In the end, the dream ended in a bloody mess of a car crash. Since October 8, when it beat Australia in Chennai despite at one stage being three wickets down for just two runs, the Indian cricket team led by Rohit Sharma had raised countless hopes by playing some very professional cricket, despite losing their vital allrounder Hardik Pandya after four games, to enter the final of the 2023 ODI World Cup unbeaten on 10-0.
In their way at the Narendra Modi Stadium in Ahmedabad – the world’s biggest cricket venue, erected for days like November 19 – were Pat Cummins’ Australian team, who on October 15 had been ten out of ten in the standings. But, true to Aussie spirit and grit, this lot won eight matches in a row to join India in Sunday’s final. And in that final, Australia were so on the ball in comparison to their shell-shocked opponents that they were crowned World Cup champions in front of some 130,000 fans who had landed at the stadium expecting an Indian victory.
And thus, the World Cup ended with India 10-1 and Australia 9-2.
The finest margin, you could say looking at that score line, but the truth is that on the biggest day of the World Cup, Australia were streets ahead of India. Cummins read the Ahmedabad pitch conditions far better than Rohit did – India’s captain said he would have opted to bat – because he knew that batting would get easier in the second half of the match. Australia had specific roles for their players and more intent, and their fielding was exemplary.
Cummins chose to field, a decision which raised eyebrows, and once Rohit got going with some stunning shots it seemed like the Australian captain had grossly erred. But then Adam Zampa clutched on to a swat from Shubman Gill, and the Australians had an opening. People will conveniently haul Rohit over the coals for the shot he got out to for 47 off 31 balls, when immediately after hitting Glenn Maxwell for six and four he attempted to clear the infield and was caught. But let’s acknowledge that the fielder, Travis Head, sprinted at least 25 to 30 years and held the ball almost near the boundary. It was a freak catch, the catch of the tournament, and that is what Australia needed to do to stop the World Cup’s most dominant and successful opener.
The wicket from where the match turned for the worse was Shreyas Iyer’s, who poked with an angled bat at a delivery from Cummins that stayed a little low and took the edge. India had gone from 76/1 to 81/3 and for the next 29 overs, neither Virat Kohli or KL Rahul managed to hit a boundary. In all, India hit six boundaries after the Powerplay overs. Kohli still looked good for his 63-ball 54 which ended when he pushed at a ball from Cummins and chopped on, but how does one wrap their heads around the shell that Rahul went into?
Rahul scored 66 from 133 deliveries, hitting just one four. Playing for time and the late overs, one can assume, but the lack of intent jarred. Suryakumar Yadav, whose place in India’s ODI squad this writer has been critical of all year, came out to bat in the 36th over and played his least convincing innings of all. Bereft of timing on a spongy surface on which Josh Hazlewood bowled some terrific slow bouncers, Suryakumar managed to bat almost 12 overs, of which six were with the tail, and took the innings until the end of the 48th over. Unfair to make him the scapegoat, yes, but Suryakumar’s one-dimensional style of play did let India down.
And then there is the biggest worry that Indian fans have carried, and that is a lower order that starts at number eight. Four bowlers are a risk in ODI cricket, and India had carried this risk ever since Pandya was ruled out of the World Cup. The risk had paid off because of the brilliance of these same bowlers and because Rohit, Kohli and Iyer did much of the heavy lifting, but come the World Cup final the last four just were good enough. Compare this to how Mitchell Starc and Cummins batted in the Kolkata semi-final and you will see in the end, India’s long tail did come back to haunt them.
Which brings us back to defined roles. Look at how Head and Marnus Labuschagne batted when they were paired up at the fall of Steve Smith with Australia’s score 47/3 after six overs. Head had made a start and loomed as the biggest threat to India as they tried to defend 240. Labuschagne was at one stage 18 from 43 balls, looking like a nervous wreck, but at the other end Head did not withdraw into a shell. Instead, he backed the role he has been given and was bold, playing attacking shots, using his crease to put off the Indian bowlers. Unlike Rahul and Kohli, Australia did not have two batsmen defending and knocking the ball around. Labuschagne was the anchor, Head the aggressor. Clarity of roles, clarity of thought, and a lot of self-belief.
There are not one or two men to blame for India’s sloppiness. The batting, as a whole, failed when it made just 240. The spinners were off, going wicketless across 20 overs, which is where you can actually point a finger and say the team was let down badly. Mohammed Siraj had his second off day in a row, Mohammed Shami was nowhere near the level of excellence he himself has set down in this World Cup after missing four matches, and Jasprit Bumrah could only do so much.
Few captains could have roused their team in front of Head’s brilliance and with 240 to defend, but Rohit looked somewhat flat and his lack of a third man and slip did stand out. The Ahmedabad pitch, to this writer’s mind a very poor choice from the home nation, brought Australia into the match in a way India could not comprehend.
This was not how it was supposed to end, and India’s search for an ICC trophy has entered its 11th year.