February 6, 2011

It all began in South Africa

Indian cricket's most successful era was ushered in at the 2003 World Cup, with some effigy-burning, banana-barfing, and sleepless nights for Tendulkar

For the generation of Indians to whom 1983 is a hand-me-down fairy tale, there is always 2003. Agreed it is a consolation prize, but a pretty sweet one. Sourav Ganguly's team had something.

We now regard the side and that campaign with a certain inevitability, but it wasn't like that at the time. It had been, in fact, a rather worrying lead-up to the World Cup. On the flat pitches at home, the bowlers were swatted about by the West Indians, who registered a 4-3 upset. A little later, in New Zealand, when all the help was for the bowlers, the batsmen couldn't cope. They were hammered 2-5.

When the team returned home from that series, the last one before the World Cup, the message from the Indian board was clear: instead of being sent a chauffeur-driven car, then coach John Wright recounts in his lovely memoirs, he had to queue up for a cab at the airport.

Things scarcely got better on reaching South Africa. They had a long camp, but in the warm-up they couldn't last 50 overs against the third XI of KwaZulu Natal. They lost the game. Their tournament opener was against the Netherlands. They won, but still couldn't last 50 overs. In their first serious match, the Australian bowlers shot them out for 125 and won with 28 overs to spare.

By now, a great anger had spread among fans back home - those were also angrier years. Apart from the formality of effigies, Mohammad Kaif's house was vandalised, as was Rahul Dravid's car. It fell to Sachin Tendulkar to issue a press statement calling for calm and patience, just as he was sent those days to placate the rogue sections when there was crowd trouble at stadiums.

This was the background to India's World Cup campaign of 2003, which in effect began in Harare against Zimbabwe with Tendulkar's statement. He also made one with the bat, making 81. And Ganguly, fuelled by that familiar combination of competitiveness and destiny, took three wickets with his first 15 balls to seal the match. Against Namibia a few days later, both of them scored large centuries en route to a thumping victory.

I remember watching this game at the airport in Mumbai. An emergency separation from my appendix had delayed my departure for South Africa. Watching this old pair was reassuring for another reason. Ganguly had dropped himself down to No. 3, from where he would score three centuries in the tournament (all, however, against the "minnows"), but the demotion was more relevant because of Tendulkar's ascension to the opening slot. Tendulkar batting at the spot of his choice is the best tonic for the Indian one-day team - a lesson that Greg Chappell and Dravid failed to learn for the 2007 World Cup.

Durban, where I landed, was base camp for the Indian team, an appropriate one, for as in Trinidad and Guyana, there is plenty of TLC from the local Indian community for the cricketers. Between the South African Indians, the NRI travellers from the US and the UK, and the increasing number of tourists from India, there was enough to match the traditionally huge contingent of English supporters at Kingsmead. Every Barmy Army chant was countered by the British Bharat Army.

India batted first. This was key because, unlike in the subcontinent, where spinners find it impossible to grip the ball, in South Africa the seamers are able to zing it off an evening pitch. In these conditions India found their new hero Ashish Nehra, whose spell of 6 for 23, straight, swift, slippery, against England, was so memorable that he would name his dog Durban. His more immediate celebration was to barf a banana on the boundary after bowling 10 on the trot.

This was the win, I think, that turned it around. As the electric evening progressed, you could watch the confidence, battered for the last so many months, visibly restore. India needed it because it was close to the 1st of March: Pakistan in Centurion.

This was before the resumption of bilateral cricket. It had been three years since the last encounter. "For one year people have been coming up to me and saying, 'You're playing Pakistan on March 1st'," Tendulkar would say. He did not sleep for 12 nights leading up to the match.

What an innings he played. The signs had all been there. Beyond runs, against England, he'd shown his highest form. He'd sent one pull off Andy Caddick over the stands and on to the road. Now against Pakistan he confronted not just the moment that had given him sleepless nights, but also a tall total, and Shoaib Akhtar, who in this competition had bowled the fastest ball ever recorded.

Success brings feel-good stories, and the media devoted themselves to these. Apparently the team had two bowling captains (Kumble and Srinath), two fielding captains (Kaif and Yuvraj) and two batting captains (Tendulkar and Dravid), and we wrote about this

There isn't much left to say about the three strokes against Shoaib, but why not give it a go? The iconic six came first, a short and wide delivery that, out of nothing but adrenalin, Tendulkar almost jumped sideways at, to tipple it high over wide third man. The next one, a rapid delivery on middle stump, he countered with a whirlpool swirl, sucking it off its line to a perpendicular boundary. The third was sculpture: He met the ball and blocked it; that's all, held the follow-through a split second as it raced down the pitch with Shoaib in the dramatic flow of his follow-through, the flags flying, the horns blowing, the roars roaring.

By the time Shoaib had got his own back, with a superb delivery that exploded onto Tendulkar's ribs, he had hit 98 from 75. Amid a noise shocking for an open ground of only 20,000, Dravid and Yuvraj Singh saw the chase through.

