Other than the 1983 win, India's high noon at the World Cup would have to be their victory against Pakistan at the Centurion in 2003. Senior pros from that side - Sourav Ganguly, Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid and Yuvraj Singh among them - have often rated this game among the greatest moments of their careers.
The India-Pakistan match was the marquee event of the early stages of the 2003 World Cup. Everyone knew it was coming for more than a year, and the temperature around it kept growing. It was played against the background of simmering political differences between the two countries. From a cricket standpoint, for players on both sides it was an occasion to stand up and be counted, another opportunity to become a national hero.
On the outside, an overflowing Centurion witnessed a cracker of a game. India chased down a formidable score. Tendulkar, in prime form, handed Wasim and Waqar a lesson they will probably never forget.
What happened on the inside was made up of many layers and levels. This is what happened on the days leading to the day India has not forgotten.
Rahul Dravid faces the press at practice and tries to temper his comments and control the temperatures. "We see it as an important World Cup game. But it is like any other game of cricket, played with a bat and ball, played over 22 yards with 22 players." The players are under stress, because they must they play well above themselves, yet keep their emotions in check. Inflaming passions either on the field or at home will not be looked on kindly.
At a sponsors' lunch that day, Yuvraj Singh and Virender Sehwag rib their captain and you can see the anxiety within the team release a little. The weight of the match is forgotten for a bit and everyone has a laugh. Sourav complains, with a smile on his face, that kids don't respect their elders these days. "Nobody would have dared behave so freely with Mohammad Azharuddin." Yuvraj offers up a fake apology with more laughter.
Sourav, who has played in several India-Pakistan matches, says of the World Cup meeting: "One of these days, someone will have a heart attack." We often hear tales of it happening amongst viewers, so maybe he is referring to the team.
Pakistan manager Shaharyar Khan enquires about his cousin, Tiger Pataudi, and is surprised to know he is in Cape Town for a cricket show anchored by Mandira Bedi. Shahryarsaab does not know Mandira Bedi (nor does Tiger, I presume) but the two will meet after the game, it is hoped. Wasim Akram, 500-plus wickets in ODIs, is told that he should go for a thousand, and laughs: "That is impossible. As it is I need a stretcher and an ambulance to come to the ground."
Like Sourav, coach John Wright too is a worried man. Neither Indian nor Pakistani, the stress visible on his face, he is somewhat weighed down by the huge impact this game could have on the World Cup. A win will inject enormous self-belief but a loss would be a crippling setback. The key, he says, is discipline, and the best way to confront an intuitive but unfocused Pakistan is, he believes, through controlled cricket. Be tight and professional, he says in the meeting the day before the game. Allow the opposition to self-destruct. Defeat them with both passion and precision.
On the day of the match, the team is to leave the hotel at 7.50am but many players are early at breakfast, a sign that this is not "just another game". Breakfast has been moved from the coffee shop to the special team room at the hotel, to keep the fans out of the players' hair and their expectations out of the players' faces. Breakfast is eaten in silence but there is lively action at the TT table. Mohammad Kaif routs computer expert Sriram with aggressive forehand strokes, then announces he is ready to take on No. 1 seed Sachin Tendulkar, who meanwhile is focused on his fruit and cereal.
Once breakfast is done, the team make their way to the waiting bus, through a side exit to escape the crowd in the lobby. The kitbags are already loaded on. Tendulkar, Ganguly, Dravid, Kaif and Sehwag arrive carrying their music players and match bats. What can players possibly do with their bats in hotel rooms the night before games? Play shadow-defence? Practise imaginary drives? Or just keep them next to their pillows? Much like soldiers, who never let go of their weapons.
"At a sponsors' lunch, Yuvraj Singh and Virender Sehwag rib their captain and you can see the anxiety within the team release a little. The weight of the match is forgotten for a bit and everyone has a laugh. Sourav complains, with a smile on his face, that kids don't respect their elders these days"
The Pakistan team is already at Centurion. They appear nicely settled. There is loud music blaring from their dressing room. Akram notices the Indians getting off the bus and waves. Both teams quickly get down to business - quite literally, as they descend 64 steps from the pavilion to the ground. Supervised by respective physios/trainers, the teams go through identical conditioning and fielding drills. The Indians are not the most athletic team in the competition, but compared to the Pakistanis they look a cut above, fitter, faster. Saeed Anwar, Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis, all great players, belong to what one Indian player described the "slow-motion era of cricket".
Referee Mike Procter drops in to have a chat and first gently reminds players about completing overs in time and making sure batsmen cross on the field. Then he switches to the more serious business and delivers a subtle message. "This match," he says in a grave voice, "is a huge opportunity to perform and also a great responsibility towards cricket and your country."
Then comes the next reminder. After the toss, the teams are asked to meet on the ground, shake hands and exchange souvenirs just before the batsmen go in. Ali Bacher was keen to make this sort of statement and both teams had in theory accepted it. There is a glitch, though: one of our senior players questions the wisdom of the gesture. His argument: if this is just another game, why must we make a statement? Why is the ICC behaving like the UN? There is a bit of a delay. The photographers wait, lined up near the bottom of the stairs to record the event.
