17 years to this day, India lost a one-sided World Cup final to Australia in Johannesburg. The loss still stings, but it turned out to be perhaps the most important defeat in Indian cricket's recent history.
“It is tails,” announced match referee Ranjan Madugalle to a rapidly-filling Wanderers at Johannesburg, the crowd a sea of blue with patches of yellow in between. And the blue erupted – for it meant Sourav Ganguly would decide who takes the first strike in this World Cup final, between India and Australia, on the 23 March, 2003.
“What will you be doing?” asked Michael Holding, a past World Cup-winner himself in 1979, in his inimitable booming baritone.
“We’ll have a bowl.”
Did he just say that? Holding, while holding his inimitable straight-faced gaze, might have concealed any surprise he felt inside. But the sudden dip in the din of the Jo’burg gathering did suggest they were caught off guard – as, quite certainly, were a billion-plus watching back home.
“It’s a bit damp… it’s because of the rain in the morning. We’ll have a go at this first… If they (the fast bowlers) can put the ball in the right place the way they’ve bowled, we’ll definitely get some purchase.”
To put Ganguly’s rationale in context, the fast bowlers being spoken of – Zaheer Khan, Javagal Srinath and Ashish Nehra – had earned their captain’s faith and backing in India’s run to the summit clash, having scalped a combined haul of 49 wickets at an average under 17.
“Ricky, would you have done anything different?” was Holding’s question to the Australian captain. “No, would have had a bat, actually. It’s always nice to bat in big games, in the finals, I think, so we would’ve had a bat.” As he framed that sentence, Ponting was fighting a losing battle against the broad grin on his face.
About half an hour on, Zaheer has the new ball in hand, raring to have a go at the lethal left-handed combine of Adam Gilchrist and Matthew Hayden. Two no-balls, two wides – the first of them among the widest wides in popular memory – a 10-ball over, with 15 runs conceded.
And the afternoon at the Bull Ring only progressively worsened for the Men in Blue. Messrs Khan, Srinath, and Nehra would bowl 27 wicketless overs – for 211 runs. India would be shellacked for 359/2, and they would lose by 125 runs (both, still, record entries in the history of World Cup finals).
It hurt. It really hurt.
23 March 2003 would be a date that haunted every Indian – player or fan – for the years to come. It wouldn’t be a stretch to call that game Indian cricket’s Voldemort: The-game-that-must-not-be-named.
To borrow a line from another immortalised anti-hero from the films, “There can be no true despair without hope.” And it’s the hope that pierced a billion-plus.
The hope of a team, for whom this victory would have marked the completion of the revolution that lifted it from the darkest hours ever seen in its cricketing history. The hope of an entire generation, to witness a euphoria they had only been told about in the tales of their elders. The hope of a nation, tugging dreamily at notions of greatness and status of superpowers.
And it wasn’t a hope stemming from some giddy, misplaced optimism. This was a tournament where India’s traditional weak-link – their fast-bowling – was rubbing shoulders with the best in the business.
This was a tournament where another one of India’s age-old concern points – their fielding – was giving the best in the world a run for their money. And then, this was the tournament where Sachin Tendulkar was piling on a mountain of runs that remains unmatched to date in a single edition of a World Cup (all 673 of them).
As a result, the scars were multifold. They were multi-layered. They were endless. They just wouldn’t go.
The sight of the Australian yellow would come to be a cause of serious heartburn (although India weren’t alone in world cricket in experiencing that). The number 359 would become a nationwide eyesore; believe it or not, almost as if to serve as some heated salt finding a way to continuously entrench itself into a wound, the same opposition has managed to repeat that exact score thrice in the years since 2003 (India won the third time it happened, in 2013, when an inspired Rohit Sharma and Virat Kohli made a mockery of a run-chase, but if India thought the hoodoo had been broken, 2019 would bring about a successful Aussie run-chase out of nowhere that finished, you guessed it, on 359!).
For the greater half of the Class of 2003, 23 March 2003 would be the closest they would come to the crown of world champions. Mohammad Kaif, Dinesh Mongia and Javagal Srinath, all part of the XI that took the field at the Wanderers, plus squad members Parthiv Patel and Sanjay Bangar wouldn’t feature in another World Cup.
For four esteemed others, the fate would be even more cruel – because Sourav Ganguly, Rahul Dravid, Anil Kumble, and Ajit Agarkar would have to bear the ignominious group-stage exit in their last World Cup bow in 2007.
The six that survived – five finds of ‘Dada’ in Virender Sehwag, Yuvraj Singh, Harbhajan Singh, Zaheer Khan and Ashish Nehra, plus India’s greatest cricketer of all-time – would form the pillars on which MS Dhoni built his all-conquering unit of 2011; pick up any archival interview given by any of the six, and you will find that 23 March 2003 served as the common galvaniser.
Tendulkar, you would have thought, had immersed his all into the 673 runs he slammed in 2003; eight years later, his near-38-year-old self was still able to conjure 482 runs that iconised the title-march.
Sehwag, who had top-scored on that doomed March afternoon in Johannesburg, would make a first-ball four the norm for India in 2011. Nehra, not much unlike 2003, was still the limping warrior unafraid of injury; heartbreakingly, another injury ruled him out of the final eight years later, but that meant his last ODI spell would be an underrated gem of 10-0-33-2 as India defended 260 in the epochal semi-final versus Pakistan. Harbhajan, as he did eight years previously, would be adept at doing the task required on the day.
But perhaps more than anyone else, the scars of 2003 helped illuminate the two biggest stars of 2011. Zaheer Khan didn’t even get to bowl his entire quota after the nightmarish start at the Wanderers; his first spell against the Aussies read 3-0-28-0.
Eight years later, his first spell against Sri Lanka at the Wankhede finished 5-3-6-1. And Yuvraj Singh? The man who delivered the Holy Grail, ending the 28-year-long wait with his Player-of-the-Tournament heroics, has maintained in his all his subsequent recalls that no game meant as much to him as the quarter-final, where India ended Australia’s 12-year reign on world cricket; just see that photo from the finish at Ahmedabad, and that alone tells you the story of a ghost laid to rest.
Yuvraj had dreamt of that exact moment. Zaheer had dreamt of that exact moment. Sachin had dreamt of that exact moment. Sehwag, Harbhajan, and Nehra had dreamt of that exact moment. The ones who were no longer in the playing fold in 2011, too, had dreamt of that exact moment. India had dreamt of that exact moment. (In a quiet poetic dealing of fate, that dream result would arrive the day after the eight-year anniversary of Jo’burg 2003, on the 24 March, 2011).
Many have labelled 23 March 2003 as the most painful defeat in Indian cricket history (or, at the very least, recent Indian cricket history), and that, given the hurt and the toll and the scars, seems a fair fit to define a grieving afternoon for a squad of players and its billion-plus support staff.
But perhaps, with the benefit of hindsight, and the elation and ecstasy caused so directly by the after-effects of it, 23 March 2003 might find a more accurate label in ‘the most important defeat in Indian cricket history’. How much sweeter was it to savour 2 April 2011 given what was endured on 23 March 2003?
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