Compact and efficient: Rohit’s team is looking so very good
The other teams have stuttered but India are playing like the favourites they were said to be
While it required a heavy dose of anti-nausea pills to recover from the testo-jingo-kool-aid laced TV coverage of Ind v Pak, it is harder to quell the generational anxiety that has crept into the system again. About how reassured, clinical and organised India look at this World Cup. How for every crisis, there’s not one man but several who can and do respond. Rohit Sharma may have sensed this which is why in his post-match chats, he sounds more and more like our national cricket therapist.
When Sanjay Manjrekar suggested to him that no other Indian World Cup team had had such depth in both batting and bowling, Rohit did a smiling sidestep saying, “I am not going there.” After that overcharged, overhyped, overheated match, he says: “This was an opposition we wanted to play against because we want to play quality opposition. Every opposition we come up against in this tournament is quality and can beat you on any particular day. What has happened in the past or might happen in the future doesn't matter too much. You have to play well on that particular day.”
Totally cogent, utterly sane but so un-India when it comes to World Cups. What has uneasily stirred at this time is an institutional memory stretching back into the Dark Ages. Or rather the time before the India-jersey-wearing, forever-pumped, gen-IPL, the people being manically wooed by Star and FMCG companies these days. This almost Pavlovian response comes from the time where the whole cricket world could have mauka-mauka-ed on India. It left our neural responses classically conditioned for the onset of collapse or disintegration which today sends out alarm signals.
Regardless of the sound and fury and eternally sprung hope with which India usually travelled to World Cups, what followed was madly teetering performances that went from belief-battering ridiculous to sublime unfettered optimism before reality struck.
The first time India hosted any World Cup, 1987, it was shared with the Pakistan board to ensure there were enough grounds between the two so that so many teams could play so many matches in a month. In 1987, India began with a one-run defeat to Australia in Chennai and in the next match against New Zealand, the top order was gone, 114 for 5, before Kapil to the rescue. Then came a five-match winning streak before the Wankhede semi-final versus England.
In 1992, India’s World Cup campaign began with a nine-run defeat to England in Perth, a comforting opening stand turned into a familiar stuttering combo of mini-crumbles and four run outs. In their second match, India split points with Sri Lanka in a rained-off match and proceeded to lose to Australia – by one run. They were to come up for air in the next match against Pakistan, defending 216 in Sydney and then beating Zimbabwe, before losing three in a row to West Indies, New Zealand and a South Africa just returned to international cricket and summarily left the competition.
When 1996 looked like it was going to finally be our time again, the roller coaster cranked into motion –two wins, backed up by two defeats, again two wins and then the Eden Gardens semi-final against Sri Lanka. In 1999, India’s tournament run reads thus: LLWWWLWL and good bye even to the semis. In 2003, a nervy start against Netherlands, was followed by wretched collapse against Australia in Centurion. After that there was eye-rubbing disbelief as Ganguly’s lads won eight on the bounce and made it to India’s second ever final, before folding out of relief and over-enthusiasm against the Aussies. Oh well.
As for 2007, everyone remembers or rather tries not to. Then came 2011, which technically began in triumph in Bangladesh, but the first home game in Bengaluru was a tie in defence of 338. In the next two matches, chasing 207 and 189, India lost five wickets both times before staggering over the line. In Nagpur, India stumbled to 296, which included a 9-29 at the tailend, handsomely beaten by South Africa. This before they rose to their full height in the knock-outs and brought the title home.
Then it gets seriously weird: in 2015, India won all seven group matches being knocked out in the semi-finals. In 2019, played in the round robin format, India made the semi-finals by winning seven, losing one (one abandoned) and was stopped by New Zealand. There’s a large number of us who know this history by heart which is why our nerves are slightly on edge now.
A few days ago, statistician Mohandas Menon put out a startling fact on his X file: that since the 2011 win, India has won more World Cup matches (16 wins in 19 completed matches) than any other team. New Zealand are behind them (P22W17L5) with Australia third (P20W14L6). Pakistan (P17W11L6) have done better than defending champs England (P19W11L8). Here India’s methods and patterns scattershot all the way to 2011, appeared to have come into shape. What was missing in the knockouts was the finishing punch.
In 2023, Rohit Sharma’s team is looking compact and efficient – a good distance from the words usually used to describe India - talented, exciting, unpredictable. While they are indeed talented and exciting, the unpredictable has been pushed into the corner which is what makes India, backed by home advantage and fan support, appear unstoppable.
Before any World Cup – football, cricket, rugby – I check betting odds from legit sites. Not to part with money but to get a sense of the temperatures around teams. Two weeks into this World Cup, it’s gone a bit bonkers: England had started as No. 2 favourites, followed by Australia and Pakistan. In the second week, South Africa are no. 2 ahead of New Zealand and Australia. England have slid to 8-1/ 9-1 and Pakistan is 10-1.
The only constant are favourites India, the odds being offered on them slipping lower with every win. What began as a 2-1 bet is now paltry: for every rupee / dollar/ pound you bet on India to win the Cup, the max you’ll get is between 1.1 or 1.25, your ‘gain’ between 10 or 25 paise/ cent/ pence. I can’t remember a time during any World Cup that there was such a certainty about India ending up champions. It’s the on-field performances that are moving these odds and while it is impressive, some of it also feels frankly, terrifying. We have never been here before.
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