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India, redemption, and glory at last

India, redemption, and glory at last

T20 World Cup 2024. (Source – Getty Images)

A World Cup final is a momentous occasion. It is not subject to anything for context and enormity. It is self-sufficient. It is the stage performing at which is what the sportspersons begin to play for. But there was a plethora of sub-plots brewing in the cauldron of redemption that this final was – each one as momentous as a World Cup final in itself, which bourgeoned the heft of the event.

It could have been another what-could-have-been for India. With 30 needed off 30, it was South Africa’s game to lose. Thirty balls later, it was a what-could-have-been tale. But not for India.

The thing with the shortest format of the game is that it is also the ficklest format of the game. And for all the agony and misery inflicted upon them edition after edition at a variety of ICC events by a variety of oppositions, India, this time, were battle-hardened enough to pull one last rabbit out of the hat at the hackneyed when-it-mattered-the-most moment, disarraying the Proteas who were on course of ending a drought arguably more painful than any of their cricketing counterparts have ever endured.

Lost by seven needing run-a-ball 30? Easy: throw the dreaded, pejorative, morale-shredding C-word at South Africa. Except, they did not “choke”. They were choked. Dragged away.  From hitting. From running. From scoring. From winning.

The 30 off 30 became 16 off 6 and culminated in seven short. And that, through an extraordinary display of character; of belief; of grit; of the ability to hold nerves in the tensest situations. It was, quite simply, the stuff of champions.

India had a point to prove. The team had scores to settle. The players had to redeem themselves. They did just that.

***

Rohit Sharma and Virat Kohli, two of India’s most prized possessions, the unrivalled white-ball behemoths, and their sombre trysts with silverware. The two tasted individual success that ordinary mortals can’t dream of, but the cruel metric of success in team sports is the number of championships won. It gives tangibility to success. The greater the number, the greater the player.

T20 World Cup runners-up in 2014, semi-finalist in 2016 and 2022; losing Champions Trophy finalist in 2017; second-best in the home ODI World Cup 2023; semi-finalists in 2015 and 2019; losing World Test Championship finalists in 2021 and 2023.

The eternal semi-finalists/runners-ups. The narrative had to change.

Rohit did not tire in voicing his desperation to bring the cup home. The near-miss of 2023 was surely the bitterest pill he – and the nation – swallowed. The trophy had kept all in the waits for too long. But when it arrived, it did rather cinematically – on the day the two would decide to hang their boots in the format notwithstanding the result. Rohit and Kohli dived into a door that was shutting fast. They arrived jussstttt in time.

The lack of a title in all these years had imposed an asterisk on their greatness. After a wait for the ages, the duo finally redeemed itself. The asterisk is gone. Justice served.

***

Buying into India’s gung-ho batting philosophy meant Kohli had veered from his usual self and inversed the low-risk-high-safety mode of batting. He kept the price of his wicket at the absolute minimum and threw caution to the wind, albeit luck was not his ally during the transition from a rock-solid accumulator to a tempo-setting aggressor.

He had only a string of low scores as a memory from New York, where the pitches made the batters as irrelevant as the pitches elsewhere in the world make the bowlers. There was not much to write home about his time on the truer tracks of the Caribbean either. But come the final, he had to deliver. And he did.

The last of his 38 T20I half-centuries was also the slowest. He struck no boundary/six after the fourth over until the 18th, consuming an eye-watering, criminal-sounding 48 balls to reach his fifty before pedalling 26 off the next 11 to notch up his eventual tally of 76 off 59 in what would be a Player of the Final performance. He saved the best for the last, indeed.

En route to that, Kohli displayed his mastery of reading the situations for the nth time as he dropped anchor after Rohit and Rishabh Pant’s dismissal in quick succession. Yet, had India not ended on the right side of the result, it was this knock and this man the largest chunk of blame would have been pinned on.

It was poetic justice that Kohli scored more runs in one innings than his previous seven put together. This, on a day he knew was going to be his last in the format; on a day he knew was one of the last few chances to add the elusive silverware to his cabinet.  There is no singular definition of “big-match player”, a jargon often used in the cricketing discourse. But one need not go past Kohli to witness the embodiment of that.

***

Rahul Dravid led many a fightback for India in his playing days when he would often enter the most tumultuous situations and secure matches from the unlikeliest of positions. The role changed; the fate didn’t. His coaching tenure mirrored his cricketing journey.

