Athletes, and sports teams, chase perfection. They build blueprints for it. They drill like fresh military recruits for it. They deliberately subject themselves to pain, over and over again, in search of it. Looking for the sound of the middle of the bat. The feel of the perfect googly. And the congregation of a thousand perfect moments.
They search for the perfect game.
But India did not have the perfect game.
Firstly, India went into the encounter without Shikhar Dhawan, their tournament-loving hero nicknamed after a villain. The guy who averages nearly 65 in England, 63 in tournaments with five-plus teams, and 65 in ICC tournaments. The guy who regularly makes you want to drop him, then scores a huge ton that makes him seem indispensable. And when a tournament comes around, and he goes one level higher and actually becomes indispensable.
And India had to dispense with him.
Dhawan’s broken thumb meant two problems for India, not one. KL Rahul, the accidental No 4, once again became the accidental opener. Vijay Shakar was slotted in at No 4, probably making the most highly followed debut in World Cup history.
Far from ideal.
Then India lost the toss and were asked to bat when they wanted to bowl. They lost their captain to the most bizarre walk you’ll see for a while, and so ended about 15 runs short of where they should have been. Then they lost their opening bowler to injury.
Their fast bowling freak went wicketless. Even the Dhoni Review System had an off day.
No opener. No toss. No new ball bowler. No luck.
Rahul hoarded the strike from Mohammad Amir and left the ball like he was back in Test match-mode. Rohit forgot the Test match-mode he’s found recently and raced away to his fastest fifty. And Kuldeep Yadav found a delivery that belonged in whites, bursting through the defences of Pakistan’s classiest batter.
Hardik Pandya solved India’s No 4 problem with 26 quick runs. Shankar solved India’s Bhuvneshwar problem with two bonus wickets. It didn’t matter that Jasprit Bumrah was wicketless because Kuldeep Yadav was ripping it, going at 3.55 an over. And it didn’t matter if Kohli walked incorrectly when he’d scored a breezy 77 before that.
India usually start slow with the bat. Rohit and Rahul improvised. Kuldeep had bowled seven of his overs by the halfway stage; If the game had gone deep, India could have been two frontline bowlers short. But Pandya claimed a timely brace. MS Dhoni was out cheaply, and Shankar looked scratchy with the bat, but India still got 336.
India are winning consistently, without being formulaic. Multiple match-winners. Multiple blueprints.
It is a sign of how good India have become that even on a less than ideal day they could still beat Pakistan by 89 runs. And while everyone correctly mentions the gap that now exists between these two teams, Pakistan remain the only side in the competition to have beaten tournament favourites England.
The chaos of the rivalry seemed to affect the Pakistani bowlers, who were slightly shorter than they should have been. That can happen when the body is slightly tense, not loose like it needs to be for peak athletic performance. India, on the other hand, seemed unaffected by the hype. They showed up, did the job, and left. No fuss, despite the few boxes that weren’t ticked.
Ask an Australian, and they might describe the 2015 World Cup final as the perfect game: The big wicket, the early incision, and then — instead of waiting for the opponents to slowly bleed to death — keep incising. Knock off the below-par target, with the injury plagued-captain scoring the winning runs. The perfect swansong, with the home crowd providing the chorus.
That occasion had about 90,000 people watching at the MCG. This time, there were significantly fewer people in the crowd, but they made significantly more noise. 26,000 in the Old Trafford stands. A billion watching on TV.
All eyes were on the 11 men, in search of the perfect game.
What they got was the imperfect one. Signed, sealed, delivered.
What was scary was that it was more than enough.