72 hours since the dream was diminished for Team India.
72 hours since the chance to take this team to a world cup final got drenched by the rain.
72 hours since probably the last time we saw M S Dhoni play in the blue jersey.
I had a million thoughts running through my mind on the evening of 10th July, but I was so overcome then with a numbness of emotion that I felt it’d be better to give myself some time to process it all. Having gone through 2003, and then 2007, I believe I can handle the pain of almost any major tournament that Team India gets in. Time does help.
Having followed Indian cricket, men’s cricket, almost religiously for the last 16 years, it is fair to say that I thought this is the best team that we have had in the duration. I think there’s surely a case for best ever, but even without hyperbole, one can see this team’s home and away records in all forms of the game and compare it to past teams, and come up with the conclusion that this team comes up pretty high. The percentage of matches it wins, and the variety and depth in all departments, makes it a dream come true for us Indian fans.
However, this was another tournament which slipped through the grasp from India. Through this decade, as the quality of the players in the first eleven and the bench improved, the feeling kept growing that India have a group of players to dominate world cricket. And for better or for worse, nothing speaks dominance like trophies do. And that’s probably what’s hurt me the most through these years.
I’ve watched the highlights of the 1983 World Cup. But I’ve lived through the joy and lightheadedness of being that the 2011 World Cup triumph was. And maybe, in hindsight, we’d measure greatness for this team and the post-Aussie-1999-2007-cricket differently. For the moment though, we have to consider trophies.
The good thing is that starting 2013 Champions Trophy, India has been into the final four or better of every major ICC event. They won the 2013 CT, of course. Then there were final appearances in the 2014 World T20 and the 2017 CT, and semifinals against eventual winners West Indies in the 2016 World T20 and Australia in the 2015 World Cup.
The thinking was that if this side wants to be called the genuine successors of the West Indies sides of 70s-80s and the Aussie sides of 99-07, it needed to have trophies. That hasn’t happened. And the feeling of huge opportunities lost is palpable. Sure, celebrating a team needn’t be defined by narrow ideas of silverware, especially when said team has been consistently good not just in world tournaments but bilateral series too, home and away. But, having at least one more star above the BCCI crest on the India jersey would’ve been great. Besides, one of the foundations of Team India post-2003, Mahendra Singh Dhoni, has probably played his last ODI World Cup. He can return to the side for the World T20 next year in Australia, but that’s a discussion for another time.
For the actual match itself, the worst nightmare of the team and its followers came true on Wednesday. In conversations with friends, I’d been mentioning the generally-poor knockout round records of both Rohit Sharma and Virat Kohli, even though they haven’t been completely absent from scoring in crunch knockout games. Also, everyone knew this team was as top-heavy as they come, and removing the top order cheaply was 60% of the battle won for opposition sides. And with the memories of the 2017 CT final demolition job from Mohammad Amir fresh in the memory, an encore, this time from Trent Boult, was a real danger. To make things worse, it rained during and before the two-day one-day international, providing just the kind of conditions that New Zealand bowlers thrive in.
That said, the killer blows came from Matt Henry, and not Boult, despite the left-armer’s dismissal of Kohli. Henry’s man of the match award was fully deserved, I felt.
Watching the match, and even in the terrible aftermath of defeat, it was clear that this wasn’t as one-sided a match as it looked like heading to be when India were 92/6 after 30 overs. And therein lies both praise and criticism for the performance and decisions taken by the team/players and team management on the day.
The criticism first.
Rahul’s should-play-shouldn’t-play dismissal : In a match where you’re chasing a middling total, and in conditions where it gets better to bat after the first 8-10 overs, an opener is ideally better off seeing off the new ball, and only play when the deliveries are genuine scoring options, something Jonny Bairstow and Jason Roy did a day later to devastating effect against Starc, Behrendorff and Cummins. Rahul though, after the loss of Rohit and Kohli, got out in an avoidable manner. He was the man coming off a hundred in the previous game, and should’ve done better than hanging his bat out in the corridor.
