A belated glimpse of India's ability
Ah, India, we've been expecting you. And this is how you arrive. Two days after even your captain, the man who loves to strike when everybody else has given up hope, had given up, not desperate enough to even check the playing conditions for some backdoor route. At a time when you are struggling to put four fit bowlers on the field. Two days after your captain said you needed to restrict oppositions to 200 to win the game, given how bad the batting had been. And now you chase 321 in 36.4 overs, the quickest such achievement with 300-plus totals. And now you wait for three days, hoping you have inflicted enough psychological damage on Sri Lanka that they lose again.
However, even if India don't make it to the finals, managing to keep their chances alive for three more days itself is a huge achievement. To just come out on one final day, at a time when it was difficult to enjoy cricket, to put behind them that yearning for home and some time away from constant challenges and scrutiny, to attain a bonus point after their bowlers had been disappointing, it defies belief. Why, on the flight from Sydney to Hobart a few members of the team were making plans of returning home.
Some others, though, felt they had nothing to lose, and they didn't want to hold back. There is something dangerous about those who have lost it all. They become unpredictable. You could have predicted India putting a strong show on the field and restricting Sri Lanka to a gettable target, but not this comeback after having conceded the tournament's first 300.
One of those men with nothing to lose was Virat Kohli, India's only centurion on this tour so far. He spoke about the challenge of such long and unsuccessful tours, how difficult it was to pull themselves up for this last match, well at least they had to play it like it was their last. "It is mentally very tiring," Kohli said. "When you are winning you can stay on tour for five months. You won't mind a single day, but when you are not doing well as a team it is really difficult to hold yourself together mentally.
"Physically it is not that much of a challenge because you have breaks in between. But to hold yourself mentally is the biggest challenge for a cricketer, and I won't say I was not feeling mentally tired or mentally very sad sometimes, but there is no running away from it. You need to get up and come to the field and give your 100% the next day. So I have probably stored in my system that you can't run away from it."
Kohli spent the last two days not thinking about cricket. Just getting away from it all. When his family called from India and spoke about cricket, he hung up. "I said, 'Please don't talk about cricket, please don't tell me to do it in the last game because I am not even thinking of it.' We were all staying as relaxed as possible because to be honest we had nothing to lose. This was one game for us, we had to give it our all. Just wanted to enjoy as much as possible, which didn't go probably our way in the first innings but the way we batted in the second innings I think it is going to lift up the spirits of the team."
From Virender Sehwag to Kohli, there was a freedom to India's play tonight. Clearly they have spent the whole tour playing with doubts in their minds, something that kept holding them back. Yes, Australia were good, but India too didn't try anything different. That resistance was missing. They just ran on a treadmill of defeat. Tonight you felt for the first time on the tour that they were enjoying their cricket. After the game, a few of them took the Segway drinks trolleys, and went around the ground in the cold Bellerive breeze with no one watching. It was a special moment. They got on the trolleys, leaned on the front bar, and spread their arms as if flying. Perhaps the idea of the last match did the trick for them.
"We are going to think each game is the last for us, and we are going to think of every game as do-or-die if we reach the finals," Kohli said. "We are going to be as expressive, I can assure you that. We are not going to think twice before trying to do something and not going to hesitate so if we do make it to the finals we are going to play like we did today."
What kept them subdued then? "Sometimes if you are not playing well, and if you are committing the same mistakes, you tend to go into a shell which is really difficult to come out of, but you need to take that extra risk like we did today to come out of that shell," Kohli said. "I can tell you that we have, and hopefully if we reach the finals then you will see a totally different Indian team out there."
What happened once India came out of the shell was something special. Mahela Jayawardene, a helpless fielding captain tonight, was reminded of Adam Gilchrist's onslaught against Sri Lanka in the World Cup final of 2007. For Kohli it was clearly his best ODI innings. Being so free in the mind is not a formula you can achieve. You can't simulate do-or-die situations everyday. The challenge for India, not only on this tour, which may or may not end in three days, is to find that mix of enjoying the game to go along with the skill, which remains an equally big ask.
Edited by Siddarth Ravindran
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo