The figure 183 is very famous in Indian cricket; it is a number that makes the eyes of cricket fans sparkle and sends tingles down their spines, more than 18 years after it was notched up to become part and parcel of Indian cricket's greatest triumph. But then, syrupy sentiment should be wrenched apart from what is harsh reality. And that is why, when the Indian team was dismissed for 183 in the Standard Bank tri-series final against South Africa at Durban on Friday, we were not happy, notwithstanding the delightful nostalgia involved with that number. We knew that, for every time a total in this region has been defended successfully, there are probably 10 times when it has not.
Yes, another defeat in a tournament final is something to be unhappy about, and the Indians will soon have to do something to rip off the choker's tag. But there is no cause to be too harsh with the team. They came to the title clash with a 3-3 record in the league; honestly, did we expect them to win?
And so it proved. To be candid, the Indians were up against it once Sourav Ganguly and Sachin Tendulkar were dismissed with 31 runs on the board. The over-dependence on just a few players cost Indian cricket dearly yet again. When will the reserve strength of Yuvraj Singh, Virender Sehwag, Reetinder Singh Sodhi and Ajit Agarkar accept the fact that they have had enough opportunities to come good and are still not delivering? Breezy little 20s will not do; they have to rise to the occasion by taking charge of the innings, should the need arise. When I look at the chances some of the youngsters these days are getting and think back to the time when cricketers who were more worthy did not get even half the opportunities, I feel more than a tinge of sadness both for them and the present lot.
Ganguly and Tendulkar have an outstanding record, especially in this competition where they put up partnerships of 258, 193, 101 and 44. By the Law of Averages, they were bound to fail, though it was a pity that it had to come about in the final. But what did the second line of defence do when a golden opportunity to be a hero presented itself? VVS Laxman, Yuvraj and Agarkar came up with 14 runs between them. The match, as a contest, was over at that point. Anil Kumble and Harbhajan Singh again did a commendable job, but they needed some kind of total to back them up. Lord's 1983 and Sharjah 1985 will not keep repeating themselves; those were near-miracles, and miracles, as everyone knows, happen all too infrequently.
Yes, another defeat in a tournament final is something to be unhappy about, and the Indians will soon have to do something to rip off the choker's tag. But there is no cause to be too harsh with the team. They came to the title clash with a 3-3 record in the league; honestly, did we expect them to win? Okay, we have some superstars and a bunch of talented youngsters. But then, the South Africans are a pretty formidable outfit too. A side that possesses the likes of Gary Kirsten, Jacques Kallis, Lance Klusener, Herschelle Gibbs, Shaun Pollock, Nantie Hayward, Jonty Rhodes and Mark Boucher is a very strong all-round side. Too often, in our blind loyalty to the Indian team, we lose track of this. If we are tigers at home, so are the South Africans in their own country. India lost to them in the Standard Bank series five years ago. In 1992-93, the one-day series was lost 2-5 to a side that was still feeling its way in international cricket after a two-decade-long lay-off. Friday's defeat was not a disastrous one, like losing to Kenya the other day or getting beaten by Zimbabwe in the last World Cup. India lost to a better team; but did they have to go down so tamely? Admittedly, the one worrying factor is that they went down without a fight, succumbing to the pressure.
Trying to pinpoint reasons for the defeat, Ganguly has admitted that he does not know of any solutions. The smart thing to do would be to not worry too much about this defeat. The Indians should put it behind them and concentrate on the Test series. They will have to raise the level of their game to a higher plane and, having lost the battle, they could still win the war. After all, we did mention something about miracles happening now and then. So why not now?