Imperfect XI - Indian Men’s Cricket: Destined for Greatness, Doomed to Fail
There is certainly a degree of hubris involved in viewing this Indian ODI unit as a team of destiny, but this was a trap far too sweet and far too promising, impossible to avoid falling into for us fans. For the team itself, it was a fall prompted by the inevitably futile pursuit of sporting perfection. How does a team which hasn’t looked like losing over the course of a two-month tournament fall so agonisingly short in the one match that matters most? We have watched enough cricket to know that this is just the way the cosmic balance of sports is maintained. India couldn’t be winners because they couldn’t be perfect, and they couldn’t be perfect because losing, paradoxically, might be integral to winning.
From the perspective of the match itself, there is plenty to criticise and unpack. You simply cannot win a match in which you fail to score more than one boundary over the course of 30 overs in the heart of your innings, which meant 240 was under-par even on a sluggish pitch in a final. The old axiom might state that the pressure of the scoreboard adds 20 to any chase, but when you gift the opposition 18 extras in a wayward opening spell, you’ve undone that advantage. And when you run out of ideas to the point that you have a pacer bowling telegraphed hit-me short balls to a batter approaching his 80s, you have waved the cricketing equivalent of a white flag far too early.
But this loss stung deeper and more differently than the semifinal loss in 2019, or even the Champions Trophy final in 2017 or the T20 World Cup semi in 2022 and the two World Test Championship finals in 2021 and 2023 (gee, India has really put together a who’s who of painful losses in the last few years.) Maybe it’s easier to stomach losses in which you can pin failures down to bad batting, bad bowling, unbalanced and incomplete teams, simply bad cricket — but there was just a hollowness in Sunday’s performance, an emptiness we became too familiar with filling up with excellent, clinical, brutally good cricket instead. Where was the middle overs fire that had seen Kohli rack up the finest batting World Cup since Sachin in 2003? Where was the boa-like asphyxiation act from the spinners that cracked open Australia in Chennai and Pakistan in this same Ahmedabad stadium on this same Ahmedabad pitch? Ten times in the last two months we all looked at each other and said, “This team…” On the eleventh time of asking, there was nothing left to be said, the kind of shellshock that meant nothing could be said.
There has been plenty said about the Ahmedabad crowd giving Australia exactly what they wanted by not coming to the party, proving true Pat Cummins’ prophecy of his Aussies silencing the 1.3 lakh-strong crowd. But in the face of the horrendous potential of disappointment after the finest, most dominant World Cup campaign of all time, as the dreams of touching perfection and coming away with a trophy (finally! Another trophy) crumbled to nothing, asking any crowd to be loud was to ask bleeding hearts to beat. It’s easy to ask for, it’s impossible to do — and even in a packed and raucous Sports Complex MPH, as Travis Head pummeled every slap through square and every slog-sweep over midwicket, the quiet realisation of heartbreak and the constant reminder of repeated disappointment was what rung loudest in our ears.
There is simply no right way to lose. There is no saying it’s just a sport, it’s just a game — a lie, and we all know it’s a lie. After a point, there is no way to roll with the punches. There can be talk about jinxes and curses and droughts and questions and what’s-nexts and where-do-we-go-from-heres, but some losses cannot be undone, some imperfections cannot be buffed out, some scars refuse to fade. Some of these superstars who thrilled and dominated will be back in South Africa in 2027, and some might even be back when the Men’s World Cup returns for a third time in 20 years in 2031. But this feels like it could be the end of the road for Rohit Sharma, Virat Kohli, Ravindra Jadeja, and Mohammed Shami, a reality that is difficult to stomach. Heroes of the Indian game were at their finest this tournament, and with everyone clicking, it was a team that, for better or worse, brushed fingertips with perfection and fell tantalisingly short. Gill, Rahul, Bumrah, and company may never touch these heights, but lifting a trophy might be all that is required to exorcise these demons. The first shot at that might well be in 2025, when the women’s team hosts their own ODI World Cup and attempts to lift their maiden WC trophy — and in doing so, end Australia’s hegemony in that tournament.
So how do we look at a team that was perfect until it wasn’t? How do we remember a team that was brilliant, putting on a show for home fans, and walked away with nothing but another cycle of heartbreak to show for it? Will we even remember the ballasting of Pakistan or the demolition of South Africa or the ghosts of 2019 being buried against New Zealand? Or Shami’s wickets, or Virat’s centuries, or Rohit’s blitzes and Iyer’s towering sixes? Will we remember how it feels to feel invincible, indomitable, unvanquishable? There is the very real threat of all of this being overshadowed by the pain of the loss at the Narendra Modi Stadium, but it’s heartening that the sickening solitary failure is made more painful contextualised within the excellence of what it had followed. What will be remembered about this World Cup remains to be seen. But because of the loss and heartbreak that frames, defines, envelops what the men’s Indian cricket team was about this winter, what is certain is that the 2023 World Cup isn’t one that will easily be forgotten.