With time running out, the players decided to just get the thing done with, instead of obsessing over it. A sudden cancellation by India will be misunderstood as a deliberate snub to Pakistan. So Waqar and Sourav exchange ties, the players shake hands, an overflowing Centurion cheers enthusiastically. It is all over in less than a minute.
When play begins, Saeed Anwar speeds off like a Ferrari, and when the runs pile up at rapid pace there is a complete collapse of body language among the Indian guests at Centurion. Raj Singh Dungarpur, in a state of deep despair, thinks the boys look tired and jaded. "Our players are not strong. They need rest, not nets, before a match," he says. Rajbhai marches off purposefully to the dressing room to tell John Wright he should ease up, not try to make Indian cricketers Olympic athletes.
Pakistan march to 273, and most experts think this is too much of a mountain to climb. "Too many," Rajbhai says mournfully. One guest, completely distraught, wants to take an early flight back to India because he does not want to witness another defeat. Someone else, more militant, suggests the team should be thrown off Vijay Mallya's jet without parachutes. Mallya, dressed in white linen, diamond studs in one ear, mobile phones in both hands, refrains from expressing an opinion.
After lunch comes dessert: Sachin Tendulkar, launching an innings like a batsman at nets after the coach has announced "last round". Ordinary batsmen may play each ball on merit but Tendulkar plays according to his will. We are all stunned by the ferocity and the audacity of his strokeplay. Here is a master on top of his game, ill-treating the world's bowlers. It is edge-of-the-seat, riveting stuff.
Shoaib Akhtar runs in from a mile, like Ben Johnson, but when the ball disappears quickly off Sachin's bat, he takes an hour getting back to his mark. Waqar, caned mercilessly by Sachin, can only stare helplessly. Akram looks as if he cannot believe what is happening. Sourav is tense, claps excitedly for each run scored, holds his special taveez (amulet), recites prayers, does every superstitious routine he knows.
Stricken with cramps, Sachin is in pain. Physio Andrew Leipus gives him a rehydrating drink and stretches the hamstring but the pain persists. He falls on 98, fending a short ball, unable to get out of the way of one that leapt at his throat sharply. He makes the long walk back in slow motion, and pain. He is limping. In the dressing room he slumps onto a stool next to the food counter. He is sweating profusely, drained physically and emotionally, staring blankly ahead, his eyes looking liquid. Nobody goes near him.
Normally, after a match-winning innings, players celebrate, shout, scream with delight and rejoice when the batsman who has done the deed, returns. But not a word is said here. Sachin watches his dismissal replayed on the TV screen. After a long time, John Wright goes across and pats him on the back but says nothing. Someone helps him take off his pads. Sourav claps silently from a distance.
After a few hiccups, India wins, and only then does the silence in the dressing room break. There are high fives all around, clapping, shouting, hugs and handshakes. Sourav sprints down to greet the not-out batsmen, Yuvraj and Dravid, as they come in. The Pakistanis, slowly walking up the 64 steps, reach across to congratulate the Indians. Abdul Razzaq and Saeed Anwar come into the Indian dressing room to congratulate the players. Sourav wants the entire team out for the presentation. Barring a tired Dravid, the boys go down to the field. Sachin, recovering from cramp, walks with a limp. He is greeted with a cheer so loud it could be heard in Pretoria, many, many miles away.
Players hang around in the dressing room, to stay in the moment. John tells the boys to let the match and the thrilling win sink in. Some Amstel is passed around and is refused by most; some brave ones have a swig, grimace and move to Diet Pepsi. Sanjay Bangar and Sehwag, the most faithful teetotallers, are chided by a senior team-mate: "For how long are you guys going to be drinking milk and butter milk, boss?"
Others are over the moon. John, usually underplayed, unemotional and unexcited, can't conceal his happiness. Sachin calls home and is greeted by wife, Anjali, who holds the phone by the window so that he hears the crackers outside. There is more noise than Diwali, she says. Sourav receives a similar noise report update from his wife, Dona, in Kolkata. Kaif is in a daze, but reports of wild celebration and rejoicing in India leave him a bit cold. Extreme behaviour is not good, he says. What is this? Sometimes abuse, sometimes worship?
Deep reflection can wait. The team knows they have destroyed clichés: about them lacking killer instinct, "crumbling under pressure", "snatching defeat from the jaws of victory". They won not by fluke or chancy umpiring but ruthless, professional play. Tendulkar rates his blistering innings as one of the best of his illustrious career. "This was my day," he says, "From the beginning I picked the ball up early." I ask him whether an inner rhythm determines his style of play. Batting is instinctive, he replies. "Sometimes you feel good from the start, sometimes you struggle, but today there was so much time that balls close to 150 kmph looked like 130kmph".
How important was the Pakistan match for him? I asked and he said, "I have been thinking about this for more than a year."
Eight years later, India still thinks about it.
This article was first published in 2011