It wasn’t to be, and for Rohit Sharma and Rahul Dravid, who had poured their all into fashioning this Indian World Cup campaign, it will never be. There will be sadness and regret. Hurt will linger, and it will rankle. That’s the cruelty of sport. It leaves losers, and scars. Tears were shed on the field and there will have been more in the dressing room.
No team in the history of the World Cup has dominated a tournament so comprehensively only to flunk the final test. India didn’t just win their previous ten matches in the tournament, they swamped their opponents and obliterated them. When the rawness of the night has passed, there will be time to reflect, to find satisfaction, and even pride, but in the moment, there will only be hollowness and despair. It was writ palpably on the face of Virat Kohli, the tournament’s most prolific and consistent batter, as he walked up to collect the Player of the Tournament trophy.
Dravid spoke with composure, and even a few smiles, when he fronted up at the press conference. I had occasion to chat with him before India’s semi-final against New Zealand, and inevitably the talk turned to how good India had been till then. It didn’t matter who had been the best team in the tournament, he said; in a knockout it only came down to which was the best team on the day. No doubt, he will have said as much to his side, to keep it real.
In losing the final there was no dishonour for India. What they came up against was as much a team as it was a winning culture. Australia weren’t the best team in the competition, but as they have done for over two decades now, they summoned their absolute best in the match that mattered the most. They were astute and brave at the toss in going against the grain of banking the runs in a final; with the ball, they were skillful, smart and unerringly disciplined on a pitch that seemed designed to negate their strengths; and in Travis Head, they found a batter with the clarity and courage to play an innings to cherish for a lifetime. That India were unable to be at the top of their game was because they weren’t allowed to be.
Rohit sat before us the day before the final and spoke repeatedly about calm and balance. Indeed, he kept his calm through the 40-minute interaction, as cell phones blared despite a stern plea at the beginning that they be put in anti-nuisance mode. He also spoke about not getting away from the game that had carried them to the final. He spoke about it so much that it felt like he was trying to reinforce it to himself.
The World Cup final, he knew like we did, was never going to be just another game. Shutting themselves off from the noise outside, an impossible task by itself, wouldn’t have quelled the tempest inside. It was the biggest game of their lives, and upon it lay their biggest dream; it would be remembered forever. There was going to be only one World Cup winner in the playing XI the following day, and even for him, it would be his last chance to rediscover the feeling. For the rest, including Dravid, it would be the moment of a lifetime to lay hands on that trophy.
However tired the format may feel, however much scepticism may be thrown around about its future, the 50-over World Cup, for its scale and legacy, remains the biggest prize in the game. To be a World Cup winner is life-changing. We might be hurtling towards the age of artificial intelligence, but emotions are still real. So are nerves. Managing them is one thing, but how not to feel them?
Rohit managed them all right, batting in the final the way he had throughout the tournament. Putting a premium on making the most of the powerplay rather than on his own wicket, not allowing a sense of jeopardy to mess up battle tactics, charging fast bowlers, lofting fours and sixes. And then falling on the cusp of a personal landmark by not holding back – even when the previous two balls that over had yielded ten runs; why not make it 20?
His innings was about all that went to script for India. For a team that had rained boundaries through the tournament, and that had put up scores of 357, 326, 410 and 397 in their last four matches, in all of which they batted first, they managed only five more boundaries after Rohit’s dismissal – of which just four were outside the powerplay, and only three off the bats of their specialist batters.
The only time they had been contained for under 250 batting first, India had won by 100 runs, bowling England out for 129. But here, their opening bowlers, who had terrorised batters all through the tournament, went for 41 off the first four overs. Jasprit Bumrah, whose powerplay economy rate was under three in the group matches, was taken for 15 off his first over. His first ball found the edge but streaked between the slips to the boundary. Mohammed Shami, as he had so frequently done, struck in his first over, but his first two overs produced 23 runs. KL Rahul, so spectacular through the tournament, conceded byes. And most tellingly, the spinners made no impact on a pitch that had promised a feast for them. For the first time in the tournament they went wicketless.
That’s how life plays out for all of us. We lose some. Like sportspersons, we too pack our gear and go to work. But unlike them, the gaze of the world is not upon us; most of us do our business in anonymity, very few of us are emotionally wired to the outcomes of our day jobs. We don’t come back feeling like winners. Or losers. As sports fans we can summon empathy for those who stretch their bodies and minds to the limit in the pursuit of athletic excellence and provide such joys in the process.
But we will never experience the highs that are their reward. And we will never know the depth of their lows, which are their burden.
Still, no one will know better than Rohit and Dravid that it’s already a new day. There might never be a World Cup win for them. But there are loved ones to go to. Life awaits still.