It all began in South Africa
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.
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.
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