If you have quietly excursed around the twitter timelines, Facebook walls and blogs of Indian friends who are cricket fans over the last sixteen hours or so, you would have probably thought that the Indians have won the World Cup. And you would be excused for thinking so. And so would the updates and updaters for elevating a quarter final victory over Australia to stratospheric heights. The ecstatic reaction to the gritty and successful Indian chase at Ahmedabad, which resulted in Australia being knocked out before the semi-finals of a World Cup for the first time in nineteen years, shows how much a Quarter Final victory at the World Cup means to Indian fans, especially given that it came against India’s fiercest rivals during the previous decade.
But there is another interpretation to the reaction too which should not be slid under the carpet: it gives the world yet another chance to appreciate and take stock of what the Australian teams of the previous decade has achieved. That Ricky Ponting, who we Indians love to hate not in the least because he seemed for a while to be the only batsman who could match (if not better) Tendulkar’s batting records, was at the forefront of his team’s (losing) battle, would have come as no surprise save for Ponting’s most unabashed detractors and/or those with a very short sporting memory. This post is specifically intended for the latter faction.
When Australia last lost a World Cup game, also against Pakistan (before the one they lost last week), I had just completed feel-struggling my way through my second teen-year. What remained of my teenage saw no Australian defeat at a World Cup match; and during the first half of my third decade in the world, the pattern would remain as obdurate as my Mathematics scores (which never once crossed six percent). The worst or best thing about the Australian dominance, depending in your vantage point, was the Australians never looked like dropping a game after THE tie in the semi-finals and Gibbs’ dropped catch of Steve Waugh took the men in yellow to the finals of the 1999 World Cup. The final was a one-sided affair with Shane Warne flummoxing the Pakistani batting order which had stalwarts like Ijaz Ahmed, Saeed Anwar and Inzamam Ul Haq into submission. The two other major Asian teams would suffer similar fates in the summit clashes of the 2003 and 2007 World Cups: if the 1999 World Cup final was about giving one of Australia’s toughest cricketers and fairest captains, Steve Waugh, a fitting farewell, the 2003 final at the Bullring was about Ponting hitting the crescendo on the perfect occasion against India and the 2007 final about Adam Gilchrist “feigning” form to only stun the Sri Lankans in the final at Barbados with a hundred out of nowhere.
The one-sidedness of the last three World Cup finals shows a lot about the Australian attitude to the game which we know has, until lately, been manifested in the way they play, also yielding phenomenal results. Not for the Australians the jerks of added pressure in knockout games because when someone failed there was always someone else to step up to the plate; but not for them either the letting up during ‘less’ important games, for no game was more or less important to the Australians: we want to win every game was the mantra and it worked like a cure. Yes, the Australians sledged merrily (leading the world in gamesmanship as well); yes, McGrath often roughed up the opposition’s best batsman even before a contest began; yes Gilchrist walked and others didn’t; yes it is unfair that Shane Warne took up leg spin than become a sorcerer; and yes many teams never realised – and if they did, there was little evidence of it – that the best way to ‘down’ Australia was by playing the ball and not the reputation of the players they had. But to simply attribute Australia’s remarkable, nay perfect, success rate in the World Cups to any/all of the aforementioned reasons or to an extended love affair with Fortune is to miss the point.
The truth is between 2000 and 2008, the Australian cricket team fielded some of the fiercest competitors that have turned out in the game even by Australia’s own high standards. That in turn is thanks to a tough domestic cricket setup which meant that cricketers were battle-hardened even before they wore the yellows, something Allan Border and company envisaged late in the 1980s when Australian cricket was at one of its lowest ebbs. The truth is the Australians made no bones about their love for winning, shared it as a collective vision, were led by a man who breathed meanness in order to remain fixated about his team’s goals and went ahead and played hard cricket. Result: 34 WORLD CUP games without a loss, with one no-result in between. We dance in the Isles if India beat New Zealand 5-0 in a One-day series!
I am not even sure how one can put an unbeaten streak of 34 matches in a game’s biggest tournament into perspective. But let me try. A tennis player who wins four grand slams within the space of two or three seasons may come to achieving something which in its magnitude is similar to what the Australian team achieved. Maybe, it is akin to a senior golf pro winning three or four of the biggest circuits on the trot. As far as team sport goes, however, what the Australians have done is beyond compare. For starters, the last three World Cups have been played in vastly different conditions. Besides, as the previous decade wore on, the seniors in the core group – the Haydens, Gilchrists and McGraths – were becoming only older. Add quirks such as Shane Warne missing the 2003 World Cup after testing positive for a banned drug on the eve of the tournament and we will understand that the Australian dominance, despite the number of match winners the Kangaroos have had in their ranks, has never been about one man (like it is in India with Sachin Tendulkar!) or a few men. Whether or not a 34-match unbeaten run is replicated time will tell; but being bloody-minded as a team and enjoying teammates’ successes as one’s own is something every team and every individual playing in a team sport can learn from the Australians.
Now that the tiring succession of Australian triumphs is over, we can look to more ‘open’ cricket matches and more unpredictability in the game. But while we do that, we need to understand that the various Australian teams post-1999 have left cricket with a proud piece of cricketing history that is not likely to be expunged in team sport, least of all cricket, in the foreseeable future. If it is obliterated and I am alive when that happens, I will surely write about it from (and in) some corner of the world.
For now, though, I hope the Indians can fend off the Pakistan challenge in the semi-finals at Mohali. One can never tout Pakistanis to win or lose any game. However, it would be fair to say that they have been the best team on view in the tournament besides South Africa. If the contest is anywhere near as exciting as the league game in the 2003 World Cup, where Tendulkar went berserk and decided the issue before his innings was cut short by the combine of cramps and Shoaib Akhtar, the fans will have been treated to some cracking cricket. And just for the record (with the uninitiated, of whom there may not be many, in mind) India has yet to lose a World Cup game against Pakistan. MSD & company would hope that India’s own little unbeaten run (against their neighbours) continues at least for one more game.