Tears and Heartache - India Trounced By Ebullient Australia
Australia has made winning a healthy habit
India’s run at the ICC Cricket World Cup 2023 raised memories and ghosts of the past about Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s team lifting the World Cup trophy in 2011, 28 years after Kapil Dev’s men raised the trophy on the Lord’s balcony in 1983. In the end, comparisons and evocative anecdotes did little to assuage as the final in this marathon edition ended in tears and heartache for the hosts.
Nine out of nine wins in the league matches. A stupendous victory in the semi final. Record runs for a captain in a World Cup. A record number of centuries being smashed. Best bowling figures in an innings for an old warhorse of a fast bowler. Top runs for two batsmen from the same team.
India’s statistical glory could have been a long laundry list that alone would make this World Cup an outstanding success.
Yet at the end of what has been a six week, 48 match adrenaline packed saga, India’s trophy cupboard was still barren from a decade old drought. Those stories told not two hours prior to the start of the epic final at the Narendra Modi stadium vanished into the thin Ahmedabad air. The fireworks fizzled out for a nation whose festival hopes ended in a dampener that would want to forget in a hurry in what felt like an anti-climatic finish for team India who had been on song all the way through.
The stark contrast could not be a story waiting to be told. If Pat Cummins was smiling both, nervously and excitedly at the prospect of his team playing in front of a hugely partisan crowd, he also underplayed just how much it meant for the five time World Cup champions to make their eighth final and eventually sealed their sixth.
If winning is a habit, Australia must certainly have a lot of it in their blood. It is the only way to explain how Australia, after a seemingly forgettable few round robin matches, were suddenly a completely different team in the knockouts, showing in the final what they had also evidence in the semi final, a team that knew how to take on the pressure and turn the tables on their opposition, which would explain their World Cup success.
Australia struggled to establish themselves right through the tournament. While the statistics will show that after their first two games, the five time World Cup champions made a meteoric rise, the truth of the matter was that even in the semi final, a couple of factors went the way of Australia that helped them immensely raise their own stature going into the final.
While South Africa struggled to shake off the bogey of their knockout choking and also, the prospect of facing Australia which on the last two occasions, back in 1999 and 2003 ended in shocking heartache for the team from the African continent, Australia seemed to play the conditions, overcast and grey at the Eden Gardens in Kolkata, and their opponents to the hilt. By the time South Africa recovered through a salvaging partnership between Heinrich Klaasen and century maker, David Miller, Australia were still chasing at a very gettable target.
Furthermore, they raised their own game another notch and while they were made to fight for every run after a bombastic opening stand with the bat in their chase, they showed that self-belief can be a critical asset, something South Africa struggled to sustain in intensity through the hard fought match that did not do their record no wonders in the end.
What Australia replicated well from the semi final in their final match against India was their ability to create an early stranglehold with their fielding as David Warner led in the field against South Africa. With statistics claiming that Australia’s fielding percentage went from fifty percent to over eighty percent in the semi final alone, which would explain the number of runs they saved and also, held South Africa to their lowest total in the powerplay of just 18 runs, it might not have had the same numbers against India.
But it still did the job of never really letting India off the pressure and it told, despite a half century for Kohli and another for KL Rahul in a late consolidating effort.
In India’s case, while it was again felt that this was the right decision for India in a high pressure match to bat first, a decision that also seemed right from South Africa’s history in this World Cup, and skipper Rohit Sharma did contribute to India’s flamboyant start, it was not free flowing.
Instead Australia were turning on the screws once more, with their fielding once more including the extraordinary catch from Travis Head that got rid of Sharma but also, with their bowling from Mitchell Starc and Josh Hazlewood and tellingly so, from Australia’s captain, Pat Cummins, who has not always stood out for his performance with the ball in this edition.
While India had more runs to play with than South Africa did in the semi final, Australia were once again doing what they do best, continuing to keep the scoreboard ticking with some terrific running between the wickets but also, pulsating boundary shots that sounded like death knells for India’s 100,000 strong fans who showed up in Ahmedabad.
The home advantage that Cummins was both dreading and relishing, seemed completely negated as the crowd seemed as transfixed as the Indian team on the field, silenced into timid submission and nervousness, two things Australia know how to play to their advantage.
While the first semi-final in Mumbai raised a toast to two batting legends, with Virat Kohli paying homage to his hero Sachin Tendulkar whose 49 one day international centuries he went past by notching his 50th against a breathless New Zealand team, the second semi final saw a tenuous match of sheer endurance.
Led largely by Head’s bad, Australia managed to gain an early lead that reduced the runs to chase for Australia but also, left South Africa ruing not scoring more runs so they had something to defend as Australia’s batting went into the deep end before they could pull off a three wicket victory.
Mohammad Shami’s seven wicket haul against New Zealand somehow managed to overshadow the fact that New Zealand, despite the tall order of chasing 397 runs, were still pushing India with Daryl Mitchell raising a brilliant century. While all rounder Hardik Pandya’s injury was considered a blessing in disguise with India knowing their five specialist bowlers in a three pace-two spinner attack, against Australia in the final, India were made to feel almost toothless, not just because of the danger of dew in the outfield but also, in the manner in which Travis Head and Marnus Labuschagne not only absorbed the pressure but also, partnered each other well to stem the flow of wickets and also, keep the scoreboard moving along fairly easily in the crucial middle overs.
This time it was not so much the ballistic hitting but the consistency with which the Australian batsmen were finding the gaps in the field which created Indians’ heads and shoulders to drop, on and off the field. Given that Australia were three down and even stevens at 126 for three, it was yet another testament of Australia overcoming what seemed to be their biggest chink in the armour, their brittle middle order.
With a partnership being stitched between Head, who was injured to begin with and joined the Australian team late for the World Cup and Marnus, who was not even first choice playing eleven at the outset, tailored a beautiful story for Australia.
Destiny calling. Destiny call gone abegging. India, like South Africa, will wonder where their story went wrong. India more than South Africa simply because while the latter played beyond expectations, team India were only coming into their own in the Asia Cup and rose to almost invincible status. As the World Cup grew, so did their stature. The fall couldn’t be harder or more painful.
Two half centuries in two knockouts. The stuff of dreams. Travis Head was living it up and how!
Only he was doing it better. Not content with a century alone, the manner in which he went about his innings, with belligerence, calmness and astute thinking – Australia were less than fifty runs on board with three wickets down at one point, Head ensured that there was never any doubt about the outcome of the match or indeed, the winner on the night.
Ironically at a time when this result will not be digested until the next morning, there are only four days before India take to the field again, against a waiting Australian team that, instead of returning home heroes, must wait to celebrate as they get on with their bilateral series obligations. Something of a travesty at first glance, a panacea for heartbreak for some, and overall, cricket as usual?