R. Mohan | Aussies gatecrash India's grand cricket celebration
The Australians have won the ODI World Cup more than anyone else. Even so, as they went into an eighth appearance in a final, they were the underdogs against the red-hot favourites. They came like gatecrashers to India’s party and stayed to spoil it while winning the cup and the accolades.
The brilliance of two men stood out as the Australians shocked a crowd of 92,543 into pin-drop silence at Ahmedabad’s Narendra Modi Stadium. The tactical nous of Pat Cummins, who saw the pitch as favouring a chase more, and Travis Head’s extraordinary assault on the Indian bowlers who had dominated the World Cup up to that point in the home team’s 10 wins on the trot to the final, were instrumental in bringing about a fairytale finish.
In the end, Team India were hoist by their own petard, their penchant for “fixing” the pitch in which they would like to play their cricket boomeranging on them.
Their all-round game had been so good that they scarcely needed to predetermine the surface on which they would play. It was their predilection to doctoring pitches to suit their cricket best that spoiled what was for a month and a half a long nationwide celebration of the Rohit Sharma-led Team India, who came close enough to attaining perfection in 10 wins.
The middling form they were in, they hardly needed a used, slow, slightly underprepared pitch whose extremities resembled a patchwork quilt sewn to help the spinners. It was in conquering every adversity that the Australians stood out to hand the Indians a lesson on how to handle the pressure while ratcheting up efforts in the field a notch or two in a Cup final.
It appeared the end of a decade of inability to raise their game in a crunch match was in sight as Team India roared into the final on holding off a challenge from the doughty New Zealanders. How they went into a defensive shell as soon as their captain, who had led the campaign with a fearlessness and an un-Indian disdain for personal landmarks, fell was the storyline that defined the final and sealed the destination of the handsome World Cup.
India’s poor performance with the bat — only four boundaries in 40 overs after the captain’s dismissal to an extraordinary catch — could not have come at a worse time. Until that point, India’s pennant had been fluttering in the breeze with the nation’s soft power clearly on the ascendant as the cricket circus had moved from venue to venue among ten cities in an event that seemed to have all the trappings of a big fat Indian wedding.
The private jets that flew into Ahmedabad for the final creating a traffic jam in the skies, the celebrities from showbiz, business and the world of power politics who had all contributed to making the IPL the biggest Indian sporting enterprise, the diehard cricket fans weathering the discomforts of stadiums not designed for their comfort and the sheer colour and raw emotions of sporting venues were on show at the biggest event on turf.
The World Cup may have contributed generously to the Indian economy, which was said to have crossed the $4 trillion mark on the day of the final, but in a false dawn report. More significantly, the length, breadth and diversity of India was represented in Team India whose players, irrespective of their religion, caste, and creed, had united the nation like none other in its smooth progress to the grand finale.
The man from the nondescript district with the exotic name of Amroha, Mohammed Shami, despite his marital troubles and questionable selection of the playing XI that saw him sit on the bench until Hardik Pandya got injured, was quite the national hero. There was an anticipatory buzz every time he had the ball in hand at the top of his runup, a rare tribute to bowlers in a “we want sixer” land obsessed with the deeds of batters.
The logistics of the 10-team event over 45 league matches, and three knockout encounters, had been handled well enough and there was hardly a complaint about Indian hospitality save from querulous Englishmen who picked faults at every turn as their defence of the title descended into a shambles.
Rarely has any of the 13 editions of the World Cup gone without the mice roaring at lions. The Afghan cricketers, virtually adopted sons of India in their Greater Noida lair where they train, were the ones who benefited the most from the exposure as they batted with remarkable maturity in run chases and bowled and fielded like natural adepts.
The orange-clad men from the Netherlands had their moments in the sun too even as the highly fancied Pakistan team, amazed at the warmth of Indians recalling their close cultural links, enjoyed their stay before their cricket imploded, much after being beaten but not humbled for the eighth time by India in ODI World Cups in the first full house of the event. The New Zealanders and the South Africans were in it till the last four before their nerves were tested by the teams that made it to the final.
As the crowds picked up with the intensity of competition throwing up closer finishes, more people turned up at non-India games — it was a pity there were very few cricket fans touring to cheer their national squads. Visa restrictions meant very few from Pakistan could make it.
Attendance records at a multilateral event were shattered, once again signaling how India matters as a nation of spectators, even if they are stunned into silence when their favourite team does not get the better of the exchanges between bat and ball. Viewership records on TV and digital media were hit for six too.
In a dizzy 45 days, as it gathered momentum after a diffident start in the chase against Australia, Team India were to be the source of much happiness for a country otherwise in eternal election mode and prone to dwelling on the words of political demigods scampering for the votes of the humble. Defeat, one of the twin imposters as defined by Kipling, became a handy tool to troll political opponents. But that is the political India in a nutshell with too little sport in politics.