Dravid was blooded in the system, once again, at a tumultuous stage: the Indian team, in the post Kohli-Shastri era, was disjointed. The chasms were apparent, groupism evident. It needed some fixing, and Dravid proved to be the talisman. There may have been incongruity aplenty but there was some accord: the players knew a certified legend was appointed to show them the path. Dravid’s experience came to the fore and India were realigned deftly. However, that did not translate into tangible success, as the silverware kept dodging Dravid the way it did in his prime.

Cut to 2024, Dravid’s fate brought him to a shore which once proved to be the biggest stumbling block. The Caribbean was the place of the beginning of an end for him. Neither he nor the Indians have reasons to recall 2007.

The haunting image of a dejected, drained Dravid at the Queens Park Oval balcony, hiding half his face in the glum aftermath of a humiliating group-stage bust, did rounds everywhere even as social media was in its incubatory phase. The Indian diaspora felt robbed. The players were attacked with the vilest of remarks, their houses were attacked, posters blackened, effigies burnt.

But 17 years hence, Dravid, even if he did not conceive it a redemption by his admission, somewhat redeemed himself at a spot he did not have worthy memories of.

Like Rohit and Kohli, this was Dravid’s last chance to amend his fate. It would have been a shame had someone of his worth ended without feeling that shimmery piece of metal in his hands.

What that shimmery piece of metal meant to him was evident in the manner of his celebration: he shed the characteristic reticence and shook the trophy with unbridled vigour and gritted teeth, arguably summoning more emotion and animation than in all 16 years of his playing career combined.

***

Axar Patel wasn’t necessarily seeking redemption but had to repay the faith shown in him by the selectors. That he was selected despite the presence of Ravindra Jadeja was down to his refined batting ability.

There are plenty of similarities between the two: both are highly-accurate left-arm spinners and both are a value addition with the bat. But the difference lies in the flexibility they provide. Axar’s superiority with the bat enables him to float seamlessly and help his team create and counter match-ups, unlike Jadeja. Incidentally, India relied on that quality of his on two of the most critical days in the tournament.

Axar’s 20 off 18 after being promoted to No. 4 against Pakistan may not stand out, but it was a significant contribution in a low-scoring affair. With the ball, Jasprit Bumrah and Hardik Pandya rightfully earned the plaudits but the two frugal overs from Axar, including one against a left-handed Imad Wasim – an adverse match-up – were a sure differentiator. As was his Player-of-the-Match three-for against England in the semi-final.

Against South Africa in the summit encounter, Axar was the chief contributor in the 72-run alliance with Kohli. The southpaw was promoted ahead of Shivam Dube and dominated despite entering at a point when the scales were tilted in favour of the opposition after a slew of quick wickets. Axar went on the offensive and slog-swept Keshav Maharaj and Aiden Markram over midwicket, and Tabraiz Shamsi down the ground. He drove Kagiso Rabada over long-on to pick his fourth six. Axar’s 31-ball 47 was under threat by his own misdeed against Heinrich Klaasen in a potentially match-losing over. But fortune favoured the brave eventually.

Once seen as Jadeja’s understudy, Axar has honed his craft to an extent that he has matched – and often even exceeded – his senior colleague’s repertoire. And his performance in the final is the kind that years later becomes a part of a player’s identity.

***

Shivam Dube devours spinners. He has made a reputation as Chennai Super Kings’ chief spin disruptor, and it was for that ability he was preferred by the selectors, even if it meant reducing Shubman Gill and Rinku Singh to mere reserves, and was slotted in the XIs, even if it meant consigning Yashasvi Jaiswal and Sanju Samson to the bench.

The spin disruptor, however, was disrupted himself thanks to the treacherous, overly seam-friendly New York pitches with uneven bounce and lateral movement on offer. While the conditions eased slightly once the caravan moved to the West Indies, the bounce on most wickets remained wayward. That enmeshed with the characteristic sluggishness of the Caribbean surfaces meant the tormentor in Dube was still kept largely quiet.

His first performance of note came against Bangladesh, when he struck three sixes in his 24-ball 34, while he looked misleadingly fluent in his 28 off 22 against Australia with a solitary six and two fours.

On the judgment day, though, Dube redeemed himself with a 16-ball 27, embellished with three fours and a six. It was, prima facie, not the point-of-difference kind of an innings, but it nonetheless dictated whether India finished below or at par.

Dube’s was the kind of contribution underrated players make on grand occasions and go unnoticed. Only some would remember it years later and even they may need a reminder since it did not have enough elements to capture the collective memory of the viewers.

That does not mean it was not a contribution which played a significant role in averting June 29 from becoming an entry in the petrifying list that November 19 is now part of.

***

India versus Pakistan. ICC event. The Final. The dreamiest cricket fixture.

