India and the art of peaking

Playing at 100 per cent on the biggest day is an art. The Aussies have mastered it. But Ganguly's men, for all their virtues, still haven't done that, writes NIRMAL SHEKAR.

LOOKING back is so much easier than looking forward, even if it is a little painful sometimes. For, we do know more about covered ground than about the ground ahead of us.

And, now that it is more than a fortnight since the World Cup was won and lost at the Wanderers in Johannesburg, the events of that Sunday take on a clarity that might have seemed elusive at the time when they happened.

As you hit the rewind button, the images of that Sunday evening at the presentation ceremony, played out in the background of a charcoal grey sky threatening more rain, seem to appear in slow motion.

The ecstatic Aussies jogging, rather than walking, up to the stage to receive their just rewards. Ganguly chewing off his fingernails in the background. Tendulkar, sans the toothpaste-ad smile, going up to receive the Man of the Tournament award from the greatest all-round cricketer of all time, Sir Gary Sobers.

Hey, wait a minute. Freeze that frame. Let's dwell on that for a minute.

Falling at the last hurdle. Sourav Ganguly in a pensive mood after things had gone horribly wrong for India. — Pic. AP-

Ah, there we are. To me, on that Sunday evening, those two frames said it all _ the Aussies being feted as the best team in the world yet again, and Tendulkar being rewarded for being the greatest player in the tournament.

What an irony this! At the very end of a World Cup in which the Indians picked themselves off the floor with the courage of a Muhammad Ali to outpoint a series of rivals, playing with a team spirit that few Indian sides may have displayed, what we finally got was an individual award.

As cruel an irony as this may appear to be, on the face of it, it may very well hold a mirror to the heart of the matter. For, when the day of reckoning arrived, when it was very, very essential for India to put together its finest team performance of the tournament, Ganguly's men fell a long way short and it was Australia that did exactly what India might have dreamed of doing _ coming up with a tour de force.

The result not only opened our eyes to realities vis a vis where the Indian team stood in relation to the best in the business but, more importantly, it also proved that for all the gains from the six-week competition, the fact that the side failed when it mattered most betrayed something about its character.

Of course, it was a marvellous effort from the boys after a disastrous tour of New Zealand and a morale-shattering start to the World Cup, struggling to beat Holland and then dropping the rifle and running, so to say, the moment the first Aussie was spotted on the far horizon.

But, Ganguly's excuse (''We just had an off day'') ranks right up there with the childish; it's like the kid who's flunked his maths paper telling his mom: "You know I didn't take my favourite pen to the exam.''

Off day? You must be kidding. If a team _ from a country that had not made a World Cup final in 20 years _ can afford to have an off day on what was the most important day in the careers of every one of the players, what does it say of its character?

Say we were outplayed. Say we did not measure up. Say we just couldn't do it, that everything went wrong. But off day? That's silly. And, what is more, this was a team that was on a roll. India did not make the final by some accident. It deserved to be there as much as Australia did. Not even Kapil's Devils were as impressive as Ganguly's team in the march to the final.

The truth of the matter is, just when the boys had to turn out in regal robes, they came out dressed like the hippie generation teenagers. The occasion got to them. And by the time they came to the party, they were already drunk, so to say. Little wonder the Aussies helped themselves to all the champagne.

The pity is, a few of these players may never get another chance to feature in a World Cup final. And Tendulkar, more than anyone else, was predictably deeply disappointed. He wanted this one badly. Perhaps too badly, as the first over of the Indian innings showed.

Sachin Tendulkar's early dismissal -- he has this jinx in big finals -- makes a mockery of the placard in the background. — Pic.AFP-

Yet again, the great master had failed on a big day. The only difference was, this might have been the biggest of them all. India's most gifted cricketer of all time may very well end his career without a World Cup medal, something which adorns the drawing room showcase of a lot of lesser men from the team of 1983.

Quite a few critics have time and again pointed out that the little master from Mumbai falls short when it matters most, that he is a relatively poor performer in Cup finals. They also say that this leaves a huge hole in his CV.

Personally, I do not believe that this is the result of any character flaw. On the other hand, a series of disappointing Cup final scores may not be the result of a series of accidents.

To me, it seems that the little genius, aware that so much depends on him, puts too much pressure on himself on the eve of these big games. This denies him the freedom he needs to play his best.

No matter all that, the record books will always remind us _ and Sachin too _ that the great man played all of five balls in the 2003 World Cup final.

The vanquished Indians line up to collect their runner-up medals. The team is yet to develop the mental strength needed in crunch situations. —Pic. AP-

And they will remind us, too, that the most improved seam attack in world cricket _ Javagal Srinath, Zaheer Khan and Ashish Nehra _ gave away 211 runs off 27 overs, almost eight an over, in the final.

So, what went wrong in the final? Actually, we should be asking what went right. The answer is: Nothing.

While nobody who knows his cricket will argue that Australia was not the better team, the point is this Indian side had the credentials to match Ponting's men on the big stage. And they got a second opportunity to do so in the same tournament. Yet, they failed on both occasions.

Why, but why? In my mind, the biggest reason is this: they did not have what it takes to play to potential on the big day.

Playing at 100 per cent on the biggest day is an art. This is true as much of individual sports as of team sports. Pete Sampras does it time after time at Wimbledon. Tiger Woods does it again and again at the majors.

Over the years, teams such as Manchester United and Brazil have done it again and again. And in cricket, so do these Aussies. They have mastered the art of putting it all together when the big occasion demands.

Ganguly's men, for all their virtues, still haven't done that. And this makes all the difference between being a world beater and finishing second best, as we found out on that Sunday.

Then again, as much as fans would rue the missed opportunity, they should also be aware that Ganguly and his men did a pretty good job for the most part in the tournament. They lost just two matches, and both to the same team, which happens to be the finest in the sport.

That is not anything to be ashamed of, really. And most of the Indian victories were achieved in some style. India beat England, Pakistan and New Zealand, three top Test playing nations, by miles rather than metres.

Nehra, Khan and Srinath bowled their hearts out time and again while Tendulkar was, well, Tendulkar. His innings against Pakistan might have been the finest of the tournament if Ponting had not come up with that masterpiece in the final.

Tendulkar apart, the ever-efficient Rahul Dravid had a good tournament too while Mohammed Kaif and Yuvraj Singh suggested that they would be key players in the team four years from now in the West Indies, should they keep at it.

Finally, Ganguly's captaincy was one of the high points of the tournament. He showed courage and vision although he did turn too defensive in the final. He had a fairly good run with the bat as well, with two hundreds against Kenya and one against Namibia. But against quality attacks on tracks where the ball is bouncing and seaming, the Indian skipper will always struggle. For he is no Dravid or Tendulkar.

The next World Cup is four full years away and to project India's chances in the Caribbean in 2007 based on the performance of Ganguly's side in southern Africa would be a folly. A lot can happen between now and then.

But, this much is sure: this team is among the best in the sport and, with a spot of luck and a lot of hard work, it can hope to match the game's finest _ Australia _ somewhere down the line.

To do that, India has to learn from Australia. Organisation and preparation are of great importance in the context of big events like the World Cup. And, as good a momentum-driven side as India was in this World Cup, we did find out that it takes more than that to stand up and do it when the big hour arrives.

Under John Wright, the Indian cricketers have appeared better prepared and organised than ever before but there is still some distance to cover before they can match the mighty Australians.