Rahul Dravid was smiling. Hands on hip, standing at ease with Vikram Rathour and Paras Mhambrey, and smiling away at something Rohit Sharma cracked. They were watching R Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja whack in the batting nets just outside the biggest cricket arena in the world. A relaxed team management, just two nights away from the biggest day of their careers as coaches and players, against a team that has clinched that trophy five times – that ease stood out.
Just three months ago, this cozy late afternoon chat in Ahmedabad with the backdrop of the Sabarmati River, seemed pretty distant. What had initially seemed a messily organised, rain-marred Asia Cup in Sri Lanka would change everything, but before that tournament, uncertainty was in the air.
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“Mahoul kaisa hai?” (How is the buzz?), Rohit Sharma would ask a couple of us during the camp at Alur, in Bangalore before that Asia Cup. It’s where much of the hard work was done by the Indians, but the world hadn’t seen it yet. And so, when we replied that ‘not sure what the expectations are from this team, right now’, Rohit Sharma raised his eyebrow, held his gaze, and muttered, “Accha hai, accha hai, good if it’s less.”
Rohit hadn’t yet told his team-mates his aggressive batting plan as an opener. Shreyas Iyer was about to make a comeback at No.4, a spot that the team management wasn’t as worried about as the outside world was. Suryakumar Yadav had failed; they had tried Sanju Samson, Hardik Pandya (in an ODI in West Indies), and Ishan Kishan at that spot. Even Axar Patel was tried. It prompted the likes of Ravi Shastri and AB de Villiers to say that Virat Kohli should be tried at No. 4. “Yeh sab hawaa ban jaata hai,” Rohit would shrug off that as a non-issue, saying he has full trust in Shreyas.
Down below, they weren’t sure about R Ashwin’s presence in the team. They had lost a game or two in West Indies where the lower order couldn’t get the handful of runs needed. In what may seem ironic now, Rohit pointed out other teams’ ability to finish games from similar positions as the need to beef up the lower order. Axar seemed in. It was a defensive move as far as the bowling combination went.
That theme was most accentuated by the preference of Shardul Thakur over Mohammad Shami. Conservatism seemed the mood of the management. A sense of apprehension about what could go wrong, and the need to fill those holes was in the air. Dravid and Rohit seemed to have made peace about Ashwin’s exclusion from the original squad, coming to terms with Shami’s absence from the playing XI.
The main man for holding the team balance, bridging the top and middle order was Hardik Pandya. Then the Asia Cup happened. Not just Iyer, but KL Rahul stormed in and that meant Ishan Kishan, who could be a hit-and-miss in terms of effectiveness at this stage in his career, could be slid to the rear end of the squad.
Ironically, two injuries – one before the tournament and the other during it – would change the landscape. Axar’s thigh and Pandya’s ankle have played their part, especially the latter. Axar’s misfortune gave the management time to rethink and though he was in recovery mode, Ashwin was in. Pandya’s made them rearrange the furniture and bring in Shami for Thakur. Suddenly, fangs grew.
Importantly, Rohit had firmed up his own personal batting plan. Cameos generally change the nature of one game; his have transformed the batting unit, infusing purpose, and intent in his team-mates and shock-and-awe in opponents. The impact has been stunning and reflected in Shubman Gill, Virat Kohli, and Rahul not tinkering with their natural games.
In the years to come, when this incomparable Indian world cup campaign is rightly feted and mythologised, especially if they go on to win the final, all this might be forgotten. It would seem as if this was always an unstoppable juggernaut of a team that swooped in to conquer.
The fans have been packing the stadiums across the country to celebrate; Indian wins were already normalised halfway through the tournament. It has all felt like one big party. Even the opposition has left arenas, dazed and in awe. A couple of days before the final, the ever-competitive Steve Smith would say “I don’t know” when asked how to stop the Indians in the final. They will for sure come hard in the final, as they did to the South Africans in the first hour of their semi-final when the Aussies seemed to materialise everywhere on the field. But never before in the history of World Cup finals, at least after the 1975 inaugural edition, have Australia been the underdogs; they will be here for the first time.
Only for a brief while, in the semi-final against New Zealand, during a partnership between Kane Williamson and Daryl Mitchell, did India encounter something they never experienced in this World Cup: silence from the home crowd. ‘It Takes One Day’ is the slogan of the World Cup. Now just one big day remains. What will it bring? Silence or surging joy to the fans?