The ICC tournament schedules are rigged to ensure India and Pakistan run into each other at least once. To have them take a shot at each other in the knockouts, though, is beyond the scheduler’s control. There is always an organic possibility but it does not materialise often. However, it did in the 2017 Champions Trophy.

Bumrah was up against Fakhar Zaman. Fakhar could not curtail the temptation of swiping at a pacey length ball, angled across him. All he could manage, though, was a faint nick before MS Dhoni snaffled a regulation chance behind the stumps. It was just the fourth over and India had sent one of their opponent’s potential match-winner back to the pavilion. The ensuing jubilation was understandable, just that it did not last long.

Bumrah had overstepped. Fakhar was reprieved. The ecstasy turned into agony. He was recalled and pulped India en route to one of the most landmark knocks in the India-Pakistan rivalry narrative.

In the years between that ill-fated event and now, Bumrah has become cricketing royalty. The God of bowling.

Hit me if you can. No. Just survive me if you can.

Bumrah is all things magic. Unplayable. Unhittable. Unmanageable. Impeccable discipline. Incredible control. A lean, mean bowling machine set on deliver-magic-balls mode. The virtues make him an all-weather, all-format, all-phase bowler.

From the toe-crushing yorkers to the head-cracking bouncers, the nostril-sniffing short-balls to the mind-bending cutters, there is nothing he does not possess in his arsenal. If one does not get you, the other will. Things have truly come to the ridiculous point where a T20 should be termed T16 if there is Bumrah in the opposition – for no adversary stands any chance to gain anything from those four overs and stands every chance to lose everything in those four overs. That he has achieved this in the shortest format, which, in particular, is the hardest to master for its myriad vagaries, only emphasises the legend of Bumrah.

The physics and biomechanics of his unorthodox high-arm action are well-documented, no less by an aerospace engineering professor of an IIT. It makes complete sense. Bumrah is a phenomenon and his bowling is part art and part science. There is every reason for him to be part of laboratory investigations and research.

His release point is much further ahead of a routine pacer’s release from the crease, which means there is that much less time to manoeuvre him. He imparts voluminous backspin on pacey deliveries, which causes them to dip and mess with batters’ timing and plans. That is if they have any against Bumrah. He imparts significant overspin on the slower deliveries, which causes them to lift awkwardly and mess with batters’ timing and plans. That is, again, if they have any against Bumrah.

All this is not even an iota of his genius. The same genius which came to the fore on every single occasion he held the ball in the World Cup. Against South Africa was, obviously, no different. He conceded just four and two off his last two overs, the 16th and 18th of the chase.

The 16th came immediately after Axar was manhandled by Klaasen in a seemingly match-changing 24-run 15th over. The 18th saw a thoroughly flummoxed Marco Jansen walking back to the hut after a reverse-seaming inswinger slid between his bat and pad and struck the top of his leg stump. Bumrah was the boom of South Africa’s doom.

Earlier, he had Reeza Hendricks’ stumps clattered with arguably the ball of the tournament. It was angled into the batter and seemed set for middle and leg. Instead, it swung extremely late and squared Hendricks up before disturbing the off stump.

 

 

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It was downright unfair for a team with Bumrah in it not to have a trophy to show for so many years. From the worst of slipups in 2017 to the best of pickups in 2024, Bumrah redeemed himself as India’s biggest match-winner on the biggest stage.

***

Significant airtime and column inches have been dedicated to Hardik Pandya’s IPL 2024 freefall. He became the apple of discord amongst Mumbai Indians faithful after replacing Rohit Sharma as the skipper following his transfer from Gujarat Titans. The transaction perturbed supporters from both the franchises and consequentially, the crowd turned on the heat against him with incessant and vehement jeering across multiple venues. An Indian player being heckled in India was an unprecedented sight. What Pandya did was no crime. But good luck convincing the emotion-driven enthusiasts of a cricket-mad country.

Hardik’s miseries compounded as Mumbai Indians went into a nosedive and his performances mirrored his team’s wooden-spoon finish.

It was this hostile backdrop he landed in the United States for the T20 World Cup. But despite everything, Pandya worked laboriously, wore a disarming smile on his face, and maintained a dignified silence throughout.

The shift from Mumbai Indians’ blues to India blues worked wonders as wickets arrived, runs flowed and he emerged as one of the top contributors in the team’s undefeated run to the final. Even in the final, it was Pandya’s dismissal of Klaasen – a wide, slower delivery that the batter nicked behind to Rishabh Pant when South Africa needed 26 off 24 – which opened the gates for Bumrah and Arshdeep Singh to barge in. The tiny crevice became wider and wider with each passing ball and the two bowlers left India with 16 to defend.

