In the End, It’s Always XI Versus XI

It’s where Orwell’s timeworn ‘war minus the shooting’ metaphor falls short.

This is why we love sport, yes? Here we are, all set for India’s coronation at the end of a 45-day pageant of self-celebration. The terraces are walls of blue. The skies are scored with patriotic jet trails. The boxes are full of puffed-up pooh-bahs and lotus-eating slebs. Oh look, there’s Narendra Modi, in Narendra Modi Stadium, in Narendra Modiland, with its ambitions for a Narendra Modiworld. Oh dear, it’s all spoiled by eleven happy-go-lucky Australians.

Nobody gave them a chance. Even I didn’t give them much of one. India are just so good. A five-finger exercise I set myself during the World Cup was to pick a second Indian XI from players not in the first-choice team. You’d have Ruturaj Gaikwad and Yashasvi Jaiswal, Ravichandra Ashwin and Axar Patel, Ishan Kishan and Sanju Samson. Maybe Ajinkya Rahane to skipper and Umran Malik to bowl smoke. Crikey, they’d beat most international teams; they’d certainly flog the next-best Australians. By their abundance of talent, and by the game’s enjoying such precedence, India will always trade an advantage in the multi-format world.

But, in the end, it’s always XI versus XI. It’s where Orwell’s timeworn ‘war minus the shooting’ metaphor falls short, because the sporting battlefield is arbitrarily even, the forces are by consent restricted, and efforts at interference stand out – they can even be seen as slightly shameful. Prepare for the Board of Control for Cricket in India to argue that in view of their overwhelming contribution to cricket’s financial health, India should be allowed to field fifteen players to everyone else’s eleven…

Anyway, to the final. Australia’s first glimmer is at the toss, affording Pat Cummins the opportunity to bat under the lights. Three of the four cup games, and both IPL finals, have been won by the pursuers, so the gamble seems worthwhile; nor is it so mercilessly hot that 50 overs in the field will be a punishment. Then, a tiny portent. Mitchell Starc’s second ball floats wide in search of shape back. Rohit Sharma thrashes and eyes swivel to the point boundary. But Travis Head, right where the data says he needs to be, tracks speedily left and saves two runs. And even as the Indians strain to get loose, they go on feeling an Australian check. At eight an over, they exceed their Cup power play average. But the Australian fielding probably saves a further 20 runs, and heralds the breakthrough, Head catching Rohit, running back, diving forward, celebrating perfunctorily. This, as Head described it later, was cricket in the best Australian vein. Thought he had no chance. Had a go anyway. Was surprised to catch it. Wasn’t inclined to make a fuss.

Two balls on from the Powerplay, India lose a third, and Australia are suddenly three further wickets from that invitingly elongated home tail: number eight Shami, whose highest score in 100 ODIs is 25; number nine Bumrah, whose highest score in 88 ODIs is 16. Sure, there’s SKY to come, but he’s unproven in ODIs, and hardly a like-for-like swap with Hardik Pandya. So, now it is circumstances, as well as the Australians, bearing down on India’s fourth wicket partners. Cummins distributes the bowling load widely; the part-timers get off lightly; the fielding, a couple of overthrows aside, remains wonderfully vigilant. India find themselves in a game; it’s a while since they have been.

Though the cameras dwell on Virat Kohli’s handsome features as he achieves his fifth consecutive score of 50 or more, the game has commenced an arc away from the hosts. Whether Kohli and K.L. Rahul spent too long over their runs will long be debated; after all, people still wonder whether Mike Brearley and Geoffrey Boycott spent too long over theirs in the 1979 final. I’m more inclined to be forgiving: the design flaw of the order was always bound to catch up with India at some stage, likeliest of all in the final against the strongest opposition. Kohli, generally so decisive, seldom if ever drags on – a dismissal characteristic of conglomerated thoughts. Now he does, and Ravindra Jadeja, with so little recent batting, is all at sea against the reversing ball. It all gets very messy until last-man-picked Marnus Labuschagne ends it with his fourth run out of the tournament.

Now it’s over to Australia’s other selection long shot, Head, included in the squad while still convalescent, and having gone six weeks without a hit before reappearing against New Zealand in Dharamshala. Thanks to the dew, 240 is effectively 210; thanks to Head, Australia take 15 off Bumrah’s first over. Australia are three down after seven overs but have already reduced the required run rate to 4.5. Shami’s lethality to left-handers does not prevent Head from picking two boundaries off him in the last over of the Powerplay, affording Labuschagne time to settle the way he likes; in fact, Head has a 58-ball fifty by the time Labuschagne first finds the boundary.

You’ve seen all this, so further detail is probably superfluous. So let’s just concentrate on that brooding atmosphere, that eddying disbelief. When cricket and crowd feed off one another in India, there can be a feeling of playing against a whole country. Quiet, such as that now pervading Modi Stadium, is oppositely telling. The crowd know it. They ache to cheer, but cannot cajole themselves into doing so. As Glenn Maxwell and Labuschagne complete the winning run, the hush renders the cries from the Australian dugout audible.

Now, a realist could well argue that India won this World Cup anyway: they were able to round around the rest of the cricket world like traffic cones for six weeks; they will rake off almost four in every ten dollars the tournament generated. 1983 portended great cricket change; 2023 confirms little more than that Australia is represented by an experienced, spirited, resourceful cricket team, that is even now coming to the end of its life cycle. The balance of global cricket power, politically, demographically and economically, is fundamentally undisturbed; the BCCI and BJP will remain separated by a fag paper; the international game will continue as an elite racket. Cricket’s World Cup had ten teams and 48 matches; football’s next World Cup will have 48 teams and 104 matches.

But there’ll be a satisfaction elsewhere today at India finishing second – the same satisfaction experienced when Australia, in its pomp, was bested, every so often (2001 in India, 2005 in England etc). Nobody now would remember the Titanic had it simply arrived in New York; India hitting an Australian iceberg is an infinitely superior sporting story.

India today is as much a ‘birthplace of giants’ as England ever was. Gandhi, Ambedkar, Nehru, Sardar Patel. Rabindranath Tagore, Amitabh Bachchan, Ravi Shankar, Mother Teresa. Narendra Modi, can you hear me? Your boys took a hell of a beating!

Gideon Haigh has been a journalist for almost four decades, has published more than 40 books and contributed to more than 100 newspapers and magazines. He is also co-host of the podcast Cricket, Et Cetera.