There are quite a few ways in which cricket tournaments are decided. Teams can be overwhelmingly superior (West Indies in ODI World Cup 1979, Australia in 2007) or hard-fought, nerve-wracking battles (England in 2019), with luck, of course, playing some part in all types. But in most cases, moments of brilliance, or magic if you will, make a telling difference, especially in the knock-out stage.
For instance, there were several inflection points in the course of the tournament in India’s 1983 World Cup triumph, most significant being Kapil Dev’s unbeaten 175 against Zimbabwe. This not only kept his team alive in the tournament but gave a massive boost to the collective confidence and ambition of all players. But this still did not diminish the hardship quotient of beating West Indies, defending champions and unarguably the best team in the world, in the memorable final at Lord’s. That came through moments of unexpected magic.
Early in West Indies’ run chase, Balwinder Singh Sandhu clean bowled Gordon Greenidge with a banana inswinger.
A little while later came another moment of magic. Rampaging Viv Richards, threatening to destroy India’s bowling and win the match on his own, hit Madan Lal high between square leg and mid-wicket which Kapil Dev, running behind 20-25 yards keeping his eyes on the ball over his shoulder, converted into a stunning catch.
Richards’s dismissal for 33 opened up a match that till that point had been one-sided. The West Indies innings lost rhythm, wickets started falling, and overhauling a paltry 183, which looked a cakewalk at the halfway stage, became a mountain too high to climb. India won by 43 runs.
I’ve dwelt at some length on the 1983 final because it resonates most strongly in the Indian context. There are several other such examples in World Cup history.
The 1975 final is widely remembered for Clive Lloyd, hitting the ball like a lumberjack, scoring a powerful 102. But the moments of magic came from 23-year-old Viv Richards, in his first year in international cricket, running out three batsmen with his alacrity in the field and pinpoint accuracy of his throws, to scuttle the Aussie run chase.
In the 1992 final, Pakistan were defending a not-so-large score. England looked to be chasing the target serenely till the magical over from Wasim Akram in which he got the set Allan Lamb and dangerous Chris Lewis off successive deliveries to turn the match on its head.
In 2015, Mitchell Starc bowled New Zealand captain Brendon McCullum, who had been in dazzling form till then, in the first over, and the Kiwis floundered after this body blow.
In 2019, in the semi-final against New Zealand, India were odds-on favourites. But in a match which got extended into the second day because of inclement weather, they suffered a shock defeat chasing a modest target. An incisive opening spell by Trent Boult and Matt Henry saw India lose 3 wickets – including Rohit and Virat – in a jiffy, and all hopes of reaching the final went kaput.
Sometimes moments of magic for one team coincide with moments of madness for the opposition. In the ODI World Cup 1996 semi-final at Mohali, West Indies were cruising to victory at 165-3 chasing 207, but collapsed sensationally for 202 against Shane Warne.
In the 1999 semi-final between Australia and South Africa, the latter inexplicably stumbled a second time. Herschelle Gibbs first didn’t complete a catch of Steve Waugh, allowing him to make a gritty half-century to win the Super Six game. Then, while chasing 213 in the semis, last man Allan Donald was run out in a crazy mix-up with Lance Klusener with the scores tied. Australia went through to the final because they finished higher in the Super Six stage.
In highlighting these incidents, I don’t mean to suggest that knockout matches and finals are won or lost only on moments of magic or madness. In all cases of teams that have won major tournaments in limited overs cricket, sustained excellence over a period of time, tenacity and ambition are crucial. However, moments of magic are triggers that can swerve, swing and spin a match away from an anticipated course and lead to an unexpected result.
In Sunday’s final, there was one acutely magical moment. It belonged to Australia when Travis Head ran back 25-30 yards, looked over his shoulder to judge the trajectory of the ball, and dive full-length forward to hold a catch that dismissed Rohit Sharma. Rohit looked in stupendous touch till then and good enough to take the game away from Australia. His dismissal changed the momentum and trend of play, arguably even the result.
Head was not done for the day. In the run chase he tamed India’s vaunted pacers and scored heavily against spinners with strokes of guts and inventiveness to lead his team to a fantastic win. It was a tour de force performance by a player who had only just made it to the tournament at the halfway stage.
In terms of quality of cricket India were undoubtedly the best side in the tournament. Till the final. That’s where the champion team is decided. India failed this test.
The tenor and texture of India’s campaign reveals the depth and quality of talent in India. In a way. It also creates a template that can make India a more creative and stronger force in limited overs cricket. However, this still doesn’t answer whether India can win tournaments consistently.
That, agonisingly, is still to be learnt.