India may not have won, but it will go down as the greatest team never to win the ICC Men’s Cricket World Cup — like the great Brazilian football team in the 1982 FIFA World Cup. Every time the Socrates-led side stepped onto the pitch, resplendent in canary yellow and blue, they mesmerised the world with their skills. So much so that they became the most loved team in history, with the champions Italy relegated to a mere stat.
Similarly, for six weeks, this Indian team was the best show playing across towns in India. The stars lived a dream. And they made a billion-plus people a part of it. Sunday was supposed to be the day of their coronation and it will be impossible not to feel an ache while looking back at the final. But this should not reduce the sheen of what has been an otherwise flawless campaign; for 40 days, Rohit Sharma & Co. played with a spirit that’s unmatched by any other Indian team over the decades.
Several things will stick in the mind for a long time. Captain Sharma’s languid demeanour, his slightly hunched but powerful shoulders, and fascinating cricketing brain. For a man who deleted the social-media apps from his phone earlier this year to avoid distractions, he has been a viral sensation.
There was Virat Kohli, wowing with his energy, urgency, and his insatiable appetite for runs and wins. He was India’s on-field cheerleader, getting the crowds fired up, and lifting the team’s morale. He was often at Rohit’s ear, offering suggestions during mini crises. The heartbreaking visual from the World Cup final too was his — standing frozen, after inside-edging a ball on to his stumps, neither he nor the silenced crowd able to believe what their ears and eyes told them.
K L Rahul, the vice-captain, also stood out. Positioned behind the stumps, arms moving around like antennas, adjusting the field, advising on reviews. He was also India’s man for a crisis, turning around iffy positions with his bat. He did his best in the final too, but couldn’t overcome the vagaries of the pitch.
And there was Ravindra Jadeja — on high alert all the time, diving and scurrying, protecting the 30-yard circle or patrolling the boundary. He also tightened the noose on the opponents with the ball. Young Shreyas Iyer, who was supposed to be hunted down by bouncers, stood tall to wallop out hundreds, earning respect in his boy-to-man journey in this tournament.
There was the marauding Mohammad Shami, running in like a breeze, the ball snaking as it left his hand. The batsmen ducked and swayed, defending for their life. And his partner-in-crime, Jasprit Bumrah, sending grenades down the batsmen’s feet, his angles and accuracy a part of cricketing folklore and case studies at IITs.
Then there was Rahul Dravid, a poster boy for intensity in his playing days, but who, as his coaching stint progressed, started to chill. He was wisecracking in media interactions, could be seen joking at the dug-outs, and backed his captain to the hilt. As a player, he had led a disastrous World Cup campaign in 2007 and seemed determined to earn his redemption in this edition as a coach. But it wasn’t to be.
This wasn’t the greatest collection of talent Indian cricket has produced but these players complemented each other so superbly that they played as if they owned the world, winning by margins that were previously unheard of and schooling the other teams.
Alas, in the heartbreaking defeat in the World Cup final to Pat Cummins’ side, India confronted the grittiest, most unforgiving virtue of sport — Australianism. This term finds no mention in dictionaries but Indian fans won’t need to refer to one in order to understand what it means. A generation that is still showing signs of PTSD following the 2003 World Cup final was made to go through the trauma once again. Newer generations, either not born or too young to feel that pain, were rudely introduced to the concept and are unlikely to recover from the experience anytime soon.
Across sports, whether individual or team, Indians routinely win. But they seldom dominate. Indeed, no Indian team has come close to matching the ruthlessness of Dhyan Chand’s wizards. And other than the man himself, it’s hard to think of anyone who will achieve a wire-to-wire win with the grace and nonchalance of Neeraj Chopra.
But this Indian cricket team came close to Dhyan Chand’s wizards. This was a team that appealed to the masses. They put on a show for the paying public, who came in their thousands despite the opaque processes of the cricket board and state associations that made watching a match from the stadium feel like a real-life Super Mario challenge.
They even took fans inside the dressing rooms, with behind-the-scenes footage after each match, where fielding coach T Dilip can be heard giving nicknames to the players. Those short clips projected the softer side of the players who were merciless on the ground.
As a band, this Indian team won’t be forgotten. From Bumrah the smiling assassin to the goofy Sharma who dazzled as an attacking opener and a wise leader, and the statesman-like Kohli, who steadfastly stood by Shami against vicious trolls and gave his autographed jersey to Pakistan’s now-ex-captain Babar Azam in full public view on a rare evening when a section of the Indian
One wonders whether Sunday’s disappointment will act as a springboard for an era of dominance with Gill, Iyer, and Rishabh Pant at the helm. Or if it’s a case of the flame burning brightest just before it goes out, with Rohit, Kohli and Shami nearing the end of their ODI careers. Whatever direction they take, this class of 2023 won’t be forgotten; imperfect endings are romantic in their own way.