Australia won, India lost. That just about sums up the World Club finals result on Sunday, no matter how the newspapers play it.
‘Champions Nonetheless’ was the headline in The Hindustan Times, ‘Crown on Australia’s Head, Heartbreak for our Heroes’ said The Times of India.
The Times’ front page report talked about ‘An Indian team that had an imperious run up throughout the 2023 ODI World Cup, demolishing all opposition with a gladiatorial swagger, finally had a bad day.’
The Indian team did have a superb run up to the finals, not losing even a single match, but it did not have a ‘bad day’ on Sunday. It was outplayed in every department, not the least in the fielding department – the Australians must have saved many runs simply by their outstanding fielding, the highlight of that being the superb diving catch by Travis Head to dismiss a menacing looking Rohit Sharma.
The Australians played to a plan, even going in to field first, which seemed strange, given that this was an occasion to build a good score and bowl the second team out. But then they held Indians on a tight leash, not allowing them to hit more than 4 fours in the last 40 overs after the abandon with which boundaries were knocked about in the first 10.
And this was on a pitch which the Indian establishment – the all powerful BCCI – had specially prepared to allegedly help the Indians, which the Australian captain, too, reportedly raised concerns about. If the home team too was dissatisfied, it will never be known because no Indian player will ever speak about it publicly.
A similar controversy had erupted before the India-New Zealand semi final match at Wankhede stadium that the pitch had been switched at the last moment because it would help the Indian team.
Nonetheless, the teams got on with it, and the better team won. And, it was a hopelessly one-sided match, which point seems to have escaped much of the reporting on it. This was not a tight game – 240 all out in 50 overs versus 241 for 4 in 43 overs cannot be called that. It was a walkover, in which one side simply could not muster up the skills or the imagination to put up a fair fight. This did not look like a machine in which every component was firing and which had raised the hopes and confidence of every Indian cricket fan. This looked a demoralised, stuttering engine where no one – barring Sharma and the ever reliable Virat Kohli – performed to their true potential. The others, batters and bowlers, simply collapsed. The Australians, who began the tournament with two big losses, against India and South Africa, won nine games after that, including the superb fight back against minnows Afghanistan, when they won after being down 91-7, had begun to peak towards the final.
But more than just the performance on the field with the bat and the ball, the Indian team had to contend with enormous subliminal pressure that went beyond Sunday’s game.
Much has been said about home team advantage – over 100,000 fans fully backing the Indians can be a morale booster. But it can be a burden too. And in Ahmedabad it definitely was an albatross around the Indians’ neck.
Never has there been a more graceless and partisan crowd than in the Narendra Modi stadium in Ahmedabad, which roared every time an Indian player hit a four and did not even cursorily applaud when the Australians took a wicket. Ahmedabad, never among the world’s or even India’s great stadia, has become prominent only to satisfy one man’s ego. Gujarat is his domain where he can do no wrong – he got a stadium refurbished, had it named after himself and opened it for the masses in his state.
Gujarat has no cricket culture like Mumbai or sporting crowds like in Chennai. These things cannot be developed overnight. But it was decreed that Ahmedabad must get India’s biggest stadium and it was done.
This is the same venue where Pakistani player Mohammed Rizwan was heckled and the crowds kept up a chant of ‘Jai Shri Ram’. On the other hand, crowds cheered the Pakistani team when it arrived in Hyderabad.
On Sunday, the organisers goofed on the trophy presentation to the Australian captain and many Indian players left before it, perhaps not wanting to see Pat Cummins lift it. In the Australian media and on X, they had a good laugh about it.
Yet, Ahmedabad was chosen for the final and prime minister Narendra Modi himself took time off from his busy schedule to attend, no doubt convinced that the Indians would win and he would be on the ground handing over the cup. His home minister, Amit Shah, whose son just happens to be running the super rich BCCI, was with him. Scattered in the VIP seats, were sundry Bollywood superstars such as Shah Rukh Khan and Deepika Padukone, former cricketers like Sachin Tendulkar sitting with the Sadhguru and such like. Kapil Dev, who captained the team in 1983 when India won the first World Cup, was not invited.
All through the tournament, the media, especially the electronic one, have further built up the Indian team as invincible. The other teams might as well be non-existent. Gone are the days when the media was full of realistic commentary and debate about the form of each team – this time it was only about the Indian team.
The entire effort is to build up the narrative of India über alles, as India, which is now Bharat (tricolours in the stadium called it just that), is the greatest in every field – in science, culture, medicine, economy, and wisdom. Barring a break of ‘a thousand years of slavery’ that ended in 2014, India was always the font of all knowledge and now things are back on track. The media amplifies this message and the devotees lap it up. It all feeds right into the hyper-nationalism that has been built up by the current political dispensation. Everyone is happy – the public because it gives them something to hold on to, the politicians because it is to their advantage.
Victory in Ahmedabad on Sunday would have pumped it up further. Undoubtedly, the message would have gone out – this was the first time India had ever won the Cricket World Cup and it was only because of one man’s efforts, vision and leadership.
One almost feel sorry for the Indian cricket team. It is full of enormously talented players, and is top of the heap in all forms of the game. It had a great run up to the finals on Sunday. It did not win, because the other team performed better. But the pressure it must have been under can get down anyone – not just the weight of expectations of the fans which is normal in any big match, but also the feeling that by losing, it will be letting down the nation itself.