting 273. They finished with a flourish with Wasim Akram flicking Ashish Nehra for four off the last ball.
In reply, Sachin Tendulkar walked out and took strike - this was a harbinger of things to come and what followed was a brutal assault of the famed Pakistan bowling. The first over yielded 11 runs. If Sachin Tendulkar scored a six over third man, Sehwag followed suit. Fifty was up in no time and then suddenly Waqar Younis captured two wickets against the run of play. Sehwag was caught at covers and Sourav Ganguly trapped in front with a set piece - an inswinger after bringing in an extra slip.
The serene Mohammad Kaif batted with caution and with the scoring rate not an issue at all, Indians continued their march with Sachin Tendulkar showing signs of inconvenience while batting. India lost Kaif and Tendulkar (to an extraordinary bouncer from Shoaib Akhtar ) within a space of 22 runs but Yuvraj Singh and the ever-reliable Rahul Dravid ensured those minor hiccups did not matter. The match had all the drama an India-Pakistan encounter must have.
Advancing into the super Six, India chased down a tricky 225 against Kenya after being 108-4. The disciplined opening bowlers Martin Suji and Thomas Odoyo demolished the top order and Indians were struggling at 24-3 when Sourav Ganguly and Rahul Dravid stitched together a partnership.
Ganguly led from the front and scored a century which was his penultimate in one-dayers - this century under pressure gets less recognition than what it deserves because of the relatively weak opposition - the players would not have thought so though because of the way Kenyans bowled.
With Sachin Tendulkar missing yet another century and Virender Sehwag scoring a half century, Indians reached 292 against Sri Lanka. Javagal Srinath then showed why he was considered one of the best quicks in India. His annihilation of the top order left Srilanka reeling at 3-3 and 15-4 and won him the man of the match award. The fact that only three bowlers were used by India showed the quality of fast bowling as the SriLankan innings was wrapped up for 109.
The Indian bowling continued from where it left off as New Zealand was bundled out for 146 - Zaheer Khan this time leading the bowling with 4 wickets. India won with seven wickets to spare but the chase was not a tension-free one.
India had a relatively easy opponent in surprise entrants Kenya in the semifinal and there were no hiccups this time, Sourav Ganguly scored his third century of the World Cup and India posted 270 and restricted Kenya to 179.
With the final against the mighty Australians, expectations were high. The World Cup was won exactly twenty years ago for the first time. Based on the bowling performances in the tournament and damp conditions, India asked Australia to bat first and then watched the game being taken away from them - there was literally nothing else to be done.
Ricky Ponting’s century helped Australia gallop to 359 and with intermittent rains not strong enough for the abandonment of the match, India were all out for 234 and lost by 125 runs - the figure which they had managed to put up in their group stage match against Australia.
Much was said about the decision to field first. Sourav Ganguly summed up well when he said- "To beat Australia, you need to hurt them early. For that you need to get wickets and our bowling was getting teams out for paltry scores." In any case, the fact that Australians were ahead of others in every department was evident throughout the World Cup.
The journey of the Indian team against all odds was exciting to watch. The Great Indian Huddle which gained popularity quickly, the team spirit and coming to age of youngsters indicated that Indian cricket was heading in the right direction.
With Sachin Tendulkar being the mainstay of the batting, the other looked comfortable and Srinath, Nehra and Zaheer bowled their hearts out - the final excluded. With Dinesh Mongia justifying his selection with his bowling and batting, India could afford to play an extra batsman with Rahul Dravid keeping wickets.
Yuvraj and Kaif patrolled the off side and also made valuable contributions with the bat. Anil Kumble, although did not play all the matches, made valuable suggestions during the course of the tournament - the most important being asking Sachin Tendulkar to open the batting. Harbhajan Singh was steady with the ball.
Overall the team looked more settled under Ganguly’s captaincy and he also had a trustworthy ally in coach John Wright. Sanjay Bangar, Parthiv Patel and Ajit Agarkar never got a game and would have felt unlucky though.
Although the cup was won again in 2011 after 1983, the 2003 World Cup still remains clear (perhaps more clear) in the memory of fans. The emergence of that team which laid the foundation for what was to come was a treat to watch for Indians.