Tuesday, July 23, 2024
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INDIAN CRICKET IS ON THE RISE, BUT IS OUR SPORTING CULTURE DECLINING?

I never actually saw the 2003 World cup final. But India’s crushing defeat at the hands of a mighty Australian side, which included the likes of Adam Gilchrist, Matthew Hayden, Glen McGrath, Brett Lee and led by the legendary Ricky Ponting, underpinned the narrative of India-Australia cricketing rivalry through the 2000s. India would play exemplary cricket, but Australia consistently proved to be the most fearsome and dominating cricketing side. Beating Australia in bilateral series or multinational tournaments was seldom possible and considered a miracle. All until the 2011 World Cup, when we defeated Australia in the quarter-final and then went on to lift the trophy by beating sub-continental rival, Sri Lank, in the final. Despite heartbreaking exits at the 2015 and 2019 edition, we steadily worked towards playing with a winning mentality, under the captaincy of MS Dhoni and Virat Kohli. Two decades since the 2003 defeat, the tide had turned. India no longer played meek cricket. Through the entire league phase of the World Cup India played dominant cricket, much like the great Australian sides of the past, registering 10 out of 10 wins in clinical fashion. We obliterated South Africa, England and Sri Lanka with a bowling attack which easily ranks amongst the best the world has ever seen. Wins against New Zealand and Australia did not come easy, but were assured and comfortable in the end.

What went wrong?

What, then, went wrong for us in the final? India’s loss is being label

ed as “one bad day at the office”. And that is certainly true. On the day when it mattered most,

Travis Head shows his superiority

our team did not keep their cool and bring out their best game. Shreyas Iyer and Shubman Gill both lost their wicket tamely. When he had to bat big and deep, Virat Kohli fell short, albeit due to slight misfortune. Suryakumar Yadav, fabled for his 360 degree hitting, perished to a slow bouncer in miserable fashion; his lack of ODI pedigree exposed for the world to see at the grandest of stages. KL Rahul batted well but could not show any intent and aggression due to our brittle and long tail. In hindsight, it feels as though we could have been braver with the bat. Although 240 was well below par, it felt sufficient for our clinical bowling attack to defend. But in the field too we were sloppy and lacked intensity. Bumrah and Shami provided key breakthroughs to keep Australia pegged at 45-3, but were also uncharacteristically expensive in the first five overs. The guile of Kuldeep and Jadeja was nowhere to be seen. Most importantly, perhaps, our Captain too seemed to have an off day in the field. When the Head-Labuschagne partnership threatened to take the game away from us, we needed our captain to take charge and spur the team on but, alas, Rohit Sharma seemed out of ideas and deflated. The aggressive mindset and killer instinct which we had shown through the tournament eluded us.

One bad day at office?

But to say that we lost the final only because of one bad day is an oversimplification. The truth is that the Aussies were too damn good. Winning cricket matches and especially the world cup final is simply engrained in Australia’s cricketing DNA.

Modi consoling Shami

What hurts the most is that the team fielded by Australia was not the best, not on paper at least. Smith, Labuschagne, Warner weren’t in top form. And conditions did not play to the strengths of Aussie bowlers. But Australians have an innate ability to summon their best game at will and when it matters. Their exceptional attitude, skill and intelligence in the field, personified by Head’s incredible catch to get rid of Rohit Sharma and 37 year old David Warner diving all over the ground to save boundaries, set the tone for a dominant display with bat and ball. The Aussie killer instinct is elite and unrivalled. When they sniff fear, they kill the opponent. I must clarify, that our team played with immense character and bravery, but the weight of the occasion,

perhaps, got big on them. And the Aussies made sure to exploit that. Pat Cummins’ ominous pre-match warning that his team would look to silence the crowd feels prophetic in hindsight. The plan to play the final on a slow pitch, in a colosseum of 130,000 blue shirts, seems to have spectacularly backfired. When India needed a boost in difficult situations, rather than being the 12th man, a shell shocked and silent crowd at the Narendra Modi stadium ended up piling on the weight of expectations. It contributes to the perception that we view our athletes not as sportspersons, but as soldiers. Perhaps, hosting the final at a Wankhede or Eden Gardens would have given our team a crowd it needed to clinch the World Cup. Perhaps selecting a slow pitch, only to hinder the Aussie pace attack, was a show of weakness which was exploited.

Sporting culture of the nation

We must also take this opportunity to reflect on broader questions about the sporting culture of our nation. Spending crores of rupees on building the largest stadium in the world, in a city with no discernable cricketing culture, while the historic Eden Gardens withers away; the ill- treatment of our Olympic medal winning wrestlers; the embargo on playing cricket against Pakistan. All of these are symptoms of a larger problem: The scant regard which the current political dispensation has for the sanctity of sport. Maybe our team indeed lost because of one bad day at the office, but it would be a mistake to brush aside the possibility that a declining sporting culture ultimately prevented our team from achieving greatness.

If sport teaches us anything, it’s that winning and losing is part of life. At the end of the day, there is no shame in losing to a better team. While the final loss feels similar to the 2003 loss in many ways, we must not easily forget the brand of cricket that India played and the improvement we have made. Now, we must simply look forward to the next one!

Aravind
Aravind
"Aravind is an Advocate practicing in Delhi who enjoys watching and writing on sports"

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