Dare we Cup dream again?

IF 1983 is a memory, 2003 is not. Not yet. It is a World Cup that just refuses to go away! Since we sentimental Indians love tear-jerkers, do we mope to a point where we cannot cope? Yes and no.

RAJU BHARATAN

Indian captain Sourav Ganguly, coach John Wright and star batsman Sachin Tendulkar reflect on their loss to Australia in the World Cup final . — Pic. AFP-

IF 1983 is a memory, 2003 is not. Not yet. It is a World Cup that just refuses to go away! Since we sentimental Indians love tear-jerkers, do we mope to a point where we cannot cope? Yes and no. That the World Cup is lost is the reality — even if it does not put Ferreira in a Ferrari. "But there always is 2007!'' sayeth the optimist. Well, you have to be a robust optimist to reason that Lady Luck would cuddle you — in a huddle — all the way to the World Cup final, four years from now. Just look at how the white ball swung things for us this time out. Could you again, rationally, hope for a World Cup dispensation by which not one of our matches in the tournament comes to be really affected by the weather? Or by any other extraneous factor? Maybe Sourav's India was `under a cloud', more than once, during our 10 matches leading up to the Wanderers final. But the decimal point remains that the rain did not once, in our case, come down, match tiltingly during play, to subject Sourav's India to the dicey Duckworth & Lewis litmus test.

In fact, there was not a cloud in the sky once Sourav struck that golden vein with the Harare win over Zimbabwe. "The ire of Indian fans'' following that demeaning 9-wicket loss to Australia — as Sourav admits, better now than never — "egged on the boys to play well or else we knew it would have been difficult to come back home.'' What Sourav here is confessing, in effect, is that "fans back home'' helped create, for his low-spirited team, the very kind of "extreme high'' Steve Waugh says puts India on a roll, making them "an unstoppable force''. No, let us face it, World Cup circumstances are not going to so conspire, yet again, as for the Kapil prize to all but land, afresh, in India's laptop. We talk of only the India-unbeatable 175 (137 balls: 6 sixes, 17 fours) that Kapil `Devil-struck' in three hours against Zimbabwe on the Saturday afternoon of June 18, 1983. Conveniently failing to take cognisance of the fact that it was Kapil Dev, as captain, who had himself created the 17-for-5 crunch situation (in that crucial match) by his extraordinary decision to bat first in mythical pursuit of some `run rate' for which his India needed to aim! Maybe the coin did, in the ultimate analysis, roll kindly for Kapil in 1983. As for Sourav in 2003.

Trust 2007 to be not so fortuitous for India. Surely India cannot be third time lucky? So lucky as to rollercoast into the 2007 World Cup final? We got there this time in style. Nowhere in substance we yet were. After the idiot box had sedulously fed us on the myth that the World Cup was India's for the clutching even before the 2003 tournament began — Om Cricketaya Namah!'' Enthusiasm is no substitute for pragmatism. Pragmatism suggests that we are not going to have all the luck in the World Cup, come 2007, as to make it to the final yet again. Father Time cannot be expected to be so obliging anew. Seeing how Sourav & Co failed to seize Time by the forelock in the March 23 moment that mattered. It was World Cupfully rewarding to witness Sourav's neo-India beat a re-drooping Bangladesh (by 200 runs) in the first ODI at Dhaka, next rout a regrouping South Africa (by 153 runs). To how many viewers did it occur that we here outclassed first Bangladesh and then South Africa at Dhaka, the precisely ruthless way Australia outgunned India at the Wanderers?

Aussie captain Ricky Ponting is on record as noting that, once his team had 100 runs more on the board than the 259 for which they had been prepared to settle (upon being inserted on a Wanderers wicket laden with moisture), they had only Sachin to fear. Not one of you tubewatchers could have failed to notice the ultra-grateful gaze by Ricky Ponting, high into the Wanderers sky, as the Ten miscue dropped into Glenn McGrath's feeling-fulfilled paws. Even a target of 360, Ricky well knew, could magically shorten if Ten blazed away in the idiom he had done for India to fashion 50 off 5 overs in the March 1 stand-off with Pakistan. We have since been media enlightened that Ten was in no real physical position to have a `finger' in the 360 pie. The lacklustre manner in which Ten struck that four off McGrath itself suggested that his bat lacked the usual MRF fluency.

But we fantasising Indians day-dream even as the lights appear! Day-dream that the World Cup is in our 360 grasp! Surely, if we could chase a mirage of 274 against a Pakistan attack led by Wasim Akram, we could `fast forward' that target to 360 against one Brett Lee? Not one ball, as it turned out, did Brett Lee get to bowl at Ten. The Cup Final was over in the opening over itself. For a full five weeks had India passed itself off as current rand. Gilly fairly and Ricky squarely were we now devalued — as pretenders to the World Cup peacock throne. On Cloud Nine we were after 8 wins in a row. Everything, but everything, had gone right in 8 matches running. Everything, but everything, had to go wrong in the 9th match that was all-determinant.

