The death of a dream arrived in the most workmanlike city. It had to be. The most workmanlike team, in the most workmanlike grind, brought to earth the high-flying princes of the cricketing kingdom on a working Wednesday. At just about 3 PM local time on 10 July, Yuzvendra Chahal swung at James Neesham and edged to the wicketkeeper. As the giant screen spelled out India's fate, the muggy Manchester skies turned a shade gloomier. Fireworks for some, heartburn for others. Almost on cue, the heavens opened up in faraway Mumbai, as if to reinforce that Indian cricket team's high noon had ended. Boy, did it hurt!
Being Virat Kohli must not be easy; at least for now. For someone who has been in unreal form for the past five years, five consecutive losses in the knockout stages of ICC events is a bitter pill to swallow. It must be hard for him to repeat the "better team won" cliche. The "better team" on the days that matter, since 2014, has been Sri Lanka (World T20 final, 2014), Australia (ICC Cricket World Cup semi-final, 2015), West Indies (World T20 semi-final, 2016), Pakistan (Champions Trophy final, 2017), and now New Zealand. Not India. Neither MS Dhoni's India, nor Virat Kohli's India.
Questions will be asked of his decision to hold back Dhoni till No 7. Queries will be posed on team selection, on the elusive No 4 and the unstable No 5, on the middle order muddle that has continued for so long that it's exhausting to even think of it, and on Kohli's own form in knock-out stages of multi-nation ICC events. One is not certain if Kohli will have an answer, or if he has someone who can, as former coach Anil Kumble once famously said, show him the mirror.
Truth be told, Kohli was tactically a much-improved captain at the World Cup. He was relentlessly aggressive in his field placements, his plan to use Jasprit Bumrah in short bursts in the middle overs as a wicket-taking option proved successful, and he was ready to drop one of the wrist spinners when the situation demanded. He did most things right, and while there will be legitimate questions over dropping Kedar Jadhav for the semi-final — Jadhav could have been a sixth bowling option too — one must respect the fact that tactics are a captain's prerogative after all.
Once the dust settles and the flashlights are gone, Kohli will, possibly, look to address some pestering issues head-on, chief among them being the absence of a middle-order core, and the utility of Dhoni in his scheme of things. That's not an easy task.
Kohli was instrumental in encouraging a culture of fearlessness in a team that was increasingly getting passive under Dhoni. His predilection for fast bowlers — remember what he once said about an angry fast bowler being a captain's delight — gave India a mean, intimidating assortment of fast men (who would have thought?), and his faith in wrist spinners went a long way in India becoming a limited-over powerhouse over the past 18 months. How then will he explain the loss to himself? After his fifth heartbreak at an ICC event in five years, he summed up the pain in five words of poise.
"It is difficult to explain."
Surely, it is difficult being Virat Kohli.
Being Rohit Sharma must not be easy either. Here's an apocryphal tale on Rohit, narrated to yours truly by a senior colleague. Sometime before the team for the 2011 World Cup was to be announced, Rohit was fielding at the boundary in (perhaps) an international match when he noticed the said journalist. "What do you think, will I make it to the World Cup squad?" Rohit asked. "Honestly, it looks really tough," the scribe replied. "Right, I think the same too," Rohit is known to have said before resuming his fielding duties.
Rohit, obviously, missed the bus for the 2011 World Cup. That was the time when the curse of talent hung around his neck like an albatross. I work hard to look effortless, he'd say, but few listened. What one saw was languid elegance, boundless talent, and a young man hell-bent on making an awful mess of the two. Then 2013 happened. Dhoni asking Rohit to open must surely rank alongside Sourav Ganguly asking Virender Sehwag to open in Tests, for the results were equally immeasurably, irrevocably, irrationally excellent.
Numbers are a lousy, lazy way to describe what one may call, the Rohit Sharma experience. The clean bat-swing, the ability to pull from the front and back foot and from long on to fine leg, the silken drives and the surreal lofts are experiences of spiritual purity. They are the cricketing equivalence of Sufism. World Cup 2019 saw Rohit amass 648 of the most divine runs, and to think of a nervous youngster asking around for his chances of making it to the World Cup to actually bossing it, Rohit completed a nice little circle. It was impossible not to give in to his allure, the absolute, unmistakable whirlpool of trance.
Images will linger; of him labourously raising his bat after each ton — he did it five times in a space of nine matches — of him joking with the press when players feel it's their duty to diss the media, but there's one particular image that will live to haunt you. That of Rohit standing (languidly, of course) in the Old Trafford balcony, his right hand holding his cap, his folded left arm masking his face. He buried his face twice in his arm before cameras shifted their focus. There could be a tear or two too, but no amount of high-resolution lenses will tell you how broken he must be. On a day he would have liked to lead India's charge, there he was, forlorn, finished, fatigued, calling for a hug. It was difficult enough to watch; imagine being that image.
Talking of troubling images, there'll be one of Dhoni too. Run-out in a moment of sporting theatre in perhaps his last international innings, the man with fastest legs in cricketing universe trudged back defeated and deflated. For the first time in ages, his face flashed an emotion, and it was of pain. Dhoni had failed before, but his countenance had never revealed a thing. He has been infuriating, excruciating, endearing, but in pain? In times like these, we realise the years and range of emotions we have invested in men and women we hardly know. Sport does that to you. Perhaps it is time, and if it is, Dhoni can leave the stage knowing that his legacy is secure in the pantheon of cricket's greatest ever.
Hindsight vision is the closest thing to existential perfection. It's also the swiftest vehicle to honest introspection, and India would do well to look back and look inwards for some answers.
India's journey to this World Cup started with the Sydney surrender in 2015 and gained the turbo charge it needed after the London loss in 2017. Manchester 2019 could be another milestone in this march towards excellence, and there will be some personnel changes along the way. Fresh faces in support staff might be on the way, as could be another batch of batsmen gunning for at least three slots in the brittle middle order. A new crop of fast bowlers ought to be groomed with Bumrah, Bhuvneshar Kumar and Mohammed Shami being the torchbearers of pace. Talents like Vijay Shankar, Rishabh Pant, and Hardik Pandya must be persisted with, and a decent finger spinner, along with Ravindra Jadeja, will do no harm to the team's overall balance.
It's unlikely that the loss will dent the team's confidence, but repeated failures in knock-out matches must be humbly acknowledged and honestly addressed. With the fresh cycle of international cricket set to start in less than a month, the process needs to be set in motion at the earliest. The dream has ended; it's time to wake up to a workmanlike reality.