Well before the final, the home side had been proclaimed champions. The whole World Cup, in fact, had been a procession leading up to this ceremonial crowing of a final, winning group stage match after group stage match convincingly. The anointing itself in a stadium purpose built to showcase the might, the global heft, of the entire nation. The fans were fully behind this carnival celebrating their own grandeur, attendances increasing with every match. Politicians clamoured to be in the same frame, to bask in the reflected glory. Foreign writers fawned over the host’s best players; teams caved at the mere sight of them. Everyone knew they were the best. Up against them, a team that had struggled their way to the match, a team that might as well not be there if you were to ask anyone in the massive stadium, in the massive country. The final was attended by the largest ever crowd for a match of this stature, and it started as the matches that featured the home side had, with a loud bang and a stadium raising normally accepted decibel levels by the minute. Until at one point, it didn’t. The noise dipped; the silence grew, and by the time it was over, it was deafening. Their side had not done much wrong, but in the end the ones with the gold medals on their necks and the Cup in their hands were the other guys.
This is not about Ahmedabad, or India, or even cricket. That’s what happened in 1950, in the great Maracanã in Rio Di Janeiro, on the day Uruguay beat Brazil to lift the World Cup.
Brazil had been superb that tournament: Zizinho and Jair and Ademir leading a free-wheeling side of entertainers that had smashed in 21 goals and conceded just four in five games, and no one really saw anything but a Brazil win in the final match. Except their opponents. Uruguay had been underdogs, but theirs was a team that had been stacked with matchwinners – Juan Alberto Schiffiano, Alcides Ghiggia and Obdulio Varela were amongst the best players in the world at the time — and they had, of course, won the inaugural World Cup. They were a team that fought till the very end.
Brazil’s fans had made the giant mistake of underestimating them, dismissing this pedigree, forgetting their pure desire to fight; 73 years later, India’s fans made an even graver one… underestimating Australia in a cricket World Cup final.
You see, you can write all the paeans you want pre-match – like the mayor of Rio had in 1950: “You, players, who in less than a few hours will be hailed as champions by millions of compatriots! You who have no rivals in the entire hemisphere! You who will overcome any other competitor! You, who I already salute as victors!” – but you don’t win until you win; and that can happen only once time has been called on the field.
Over the years we’ve seen this happen in every single sport: Indian cricket themselves did it to the West Indies in ’83, Usain Bolt lost his last World Championship race, Michael Phelps was beaten in his last individual Olympic race by a 21-year-old Singaporean college kid in 2016, Alexander Karelin lost for the first time in 13 years in his last Olympic Games against an unheralded American wrestler. The Miracle on Ice for one team was an all-time disaster for the other. Greece silenced Portugal and her golden generation in 2004. The list goes on… favourites lose, heroes fall, and sometimes those dismissed as underdogs are never really that.
Australia are now six times men’s ODI champions; the most predictable name to be inscribed on that lovely trophy, but sport’s beauty lies also in making the predictable so hard to, well… predict.
India had been great through the tournament, 10 out of 10, unmatched, unrivalled, but it still wasn’t enough. Because in game 11, Australia were better. This will make it a bitter pill to swallow: and no one drags down idols on pedestals quicker than a bitter, angry sports fan. Just ask any of the ’50 Brazil vintage.
What happened to the greats of that team — forgotten now amidst the avalanche of glory that followed over the next decade and (much) more, a nation hurriedly burying its pain and the architects of it from the collective consciousness — will absolutely not happen to this. Simply because there’s too much cricket on, and these players are simply too good to ignore for either (IPL) club or country. You’d like to think the average sports fan has evolved too, learnt to place themselves in the shoes of their heroes, understand their pressure, their pain, how much more this hurts them than it does anyone else… but heartbreak and empathy rarely align.
For the average Indian cricket fan, 2023 was supposed to be different from 2003: in the intervening two decades their board had taken over complete control of the game, their players had become the absolute best in the world. Surely, the pain of the past would remain in the past… Ahmedabad must have felt worse than Johannesburg.
Just as disasters happen, though, so do miracles. Whether it’s on a wild night in Barcelona in ’99 or a raucous one in Istanbul in ’05 where two teams embraced time and pressure as friends; whether it’s Glenn Maxwell deciding one leg was enough to hit a double hundred on a pitch where the second highest Australian score was 24 — sport doesn’t deal exclusively in pain. Without this hope of unexpected glory, it knows it won’t be the magnificent thing that it is.
Eight years after football broke Brazil in the Maracanaço, Pele and Garrincha and Didi got the wheels rolling on one of the greatest sporting juggernauts of all time. Eight years after Joburg, a crack team led by MS Dhoni and Yuvraj Singh and Sachin Tendulkar carried India to heights of happiness the nation has rarely touched collectively before (or since).
India will host their next World Cup eight years from now, and there is enough and more reason for hope.
But there is no pattern in the favours that sport bestows; it’s the random that makes it sport and not WWE. When Brazil hosted their next World Cup in 2014, the nation expected a repentance for 1950… but what they got was Belo Horizonte and the humiliation of a lifetime.
In the end, sport will always have the last