Sunday, April 03, 2011

The World Cup Returns Home

April 2nd 2011, Mumbai – a piece of Indian cricketing history that will be cherished for years to come. Many of us have heard our parents talk about the 1983 World Cup triumph where Kapil Dev’s Dare Devils emerged from nowhere to stake their claims to be World Champions. It is a moment that has been talked about on every occasion and many of us wondered whether we can witness such a moment again. Now, finally, my generation has a World Cup memory of our own to boot about and the Men in Blue pulled off a fantastic victory in Mumbai to etch their names permanently in history.

India started off as the pre-tournament favourites but their reputation often preceded them wherever they went. We knew that we were among the top-3 in the tournament but winning was a different ball game – it was a habit that we had not yet acquired. Under Ganguly and now Dhoni, the Men in Blue were emerging out of their shadows but a World Cup victory – surely, you must be joking, we can’t do that but then sometimes, just sometimes dreams also find their way upto God’s conspiratorial schemes.

The Indian batting was the strongest of the lot but we also added the rider ‘on paper’ in hushed terms just as investment products carried a warning at the bottom of the document. In the group stages, we had beaten the minnows handsomely but struggled against England and South Africa. The England match got the fans and experts livid at our thread bare bowling resources – Zaheer was mean and lean but the remaining forty overs were almost like prayers to the Lord to rescue us. HE heard us and we just about survived a Strauss onslaught and came out battered but still undefeated but the South Africa match was a harsh reminder of what was in store for us.

The match against the Proteas was billed as the competition between the best batting and bowling teams in the tournament. Viru, Gambhir and Sachin battered the South African bowling attack and a 350 was in sight until the batsmen committed hara-kiri at the altar of the latest cricketing strategy calling ‘batting powerplay’ (batting powerplays seemed to be more like millstones around the neck of batting captains). The batsmen stumbled but bowlers and fielders dished out strong performance till the ultimate over from Nehra where 13 runs were conceded with ease. The shoulders drooped again, the critics drew their daggers out, the experts smirked at our capabilities while the whimsical Indian cricket fan started writing elegies and expecting the worst. The team then beat the ragtag Windies team which seemed just a shade better than the minnows but still a victory was still a victory.

The Quarter finals finally arrived after weeks of surprisingly robust 50 over games which drew crowds in decent numbers. For the first time in more than two decades, India was tipped to be the favourites to beat the Aussies. The Aussies looked like aging patriarchs playing from memory; with no McGrath, Warne, Hayden or Gilchrist, the team was at cross roads, almost akin to their predecessors in the early 80s. The experts said that this was the best time to beat them, they had no great match practice and looked jaded against the Pakis.

At Ahmedabad, there was drama of course when the great man Ponting worked his way to a fantastic century finally getting out to a reverse sweep (a shot which nobody had probably ever seen Ponting play); the champ was down but not yet out and he had preserved his fighting spirit for the tough games. The Indian batsmen started well, wobbled a bit, almost made heavy weather of the chase but thanks to Yuvaraj and Raina, they pulled off a tense but convincing victory. The cricketing Gods had finally said good bye to the once most powerful cricketing team on the planet and the World Cup awaited a new prince to be crowned.

The semi-final against Pakistan was arguably the most hyped spectacle in recent media history and office goers were glad to give their regular jobs a miss to be a part of history (?). It wasn’t a great cricketing match by any standards but if the team needed to play the toughest, most stressful match before the finals, this was it. Dhoni surprised everyone by replacing Ashwin with Nehra on a pitch that did not do much for seamers but Nehra pulled off a fantastic performance. Sachin played a rather forgettable blemished innings but still took home the Man of the Match. The batting almost collapsed till Raina played another small cameo to give the team a fighting total. The Pak team started well but they played into the pressure and were outclassed; the golden oldies Misbah and Younis strangely seemed to be playing in a game which had no bearing with the current one. Despite the odd flourish here and there, it was a comfortable win and India’s WC record of no losses against Pak remained intact.

