Champions, nonetheless

ByVivek Krishnan, Ahmedabad
Nov 20, 2023 05:50 AM IST

India's cricket team may have lost the World Cup final, but they entertained fans throughout the tournament with their captivating brand of cricket.

When Brian Lara bid an emotional farewell at home in the 2007 World Cup, he signed off by asking a packed Barbados crowd just one question. “Did I entertain you?” If India’s players pose that question, they should get a raucously affirmative response. Maybe not immediately, for Indian audiences tend to be fickle and sentimental. And the instant aftermath of a World Cup final defeat -- Australia beat India by six wickets in Ahmedabad on Sunday -- is a bitter pill to swallow. Especially when India’s quest for an ICC title has been futile since winning the 2013 Champions Trophy.

India's players celebrate after the dismissal of Australia's David Warner at the Narendra Modi Stadium in Ahmedabad on Sunday. (AFP)
India's players celebrate after the dismissal of Australia's David Warner at the Narendra Modi Stadium in Ahmedabad on Sunday. (AFP)

Over the past six weeks, however, India were not just undefeated for 10 matches but played a brand of cricket that captivated the common fan. It filled up large stadiums, even one as gigantic as the Narendra Modi Stadium. Which is why the nearly 100,000 people who flocked to the Motera on Sunday, and the hundreds of millions who watched with rapt attention on television screens and mobile phones were brimming with hope.

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Australia are six-time champions for a reason. Acing big games and winning titles are traits ingrained in their DNA. They came into this match on the back of an eight-game winning run, and just had a bit more ammunition – helped by the dew and conditions getting easier for batting perhaps -- to deliver the final punch.

India, though, did plenty right through the course of this campaign. They batted with the desire to dominate, perfectly exemplified by Rohit Sharma at the top of the order. Having vowed to work on their batting template after failures in successive T20 World Cups in 2021 and 2022, Sharma led from the front – he ends as the second-highest run-getter with 597 runs at an average of 54.27 and an eye-popping strike rate of 125.94. Kohli was at his vintage best all the way through, scoring a staggering 765 runs, while Shreyas Iyer, KL Rahul and Shubman Gill enjoyed highs that will help them forge ahead.

And the way the bowlers went about their task made for thrilling theatre. These were surfaces not meant to assist India’s pacers, but Jasprit Bumrah, Mohammed Shami and Mohammed Siraj enthralled with their sublime blend of swing, seam, and slower deliveries. Ravindra Jadeja and Kuldeep Yadav are a fine spin combine even though their impact on Sunday’s game was limited. In the fielding department too – be it Rahul’s diving catch against Bangladesh or Jadeja’s stunner in the same game – there were several moments to savour.

A campaign as long as this also provides some harsh lessons. Perhaps Suryakumar Yadav is not the right fit in ODI cricket despite a mind-boggling T20 record, for example. He averages 46.02 and strikes at 172.7 with three centuries in the shortest format. In one-day cricket though, he somehow hasn’t translated that into more impressive returns, as an average of 25.76 in 37 matches illustrates. On Sunday, he laboured to a 28-ball 18 in difficult batting circumstances, but there was perhaps a case for unleashing the range of strokes that makes him India’s best T20I batter.

The absence of batting depth is an issue that Indian cricket has had to consider for many years. Which is why the team management insisted on Shardul Thakur at No. 8 at the beginning of the campaign before changing tack and bringing in Shami, who emerged as the highest wicket-taker with 24 scalps, including an Indian ODI best 7/57 in the semi-final against New Zealand.

Heartbreaking endings like the one India had to endure on Sunday can take months to recover from. Sharma and Kohli are unlikely to play another World Cup. The same may hold true for Jadeja, Shami and R Ashwin. Rahul Dravid’s future as coach is also uncertain. But once the dust settles on this exhausting tournament, it would be fitting to say “thank you” to India’s Class of 2023. Yes, you did entertain.

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