Pant and DK at 4 & 5: You have a guy who’s the de-facto firefighter in the squad, and you send a guy playing only his 8th ODI and another who’s been in and out of the first XI more times than a diarrhoea patient goes the the loo, and then you expect to come up trumps against a team as good as New Zealand. Doesn’t work that way. Dhoni did play the percentages well in his partnership with Jadeja, but it’d have been far better to have him come in after Kohli’s dismissal and steady the ship. He could have played out as many dot balls as he wanted, and mentored Pant through his innings too. With the luxury of having Pandya, DK and Jadeja in the hut, India could have gone after the bowling far later than they actually did. I get the fact that these are skilled professionals who know what to do better than me and other armchair critics.
Rishabh Pant sparkled till he was there, until he wasn’t. Image credit.
But you can’t keep playing musical chairs with a key position like no. 4 for two years and then send in a complete novice at that number in a World Cup semifinal against the world’s third-ranked team. And if, as Ravi Shastri hinted in his interview with Indian Express, Agarwal was not directly brought in to open the innings, why didn’t India bring in Rayudu? I mean, List A records are great, but actually giving a player a debut in a world cup semifinal/the game before that? Really? However lopsided Rayudu’s record is, it was against New Zealand earlier this year that he hit that 90 in partnership with Vijay Shankar to resurrect the Indian innings. He mightn’t have got a game here, but he’d have been a better replacement for Shankar than Agarwal, at any rate.
The praise now.
“Yeah, Sanjay, talk nah!” Image credit.
The bowling and fielding were top-notch throughout, and Ravindra Jadeja showed his worth as a three-dimensional player with as good an all-round performance as you’ll ever see in a game of that magnitude. So too the quality to stay in the game from scores of 5/3 and 92/6. There have been too many occasions in the past, particularly in the 90s and early 00s, where the loss of Sachin and a flurry of wickets up top has meant India surrendering the game even before lunch has settled in the bellies of the people at the stadium. Not in this instance. Pant, for all the impulsiveness of his dismissal, had actually played quite well up to that point, hitting boundaries without ever going into his shell. And Jadeja, well, he was on a different level to everyone else over the two days. The most remarkable thing for me was the way he picked up the variations and the slower balls from every single bowler, right up to his dismissal. He picked that up too, only couldn’t hit it well enough to send it out if the park. His running between the wickets, drilled in his game under years of Dhoni’s influence both for India and CSK, was remarkable too.
That sinking feeling. Image credit.
The miracle almost happened, but at the end, you could clearly see that New Zealand were the better team, and deserved their win. Neesham’s catch of Karthik and Guptill’s runout of Dhoni will go down in world cup lore alongside the efforts of Viv Richards in the 1975 final and Kapil Dev in the 1983 final. Also, if there’s one team that Indian fans can’t hate even after losing to has to be New Zealand. Their niceness is already ™ territory.
Respect, respect, respect. Image credit.
As for the final, I have no team that I support. This is a first for me in a long time, I guess, but England’s resurgence like a Phoenix from the ashes of their 2015 campaign, and New Zealand’s redemption story from the 2015 capitulation at the hands of Australia, plus the overwhelming abundance of nice guys in both squads makes it difficult to choose one over the other. If I have to, though, I probably don’t want England to win just so us non-English are spared sermons of English exceptionalism and greatness from ex-pros and English media. Yes, they are playing a revolutionary brand of cricket, and yes, they might go on to dominate cricket for the next many years, but they aren’t the greatest ODI team ever, not yet, even if they completely annihilate their opponents on Sunday. Let’s please have grace and equanimity of some sort even after the match, whoever wins, and let’s keep loving the sport for all its vagaries and greatness.
Thanks for reading this post. What are your thoughts on it, and who do you think will lift the World Cup? Do tell me in the comments.