The final opponents were the wonderful Sri Lankans led by the aristocratic, Oscar Wilde quoting captain, Kumar Sangakkara. The team had an excellent opening pair, an untested middle order and had the 3 feared Ms in their bowling lineup – Malinga, Murali and Mendis. Strangely, Mendis was rested for the finals and there were 3-4 new blokes all thrust into the finals of the World Cup. They were expected to play South Africa for a slot in the final but thanks to the Protean tendency for suicide, they had an easier outing into the final. It was an all Asian final and touted to be the closing finale for two legends of the game to bow out in glory.

The Men in Blue were striking all the right notes – the bowling was peaking when it mattered and the batsmen were doing well, though not necessarily doing full justice to their reputation. Yuvaraj’s excellent overall performance had strengthened the team immensely; Sachin was among the leading run getters of the WC and Zaheer Khan led the bowling figures. The fielding was a class apart from its normal abysmal standards and the presence of Kohli, Raina and Yuvaraj were saving close to 20 runs in every game.

The finals took off on a cautionary note with a dream first spell by Zak and a decent enough one by Sreesanth (another gambit by Dhoni). The Indian bowlers played all the right notes and a total within 250 seemed in sight until some swashbuckling hitting in the end overs of Zak took SL to an imposing total of 274 – a total never before chased in a World Cup final. Mahela Jayawardene played a silken, cultured, crafty knock full of touches and nudges, with no hint of any form of violence against the leather – it was a knock that was possibly destined to take the Lankans to the trophy except ofcourse it turned out to be unfortunately a piece of cricketing trivia as the only team to have lost despite scoring a century in the WC finals.

When Malinga polished the two stalwart Indian openers, the nation let out a collective gasp; had the Men in Blue flattered to deceive again? But two young men decided to attempt to change the script – young Gambhir and Kohli (he was born in the post-83 era) stuck to the crease, played with a cause and took the attack to the opposition but with no attempts at flamboyance. The fairy tale ended when Dilshan pulled off an excellent catch to dismiss Kohli and in walked the captain Dhoni (to everyone’s surprise). The captain was in no great form but he wanted to make a point to both himself and the world and he decided to take the attack to the opposition – a bold move which eventually won him laurels and us the game. They played Murali and Malinga with due respect, went after the others and the ploy worked – eventually, when Gambhir got out for a fighting 97, we were standing at the threshold of a famous victory. The batting powerplays and Malinga came to play but today they were ordained to win and they cruised at the end with Dhoni finishing off the match with a memorable six over long off.  

28 years is a long wait and the triumph is sweet and almost surreal. Ganguly had initiated the transformation but could not take it through to the final stage; Dhoni was the man destined to do the honours. He took risks, stuck to his instincts against all conventional logic and when the big moment arrived, he took the battle to the opposition. Even when the battle was won, he almost looked confused, unsure how to react and remained at the background in a rather understated way but few would doubt that he is the best ever Indian captain (a job arguably more demanding than the one Manmohan Singh has). My memories of Gary Kirsten at the crease were of a boring, unattractive work machine but the soft, unassuming coach returns to his family definitely a contented and a much admired man in India.  

The Men in Blue played for the nation and the Little Master – the man whom my generation has been privileged to watch right from his teens to where he is now. Virat Kohli expressed this sentiment beautifully when he said – Sachin has carried the burden of the nation for 21 years. It's time we carried him on our shoulders.

Thank you Sachin, Dhoni, Gary and the Men in Blue – the images well remain etched in our memories for a really long, long time. On a more sober note, two weeks back , Dhoni's boys were pilloried for being chokers and now they are National heroes. Such is life and its glorious uncertainties - when the going in on your side, the nation is rooting for you but when you are down in the dumps, they want to smell your blood. I'm sure Dhoni understands this feeling just too well...

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