When the Indian team reached the ICC World Cup final for the first time in 20 years, it felt like a once-in-a-lifetime event for Indian fans, who weren’t sure of witnessing a repeat anytime in the near future.
Editor's Note: The global coronavirus outbreak has brought all sporting action to an indefinite halt. While empty stadiums and non-existent sports news make for an unusually grim sight, we take it as an opportunity to look back, and - to paraphrase poet William Henry Davies - stand and stare. In this latest series 'My Favourite Match', our writers recall the sporting encounters that affected their younger selves the most, and in many cases, helped them fall in love with the sport altogether. Happy Reading!
Australia vs India, World Cup final, 23 March, 2003
Team India reaching the final of an ICC event doesn’t quite feel the same anymore. Not that it isn’t a feat worth celebrating, and Indian cricket fans are still as emotional as they’ve always been, for they continue worship their heroes when they win, and burn effigies when they don’t.
The current team led by Virat Kohli (and occasionally Rohit Sharma) is far more used to victories that the past Indian teams were, and are almost always counted among title favourites in the build-up to a multi-nation event. Failing to reach the last four of a World Cup would be considered an upset for the current Indian side, and is validated by their consistency over the past decade.
Back in 2003, when the Indian team under Sourav Ganguly reached the ICC Cricket World Cup final for the first time in 20 years, it felt like a once-in-a-lifetime event that us cricket fans who grew up watching that generation of cricketers weren’t sure of witnessing a repeat anytime in the near future.
Skipper Ricky Ponting's 121-ball 140*, fifties from @gilly381 and @damienmartyn powered their side to 359/2 before the @glennmcgrath11-led attack bowled India out for 234 to set up a 125-run victory. pic.twitter.com/cGWkx19uw0
— ICC (@ICC) March 23, 2019
The Indian team in the 1990s was a mid-table side at best with the occasional performance or two that prevented their fans from self-combusting. It had reached an all-time low during the match-fixing scandal of 2000, before things started changing for the better with a change of leadership. India reached the final of the ICC Knockout Tournament that year, halted the Aussie juggernaut in 2001, pulled off a heist at the ‘Home of Cricket’ and reached a second consecutive ICC event final in 2002.
The 2003 World Cup in South Africa started on a shaky note for the Indian team with a batting collapse against the Netherlands and a nine-wicket walloping against defending champions Australia, before Ganguly and company staged a miraculous turnaround with eight consecutive victories, including a six-wicket win over arch-rivals Pakistan in the group stage.
Suddenly, seeing our favourite team go up against the best side in the world in that era in a World Cup final — which a lot of us had been dreaming of — had become a reality. I distinctly remember a series of TV commercials involving members of the 2003 batch who recounted what they were up to back in 1983, commercials that only added more hype to the big showdown that was to take place at the Wanderers in Johannesburg.
My mother was supposed to attend a religious gathering on that Sunday, and promised to pray for the Indian team along with the other devotees. I had struggled to focus on my examinations during the league stages as well as the Super Sixes, but with a few days off before the start of a new academic, year, I was a free bird without the fear of getting scolded by my parents for watching matches and cartoons for too long. I stocked up on the unique blue Pepsi that sold like hotcakes around that time, along with a host of other snacks. We waited with bated breath as the two captains walked out for the toss.
The first raise of the eyebrow was after Dada opted to field on what looked like a good pitch to bat on and raise a big total. The team batting first had won five out of the seven finals that had been played before, and it looked like a big gamble on the Indian skipper’s part.
Zaheer Khan bowled a disastrous first over, getting hammered for 15 runs — of which only seven had been scored off the bat. The over set the tone for the rest of the game as the titleholders bossed the ‘Men in Blue’ for the entirety of the final save a couple of phases. Adam Gilchrist and Matthew Hayden stitched an opening stand worth 105 before a stutter in which they lost a couple of wickets in quick succession. If the Indians were starting to harbour any hope of restricting Australia to a manageable total after those breakthroughs, they were quickly squashed by the opposition captain himself.
To describe Ricky Ponting’s knock at the Bullring as one of his greatest would be an understatement — it could very well rank among the greatest one-day innings’ of all time and certainly figure in the top five in the history of ICC’s most elite tournament.
An Indian attack that only a few days prior to the final bowled a star-studded Sri Lankan side out for a meagre 109, had no answer to Punter’s brilliance, as the latter bulldozed his way to an unbeaten 140. Not only did he end up breaking Viv Richards’ record for the highest individual score in a World Cup final, Australia ended up with a score of 359/2. It wasn’t long after this knock that the outlandish theory of springs in Ponting’s bat started to surface in conversations with friends.
The ‘Extra Innings’ show that took place during the innings break saw a very glum-looking pair of Mandira Bedi and Charu Sharma, their expressions not very different from mine. Our living room was as silent as those of other households across the country.
However, it was less than a year ago that we managed to chase 326 down in a high-octane final at the Lord’s, and given Sachin Tendulkar’s raging form in the World Cup, there still was the faintest of hope that we might achieve the near-impossible. Tendulkar walked out to bat alongside Virender Sehwag, and got off the mark with a well-timed pull towards the cow-corner for a boundary. Signs of intent early on; maybe there was hope for us after all.
Alas, the boundary failed to spur a comeback, as McGrath shortened his length the very next delivery, cramping the Master Blaster for room and inducing a thick top-edge that resulted in the easiest of return catches for the Aussie pace great. Tendulkar, who finished as the tournament’s highest run-getter (673) and was later named the ‘Player of the Tournament’, was dismissed for just four, and the Australians already had one hand on the trophy by now.
The Indian supporters, who been stunned into silence after the Tendulkar dismissal, didn’t have much to cheer for except for the spirited fourth-wicket stand between Sehwag (82) and Rahul Dravid (47). Sehwag wasn’t quite producing the goods in that World Cup as was expected of a dashing opener like him, and when it finally did, it had to happen in a losing cause.
There was also a brief spell of rain that looked threatening for the Aussies, but was nothing more than a passing shower. My prayers for the rain to turn into a raging thunderstorm clearly did not have the desired effect, and my heart sank as I saw the players make their way out to the field again. Once Sehwag and Dravid were gone, polishing off the remainder of the tail was a mere formality, as the last five Indian wickets fell for just 26 runs. The scoreboard pressure did get the better of the famed Indian batting unit after all.
Zaheer was the last man dismissed, skieing the ball towards mid-on where Darren Lehman grabbed on to the chance and stretched his arms in victory. “World Cup for Australia,” thundered Ravi Shastri on air, breaking a billion hearts collectively. Dinner had never quite tasted that bland before; I could hardly shake off the bad taste that the 125-run defeat left in my mouth, and could hardly digest the fact that the team that had shown so much of skill as a unit for a couple of weeks was made to look like an ordinary unit, much like the Pakistanis four years ago.
It was a generation-defining Australian side after all. Under the captaincy of Ponting and Steve Waugh, the team were miles ahead of everyone else and made winning an everyday habit. Four years later, they would smash the Sri Lanka in the Caribbean in 2007 to complete a hat-trick of titles while India would bow out in the first round for the first time in 15 years.
Thankfully for Indian cricket fans though, 2011 happened, a victory that somewhat eased the pain of the 2003 heartbreak. And Indian cricket has been on the rise ever since.
To read other pieces from our 'My Favourite Match' series, click here
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