Sourav won a toss he would not have minded losing. Having elected to field first, Sourav had to do something different. But he dared not! Precisely because no pace combo in the World Cup had feasted, upon moisture in the surface, as ravenously as had his three quintessential quicks. That Zaheer Khan opened his mouth to put his foot in pit; that Javagal Srinath in his fourth World Cup bowled like a tyro in his first; that Ashish Nehra's dicky legs seemed to give way by the time he came on to retrieve what already looked a lost cause is the rub of the green. For the `men in blue' not so true. Harbhajan (as the Zing Singh vs the Aussies) had Adam Gilchrist (57) and Matthew Hayden (37), not least Ricky Ponting (140 not out), in a `spot' of trouble from the word go. But so abject had been our wayward pace surrender that Ricky and Marty (88 not out) were able to brazen it out. Once Sachin (4) fell in the face of that 359, it just could not be India's day. Only Sehwag 82's day. When we needed, for once, these two openers to be firing together for Sourav (24) to step in and uplift India, as close as possible, to that 360. The `opening' to be the finisher was thus never created for Yuvraj (24 off 34 balls).

The way Australia crushed us in the final was, to me, a rude reminder of what Keith Miller did to Dattu Phadkar on India's 1947-48 tour of Australia. At the reception to the visiting team before that tour got under way, Dattu was pointed out to Keith as India's young fast-bowling prospect in Australia. Whereupon Keith Miller strode up to Phadkar, enquired if he was India's express operator, then held up Dattu by the hollow of his left hand. "Here, take a look at India's fastest bowler!'' announced Keith Miller to the gathering. Dattu Phadkar told me he forgot all about bowling really quick after that humiliating career "hold-up".

Likewise, the 2003 Aussies just held up to ridicule Sourav's India. This when all South Africa was behind India. It might still feel great to rejoice in the fact that we made almost every post a thoroughbred winning one to the final. Such a crumbs-feeding mindset overlooks the fact that we were finally shown up to be out of our World Cup depth, before a record new Sunday afternoon Sony mob, on March 23. There are words of encouragement from well-informed critics about what a great 2007 World Cup-winning team India potentially has. Take it, for now, with a grain of Tata Salt, seeing how we failed to Birla Cement our standing in the final.

Four years is a long haul in the life and times of a cricketing nation. Any prognostication of our growth to World Cup-lifting stature, by 2007, facilely presumes that other nations, no less fiercely competing, are going to refuse to learn from their mistakes. Accept with humility, therefore, the March 23 Wanderers ground position. That we had our best chance in 2003 and blew it. Not just at the final whistle. The match referee, from the moment he signalled to David Shepherd and Steve Bucknor to start play, noted down Zaheer Khan as overplaying his left hand by putting his mouth rather than the ball there. As India began its wild-goose chase of 360, Steve Waugh observed a certain "fear in Sachin's eyes''. That might or might not be a fact. But the fact that we, as a team, mortally feared Australia was something that came to be prematurely betrayed by Sourav. As the Indian captain talked of Sri Lanka having the measure of the Kangaroos in a possible semifinal line-up. Expecting Sri Lanka to do the cleaning-up job for India should not have been the signal sent out by Sourav, as a leader of men, by the Last Four Stage itself. Earlier Sourav had talked of "Let Australia get to the final first!'' That was the spirit. The spirit seemed to go out of Sourav's India once it emerged that Australia it was in the countdown to the wire.

Let us face the harsh truth, we were never in the final hunt. Conceded that Sourav's India did extraordinarily well (after that cataclysmic start) to win 8 matches on the trot. Accept, by the same token, that the feat of doing so had us running out of steam on a Wanderers track otherwise moisture made for Zaheer, Srinath and Ashish. Accept that Australia just cut the Wanderers ground from under India's feet. To argue that ground lost in 2003 could be retrieved in 2007 is to hug yet another dangerous delusion. On a like World Cup roll, in 2007, we cannot, just like that, expect to be. To this extent, the year 2003 must mark a watershed in Indian cricket. Water shed for a World Cup turning out to be all tears — after being all champagne. Opportunity does not knock at the same door twice. His last World Cup post, as captain, the 2003 tournament must remain for Sourav Chandi Ganguly. Tomorrow is another one-day, another World Cup. To chase a crooked shadow it would be to think the World Cup could, ever again, be within our straightforward reach the way it was on the Sun D-day of March 23, 2003.