It was a massive release. Songs resounded around the stadium. In the dressing room, the players, unusually, permitted themselves beers, thereafter placing the cans on the floor, naming them for former-players-turned television critics, and crushing them underfoot. For the tournament, India had enlisted sports psychologist Sandy Gordon. One of the things Gordon told them, Wright recalls, is that great teams moved into a "f**k-you mode" during competition. I suppose can-stamping came with it. Not exquisite manners, but then for its entire existence Indian cricket had been criticised for too much manners and too little fire.

The release was also for the ending of the group stage. They had sailed into the Super Six. The harder part began now; but they had a few days to cool off.

I went via several buses to Kimberley, an Afrikaans-speaking diamond town in the heart of the country, to watch West Indies beat Kenya in a small ground on a picnic day before a crowd of schoolchildren. As World Cups are, it was a tournament of contrasts, small teams and small venues as much a part of it as the epic match-ups in storied stadiums. At dawn I bummed a ride with the South African journalist Craig Ray across the Great Karoo, shimmering with its bare, dry heat, and by sundown we were on the Western Cape - Cape Town with its table mountains, its leaves, its blue ocean and its suggestion of hedonism.

At the gorgeous Newlands, India breezed past Kenya.

The action moved back to the east. Here, in successive games they thumped Sri Lanka and then New Zealand.

A lot of little pieces were falling into place now. Tendulkar apart, Virender Sehwag, Kaif, Dravid and Yuvraj had all played decisive innings. More crucial was the hot streak of the seamers. Following Nehra's 6 for 23, Javagal Srinath and Zaheer Khan had decimated the Lankan and New Zealand top orders. Just as Kapil Dev's quartet of swingers were ideal for English conditions, so India's hit-the-deck seamers proved to be right for South Africa. Between them the trio took 49 wickets for 21.

They were fielding well. They were looking fit. There had been no major injuries for a while now. Two years before, Wright, on a beach run with the team in Durban, had remembered beating most of the players: this time he came last. The pair of physio Andrew Leipus and trainer Adrian le Roux is still considered the best the Indians ever had. A young biomechanist, Shyamal Vallabhjee of Durban, was so appreciated by the team that they chipped in for his accommodation through the tournament.

Success brings feel-good stories, and the media devoted themselves to these. Apparently the team had two bowling captains (Kumble and Srinath), two fielding captains (Kaif and Yuvraj) and two batting captains (Tendulkar and Dravid), and we wrote about this. We wrote about the vital bonding routine that comprised bowlers-versus-batsmen volleyball matches; and the no-less vital bonding routine that was "the huddle".

Fortune seemed to favour India as well. Thanks to a forfeit and two upsets, their opponents in the semi-final were Kenya. Again bowling second under lights in Durban, they romped home.

After a dismal beginning, thus India had lined up eight wins on the trot. Having toppled Steve Waugh's Final Frontiersmen two years previously, Ganguly's side had the reputation to unnerve the Aussies. Now they also had momentum.

It was a dark, dank morning in Johannesburg. The final was hours away. From the hotel gardens, television correspondents provided live weather updates to an anxious and expectant nation. Already, because of the drizzle, all the talk among journalists was about the toss. Ganguly won it. He inserted Australia. What! Did he expect India to chase to win a World Cup final?

Looking at it from a cool distance, it perhaps wasn't all that unjustifiable. It was cloudy, after all; and the seamers were indeed in form. Having batted first against Australia earlier in the tournament had backfired. Even so: did he expect India to chase to win a World Cup final?

There was plenty of talk about team composition too. Shouldn't he have picked two spinners? Spin was the only way; what was Kumble doing on the bench with an extra batsman in the XI? Yet seven batsmen worked well for India. It's just that we had the wrong one. We didn't need Dinesh Mongia. We needed the man they call very, very special, the man who with gentle wrists dissects Australia to expiration. But Laxman was home, never ever to make it to a World Cup squad.

All this is mere talk, the kind that makes cricket go round. The truth was this: India were spiritedly, infectiously good. Australia were bloody great. Adam Gilchrist's opening salvo was a slap. Damien Martyn was a tease. Ricky Ponting was in his pomp. He hit eight sixes. One of those was issued one-handed. Zaheer Khan's over-aggression backfired; Srinath was violated to the tune of 87 runs. Forget Laxman; Jessop, Bradman and Richards would not have chased down 359 against McGrath and Lee.

Amid purple lightning and billowing trees, Ponting's Australians celebrated their utter supremacy. Ganguly's team was done for the day. Expat Indians raged and abused. The cricketers quietly boarded the bus and went home. They weren't, like the boys of 1983, world champions. They did not have the mercurial genius of Imran Khan's side of 1992, nor the pathbreaking ebullience of Arjuna Ranatunga's 1996 winners. Yet they heralded a new age in Indian cricket, its most successful ever, and they were a pleasure to watch. In the event that the batch of 2011 manages to go one better than them, we might do well to remember from where it started.

