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A bittersweet story by Srinivas Kanchibhotla
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4 April 2011

A bittersweet story

Every story needs an arc, as much as it needs a beginning and an end. In simple terms, arc is nothing but the evolution of a/the character - from bad to good, timid to courageous and any such. Good stories are ones that have strong character arcs, starting off at one place, and wrought by the circumstances, end up at a totally different place. Gandhiji needed a visit to the indigo fields in Champaran to crystallize upon the idea of independence struggle. Swami Vivekananda need a personal tête–à–tête with Ramakrishna Paramahamsa to realize his potential and set upon the course of awakening the country and a generation. When history finally settles down on the Indian story of World Cup 2011, how far does it go back in time to settle on the beginning, given its now famous win? Was it the humiliating and shocking campaign of 2007 that had the players go 'never again'? Was it bitter squabble between the coach and the captain, following by an unceremonious ouster of the both, followed by a return to the sanity with stable and cooler heads helming the affairs? Was it the consistent overseas victories in hostile conditions that gave the team the confidence and belief of performing well against any opposition at any place? Or (from the far left field) Was it IPL that kicked off this chain reaction? The interesting aspect is, siting the story at each of those points would give a completely different meaning to the final victory. Set it at the point of 2007 debacle, the win is about an amazing resurgence of the down and the fallen; at the point of the coach X captain mind games, it is about returning to the roots and developing a sense of professionalism; at the overseas victories, self-belief raises its hand. Eventually, how long was the 2011 win in the making?

Take a stock of the situation just before the commencement of the cup. Flush off a great test series and a credible performance in the ODIs, and that too in the bastions of pace and backyards and bounce in South Africa, Indians were tipped as (one of the) strong favorites of winning the title, playing in familiar conditions at home. And it felt right. The home team had a stellar one day record against the entire world at home, with only the Proteas putting up any resistance in the prior visits here. Australia was humbled, Sri Lanka mauled, New Zealand humiliated, and any fears against England, West Indies and the rest were comfortably put to rest. The only unknowns remained the consistent South Africa and the mercurial Pakistan. Granted history hadn't looked upon kindly on the host nations, but that alone couldn't be a reason to hold the hopes of the country down. And then the World Cup commenced. Whatever high aspirations the pundits and the plebs had for the team came crashing quickly to the ground following the England fixture, where the team, all but gave up defending a score of 300+, until some last minute efforts pulled back the result into the neutral zone. All the strong votaries, at home and abroad, who were championing the cause of the home team, suddenly found themselves second guessing their predictions. The opening contest against Bangladesh showed first strains in the weakness of the attack, when the Bangladeshis put up a good show against an almost insurmountable target. And the fears were confirmed in the very next game with England, and the doubts grew with each passing match about how much the batting department can cover for the weak and toothless bowling and the poor and shoddy fielding. After all, was this the mark of a champion?

History showed that there were two ways of attaining the final holy grail. One, the merciless Aussies way - destroy everything in target with ruthless efficiency and lay legitimate claim on the final prize; the other, path of eternal struggle - strive for every win, big or small, against every opposition, strong or weak, with the same skin of the teeth and clinging of the finger nails. In the second approach, at no point does the team exude any self belief, instill even a tiniest measure of confidence, appearing as though, it is waiting on meeting its eventual doom head on. In such a condition, every move appears stupid, self-defeating and suicidal (which, on a win, would later be transformed as intelligent, instinctive and inspired). Remember, Pakistan, 1992? It was a short and a quick ride from the top for the Indians, just a few games into the campaign, and the fears were pried wide open after it couldn't defend a decent score against the Proteas. If 'choke' held its vice grip over the South Africans, 'collapse' became the order of the day for middle order for the home team. The top order could put up a top performance, but there was no guarantee that the middle and the lower order would build upon it, and the bowling unit could deliver the decisive blow. In almost every occasion, lucky breaks appeared as divine intervention, and wins felt gifted more than earned. In spite of the wins (and the lone loss) in the group stage, the team entered the knock outs losing out all the steam and the support that it built up prior to the cup. The start of the knock outs can be marked as the decisive check point from when India showed for the first time, what it had been short on for more than a month's time - character.

They say, character is built best when conditions are at their worst. After making sure that the expectations have been reset completely, the team set and defended scores in the knock outs with the kind of confidence and consistency that had till then been either completely missing or found largely wanting. The contest against Australia was the key match in the whole tournament for India, for, after its bowlers set the match up nicely, it was the batsmen who accepted the gauntlet and eminently rose to the challenge, chasing a sizable score with the last recognized batting pair under very trying conditions. It was full bore blood and sweat win. Indians worked for each run, approached the final total in incremental targets, realizing fully well the dangers lurking behind each step, and carefully inching towards the pot of gold at the end of the distant rainbow. The subjugation of Aussies breathed a second wind into the flailing and flagging campaign and gave a hope to the team that history could be negated and conventional wisdom could be trumped. And in regard to the finals - how can 275 be chased in a World Cup final, under lights, at home? Simple, in the same way as the 275 was set - small and level headed partnerships, sans grand gestures and heroics. In the end, application was what that won the cup for India - the ability to stay in the moment and dealing with it and moving on to the next, only after properly disposing the present. Stand out performances, there were few, as partnerships ruled the roost. Individualism gave way for institutionalism. If 1983 is a certified fluke, 2011 is a bonafide certainty. They may lose a few from here, but they certainly know now how to comeback and win from anywhere. History needn't look far for a suitable arc to tie this story. The start and end of the Indian campaign would in itself make a nice bookend to an amazing success story.

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