The World Cup has gone from being an event in the future with its administrative confusions, to one in the past, full of might-have-beens. In between it showed the best the 50-over game has to offer, suggesting the format isn’t ready to roll over and die yet. Had India won, we could have said this with greater confidence, for what India thinks today others do tomorrow.
The script was hammered out by everyone from the ruling party and the cricket board to the broadcasters and fans, some of whom were willing to pay up to five lakh for tickets, air fare and hotel rooms. There is an innocence in believing that the best team always wins and that half a million is small price to pay for the ‘I-was-there’ bragging rights.
But this is sport. Unexpectedness and upsets are what it thrives on. We might have been led to believe – by television, media, even some politicians – that there was only one team in the tournament. World Cups remind us that we must distinguish between hope and hubris.
The gods of cricket love to lead us on and then drop us with a thud, laughter echoing in the background. It happened to the West Indies in 1983 when India surprised them. It happened to England in 1992 when they lost to Pakistan, and Australia in 1996 when Sri Lanka won. And to India themselves each time they failed in this century.
India dominate world cricket; their word, even gesture, is law. They bully and wheedle while bringing in and spending more money than any other country. But they can’t control the result of a match, and for that we must be grateful.
Australia were the underdogs, a situation they are not familiar with and don’t accept easily. They took the bigger risks – starting from the decision to bowl on winning the toss to taking Jasprit Bumrah for 15 in his first over. They played like India had throughout the tournament, confident that someone would always deliver.
When Virat Kohli was bowled, his face anticipated the despair and hopelessness Indian supporters would feel in a few hours. Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun, he seemed to say, for nothing now can ever come to any good.
The crowd (92,000 according to one estimate and 1,30,000 according to Ravi Shastri, a good man to have around when hype and noise are the order of the day) had thinned out. But from the remainers, there was some applause for Australia. Otherwise it was the embarrassing silence, even tiresome heckling, that has been a feature of this tournament.
It was a strange crowd, willing neither to cheer the visitors when they were up nor the home team when they were down. Silence was its calling card, triumphalism and hubris its core value. The process meant nothing, the product was all.
Even as the disappointed left the stadium, the chief guest, looking glum in the stands, could not. The glumness was understandable. He would not be able to speak of a ‘New India’ or say how cricket was invented in India along with democracy and space travel.
Whatever the crowd numbers, it was significant for the one who wasn’t there – Kapil Dev, captain of the first Indian team to win the Cup. He wasn’t invited by the Board of Control for Cricket in India. Hubris? Oversight? Pettiness? Punishment for once supporting wrestlers protesting against an official? Invitation lost in the post?
However churlish the crowds or the officials might have been, the players were magnificent. They exploded a popular myth. There is no such thing as ‘momentum’ in sport. Each day is a fresh start.
Of the four Indian teams that made it to the final (1983, 2003, 2011 before this one), this was the best, with many candidates for an all-time India XI. Some will not get another crack at the Cup, a significant gap in the biodata of men like Rohit Sharma, one of the best. Sport can be cruel.
Four years from now in the next edition of the tournament in South Africa and Zimbabwe, India will have a new captain, a new coach, a new team. But the old hopes will remain. And, one suspects, the old hubris too.