As fate would have it, it was Pandya who was tasked to bowl the last over. It was also a quirk of fate that two of his MI team-mates, Bumrah – with two frugal overs and Jansen’s wicket off a peach – and Suryakumar – with a boundary catch like none other (more on that later) – were at the forefront with match-defining moments in the last four overs.

Pandya was still only inches away from ignominy. Who knows if there was one last twist in the tale if Miller middled full-toss slightly better. But his (bad) luck had had enough. From the abyss to the zenith, it was the greatest redemption of all times. The apple of discord became the apple of everyone’s eye.

***

Suryakumar Yadav, for all his matchless willow-wielding panache and otherworldliness, has been unable to set an ICC tournament alight hitherto. One would expect that to change for a player as prized as him. But the sporadic mumblings around his inclusion in multi-team events did not look entirely misplaced – when seen strictly from the lens of returns – until the group stage of the tournament (his scores read 31, 7, and 2 in the first three fixtures). But he vindicated the selection eventually. First, with the bat in the Super Eights. And then, debatably, with the moment of the final, etching his name in the cricket lore with a boundary catch for the ages.

David Miller was standing between India and the Cup. He toe-ended Pandya’s low full-toss, the first delivery of the final over, towards long-off. There was sky above and SKY underneath and in between hung India’s fate.

Suryakumar sprinted to his right, stretched to every last nanometer he could have, and plucked the ball out of thin air. He realised the boundary cushion was dangerously close and the momentum from the sprint would push him over. So, he flung the ball in the air, timed his jump out, timed his jump in, gathered himself, and grabbed the ball again. All of it, in one smooth motion.

 

Suryakumar, through just one act of athleticism, redeemed all the runs he failed to score and all the characteristic charisma he failed to replicate at two ICC events in succession.  The effort was not unseen per se but in the ultimate over of a World Cup final with the opposition needing 16 to win and a ball travelling with six written all over it? That’s a different ball game.

Comparisons were drawn instantly with Kapil Dev’s backward-running catch to end Vivian Richards’ outing in India’s watershed triumph in the 1983 ODI World Cup final. Praise does not come bigger than that.

***

The moment an entire nation was waiting for with bated breath had arrived after a 13-year wait. There was great emotion on display and it was pure joy to witness it.

Pandya broke down moments after delivering the final ball.

 

A teary-eyed Rohit fell flat with his nose touching the turf, slapping it repeatedly with raw emotion and euphoria. He stood up, with fingers pointing towards the sky, thanking the powers which set up his date with destiny. The same destiny that denied him glory by the barest of margins at home only months ago.

Rohit gestured thanks to the supporters with folded hands while Kohli rubbed his eyes as he struggled to hold back tears. Siraj cried his heart out. Innumerable hugs and handshakes followed. The Indian support staff ran amok, waving the tricolour with pride and gusto during a victory lap as loudspeakers played ‘Lehra do’.

 

An inconsolable Hardik choked on words in an interview with the broadcaster, in between which emerged his captain and landed a kiss on his tear-soaked cheek. For all that had transpired between the two in the last few months, united they stood for India.

The constant movement continued around the dugout. Kohli and Rohit went into a bear hug at the stairs to the dressing room in one of the most heartwarming viewings. There was an air of relief all around the Kensington Oval. The heavens opened up as Kohli announced his T20I retirement. Rohit and Jadeja would follow suit soon. Speak of going on a high…

There were some beautiful family moments. Minutes after being named the Player of the Final, Kohli gave imaginary flying kisses and made goofy faces over a video call.

Rohit held his daughter on his shoulders and moved towards the dugout, where his wife embraced him.

Bumrah shared an endearing moment with his wife Sanjana and son Angad after being named the Player of the Tournament award.

The venue soon turned into a party scene as Kohli and Arshdeep broke into bhangra.

Elsewhere, Dravid and Rohit posed with Jay Shah. Rohit would soon plant the Indian tricolour on the ground to stamp India’s triumph.

Finally, the moment arrived. Rohit, smiling from ear to ear, performed a little jig as he clawed on his way to the podium where the team had congregated to claim the prize.

He hoisted the trophy in the air amidst the loudest roar. The outgoing coach Dravid got his hands on it too as he joined the party. The team cradled him in arms and tossed him up in the air gleefully.

India’s redemption arc was complete.

Nothing captured the essence of the moment better than this:

This moment is all that I’ve been dreaming of.

Somewhere I feel it in my soul.

One chance is everything we’ve waited for.

It’s our time so let we take it home.

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