An India World Cup campaign underpinned by ruthlessness and adventure ended with the ashen taste of defeat at the Sydney Cricket Ground, in front of a crowd who had made this most historic of Australian venues seem like Little India.
They had already lost three times to Australia this southern summer – two Tests and a Tri Series ODI – but this was the deepest cut of all, the one that saw them surrender the trophy they had won amid such euphoria in Mumbai four years ago.
The identity of the main tormenters should perhaps have come as no surprise. Steven Smith hit four centuries against India in the four-Test series and his beautifully constructed 93-ball 105 was reminiscent of Ricky Ponting’s demolition job in the 2003 final at the Wanderers in Johannesburg. Then, after a stutter that saw them lose three for 16 in 29 balls, Mitchell Johnson – whose all-round excellence had transformed the Brisbane Test in December – smacked 27 from nine balls to stretch the target to unrealistic proportions.
With the ball, Johnson accounted for both Virat Kohli and Rohit Sharma to reel India back in after Shikhar Dhawan had Don Quixote-ed his way to 45. The pain of that long-ago Wanderers defeat was resurrected in the dismissal of Kohli, who tried to pull a Johnson delivery that lifted far more than he expected. Chasing 360 in that 2003 final, Sachin Tendulkar had fallen to a similar shot against Glenn McGrath.
Aaron Finch’s stodgy 81 was the second fiddle to Smith’s virtuoso innings in a 182-run partnership (from 186 balls) that threatened to take Australia well beyond 350. India’s pace bowlers, so impressive in previous games, largely had a day to forget. Having got David Warner with a short ball, they went on to use it far too often. Mohammed Shami, Umesh Yadav and Mohit Sharma went for 215 in the 29 overs they bowled, diluting the impact of an outstanding spell from Ravichandran Ashwin, who got rid of Glenn Maxwell cheaply on his way to figures of one for 42.
Yadav got three of his four wickets with short balls but a scattergun performance saw him go at eight an over. Shami faded badly and Mohit’s medium pace was like a magnet for Johnson’s free-stroking bat. On a placid pitch, they didn’t do an awful lot wrong, but Australia pounced on every little mistake.
Having taken a whopping 64 from the five batting powerplay overs – Smith and Finch went for it after just 32 overs – Australia were able to consolidate even after the quick loss of Maxwell, Finch and Clarke. It wasn’t a luxury India had when they experienced their own mini-collapse after a splendid start.
They were going at a run a ball when Dhawan sauntered down the pitch to Josh Hazlewood and lofted one to Maxwell at deep extra-cover. Kohli fell just two runs later, and Johnson then summoned up another haymaker to send back Rohit. After being walloped for six over mid-wicket, another cross-seamed delivery deviated just enough to take the inside edge on to the stumps. After that, India seldom managed to drag themselves off the ropes.
MS Dhoni, who top scored with 65, was typically phlegmatic after the game, especially when asked about his future. “It’s up to you guys,” he said with a broad smile. “The media should do nice research on it, take a few days. My advice will be whatever you decide, write the complete opposite.”
With the internet’s lynch mobs and some reactionary media turning their ire on Kohli – whose tournament tailed off after the hundred against Pakistan – Dhoni also had to defend the man who has succeeded him as Test captain. “Once the opposition puts over 300 runs on the board and once they have quality bowlers, at some point of time you have to take that risk,” he said of the shot that Kohli played. “If it pays off, if it clicks, all of a sudden everything changes. He played a shot, it didn’t pay off, so that’s it.”
The same equanimity was on view when he was asked how it felt to give up the trophy won four years ago. “It’s something that doesn’t really belong to anyone,” he said. “We definitely took it from someone, so somebody took it from us. It’s as simple as that. You know, the best team takes it for four years, and then everybody gets their own plans ready, depending on the conditions, and they challenge the one that has the cup.”
India took it from Australia in Ahmedabad four years ago. And on a night when an Asian team failed to make the final for the first time since 1987, Australia took a giant stride towards taking it back.
Back in ’87, four years after a much-celebrated victory at Lord’s, India lost to Graham Gooch and England in the semi-final at the Wankhede Stadium in Mumbai. At times, the 42,330 inside the SCG made it easy to imagine that the Arabian Sea was just over the horizon. The result, though, was no different. History does repeat itself, in the most painful ways.
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