Rahul Bhattacharya is the author of the cricket tour book Pundits from Pakistan and the novel The Sly Company of People Who Care

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Dummy4 on February 9, 2011, 19:31 GMT

    Bravo! Kudos to bhattacharya who continues to keep his readers breathless with his unmatched grace and awe-inspiring panache.This is best article written in tribute to ganguly's era and it certainly reminds us how the bengal tiger literally created a team of champions to turn around the fortunes of indian cricket.Like he rightly quotes it all actually started at the world cup in 2003,and since then we've seen some amazing wins and splendid performances in indian cricket.Cheers to rahul bhattacharya! Cheers to indian cricket!

  • Dummy4 on February 9, 2011, 17:34 GMT

    The match was lost in the first over of each innings. When Australia were batting Zaheer leaked 15 runs in the first over with out any effort by the Australians. Sachin wanted to finish the match in the first over when we started the chase.

    We never really recovered after the 1st over of each innings.

  • Dummy4 on February 9, 2011, 16:13 GMT

    Yes, excellent article! I like the fact, that you recognize Zaheer Khan's over-aggression cost India very early the match! Don't know why he is the best bowler in the country??? I am sure there are many others!!

    Come on SELECTORS - do your job, for what you are paid for! After 8 years, we still have Zaheer Khan as the spear-head .. it's lousy .. will be surprised if India gets back the QF or the SF at the most! Tendulkar can continue dreaming. Zaheer can continue to think he is the best, when he is the worst of the Int'l lot!

  • Kinshuk on February 9, 2011, 15:43 GMT

    a little after that '03 world cup final south africa chased down 434 successfully on that same ground... i wonder if it was really the bowling that failed that day!!!! "maybe" the pitch was really flat, and the batsmen should have put up a better show......

  • Srinivas on February 9, 2011, 14:56 GMT

    It all began in South Africa? I would agree if the author was trying to talk about India's Freedom Movement. As far as ODI Cricket is concerned, it all started with Kapil Dev in Turnbridge Wells. Nothing comes close to it. Sachin this, Rahul that, Ganguly this and Nehra that and all.....Enough read, heard and said. India beat The Mighty West Indies in 1983 (twice) whereas the 2003 Indian Team lost miserably to a team who are just as or slightly stronger than the Indian Team. So, I disagree completely with the author. If India wins World Cup 2011, let us not delude ourselves that it all started in 2003.We were thrashed in the most comprehensive manner of any World Cup final in the history of the game, if I'm not wrong. So, let us give credit to this team if they achieve something instead of forming loose associations with the losing team of 2003. If the 1983 team doesn't make us believe and inspire, then I don't know what would. Nuff said.

  • Sisnaraine on February 9, 2011, 14:09 GMT


  • Dummy4 on February 9, 2011, 12:54 GMT

    KiwiRocker Tendulkar won India big matches in the 90's infact he got 67 runs in 96 semifinal vs sri before a collapse . media and people like you only noticed his failures from 2002-2007 which is a shame.he averages 55 in finals,Ponting (except 2003 wc final), Inzamam,Dravid have been failures in that respect.Ponting had a 100run opening partnership only Harby troubled him in that final.

  • Dummy4 on February 9, 2011, 12:34 GMT

    Rahul is known for writing very ration and sensible pieces but over here he seems to have fallen to the media hype himself. I am still at a loss to understand what actually began in 2003 ? Since it was ODI tournament i will restrict myself to only ODIs and frankly speaking india's ODI record after that remains average. They did not even qualify for the second stage in WC 2007. A simple comparison with Pakistan would illustrate that point. The same period has been without any debate the worst for Pakistani Cricket team. However, the paki cricket team's W/L ratio is almost the same as India's i.e. 1.2 over the 2003-2011 period. Not only this, but during this period both teams played 33 ODIs with each other. Pakistan won 17 and India 16. So if Rahul thinks this is the golden period of Indian ODI cricket, hats off to him for having a positive frame of mind.

  • vijay on February 9, 2011, 11:44 GMT

    @kiwi: no team can win a world cup with one man...India s no exception..sachin alone cant win the world cup for us...the names u mentioned pontings, jayasuryas, inzamams etc they played major parts but it was oly cos of the contribution of whole team that they won..examples r in 2003 sus had symonds, brett lee , andy bichel who did well in different matches to get them through..srilanka had de silva, ranatunga himself to do that, pakistan had akram, miandad and imran along with inzi to do that....but for india no one did stood up during that big occasion ..even in 96 cup semis as tendulkar got out it was a collapse..2003 too except for sehwag's brilliance no one showed any signs of resistance against the aus attack..not oly in the final but also during the league stages..

  • Rahul on February 9, 2011, 11:03 GMT

    KiwiRocker, you truly are a trash talker. If Sehwag, Yuvraj, Tendulkar, Gambhir, and Dhoni form an average batting order, then Pakistan's batting order are not even school boy cricketers. Let's just wait and see how much 'impact' Afridi and Razzaq actually have.

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