World Cup — 2003 — a teenager’s memories

I switched on the TV at 11 in the morning, still in uniform. Sehwag had more than hundred, India were chasing 196. There were plenty of overs to spare and all the wickets in hand. It looked like India were going to cruise.

Only, you can never trust India when it comes to cricket. Sehwag got out at the total of 181 and then, all hell broke loose. From 181/0 to 193/9, India seem to be gifting the match to New Zealand with both hands. The bowler ran in — I guess it was Jacob Oram and Ashish Nehra was on strike. Ashish Nehra is about as good a batsman as I am while batting left handed with my eyes closed.

The ball was good length, Nehra swatted the ball in baseball fashion and it connected! India had won. This was one of the two victories in a seven match series, both had Sehwag scoring more than half the team’s total.

The World Cup was next. After losing the test-series and one-day series, India were big under-dogs going in to the world cup. Stephen Fleming, the then NZ-captain, did say that the pitches were of low quality but still, I could see that he was just being polite.

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I was in 9th grade. I had lots of love for cricket but this was the first (and the last) time I was watching the world-cup with serious emotion. I was heart-broken after the shameful defeat to the Kiwis and at first, would absolute hate any more thrashing.

In the public, the build-up to the tournament was more about India v/s Pakistan than the rest of the world cup. They were going to play after four years and people had been waiting for the match for months. Another common topic of discussion was Rahul Dravid keeping gloves so that Dinesh Mongia gets to the eleven. Once the tournament started, Mandira Bedi and her sarees attracted far more attention than cricket did. (To her credit, she did pull it off with grace, unlike the girls which Sony hires for IPL)

The first match was a sign of problems to come. Against the weak Netherlands, India had barely put on 200 runs. Although, India did win the match, it wasn’t anything out of the ordinary. I didn’t even watch the match completely.

The second match was against the mighty Aussies. Tendulkar, Dravid v/s McGrath and Warne. Somewhere in my heart, I was afraid of the contest, but I was excited nonetheless. After the 2002 series, every match against Australia has been an exciting affair.

We were butchered.

The batting surrendered completely for a hundred odd and the Aussies chased it easily with 9 wickets and half the overs to spare. At times like that, my mother would scold me and tell me to focus on my studies instead of a loser team and I had no argument to oppose her.

Things went real bad, I suppose. Players were threatened, scathing articles were written, I was so angry that I would devour every one of them. The defeat against the Aussies was so humiliating that I found every criticism well deserved. After some time, Sachin had to come to press and say, “Have faith, we will bounce back”.

The words worked — I believed him. The odds were against India but the sincerity of these words has stuck with me ever since.

The next two matches were easy, Zimbabwe and Namibia. Sachin led by example. He played with grit and scored plenty in both the matches. India had two dominating victories. The belief was coming back, in the team and in the fans.

But the real test were remaining — England and Pakistan.

India were running in to an in-form England side. I was glued to the TV from Extra Innings. India had a fighting innings, Sachin didn’t last long, but Dravid played well, all others chipped in as well. India scored 250 something batting first (it seems it was exactly 250), an almost fighting total. The crowd were behind India, but the odds were in favor of England.

Anxious hearts were watching Srinath and Zaheer Khan take the ball. The things were going routine until Mohammad Kaif pulled off a stunning run-out of Nick Knight. I can still see that run-out with open eyes. Knight was half way down the pitch when Trescothik returned him, Kaif running in from Cover put in an under-arm throw and slid on the grass for at least six feet. Sheer inspiration. Soon, Zaheer Khan dismissed Trescothik. The game tilted towards India but the English batted deep.

There are times when I find Ashish Nehra running to be comic. He looks like he is going to fall every time he runs. Not that day, not one bit. He was throwing in fiery out-swingers and celebrating with his trade-mark Eagle run after every wicket. He took six that day. India won comfortably in the end and the buzz was already in the air. The day is coming — India v/s Pakistan and we were going there on a high.

It was the first of March. My seniors were writing their board exams. I was off at my friend’s place for watching the match. The match was to start at two in the noon, we got together at one. The streets were empty; everyone, everyone was glued to the TV sets.

It didn’t start well. Saeed Anwar (or was he Mullah Saeed already) was picking on his favorite opposition. At one point of time, it looked like they were going to cross 300 and with the bowling line up which they had, it would be near impossible to chase. But the bowlers found their spots towards the end and India were left to chase 275. Not impossible, but mighty difficult considering that Pakistani attack comprised of Wasim Akram, Waqar Younis, Shoaib Akhtar, Shahid Afridi.

Sachin and Sehwag walked in — tense hearts, loads of noise in the stadium. The first few minutes were anxious. The tension changed to elation when Tendulkar drove Akram through the covers with just a gentle push of the bat. The shot was a treat to the eyes. Some years later, Tendulkar revealed in an interview that they didn’t plan to attack early on. It was this shot which prompted him to get off the script and go all guns blazing.

Shoaib Akhtar had been very out-spoken before the match — he is out-spoken always, but he spoke simply too much before the match. He was running in from the other side. He would almost run a 100 meters before delivering and would bowl with serious pace.

His ploy was clear - pace and bounce. In the first over, he tried to bounce out Tendulkar. The bouncer was slightly outside off and Tendulkar upper-cut it for a six over point.

Tendulkar has done many a great things over the past 20 years, but even if I forget all else, I am going to remember that shot till I die. It was Neo fighting against Smith with one hand at the same time wondering what else can he do. The apathy with which the shot was played, sent shivers through the Pakistani star. He came back to his run-up, dejected and was slaughtered for 18 runs or so.

Soon, Sachin gave them a chance but Abdur Razzaq dropped it, a very simple catch off the bowling of Waqar. Sehwag was trying to match the master and succeeding at it. India raced to 50/0 before the fifth over. Only, it was too good to last forever. Waqar dismissed Sehwag and Ganguly both in a space of three deliveries — the Indians went silent, the Pakistanis roared.

Mohammad Kaif joined Sachin. He played slowly, but Sachin kept up the scoring. Until he started suffering from cramps. He could barely run and would hobble around for singles. Kaif went back just when things started looking stable and shortly, Shoaib Akhtar came back for a spell and dismissed Sachin. He was elated. One more wicket and the results favored Pakistan. Rahul Dravid and Yuvraj Singh were at the crease, Shoaib bowling with furious pace.

In our generation, most people were a member of one of the two camps — Sachin and Dravid. Sachin’s camp had already had their treat. Dravid’s was coming. Pakistan needed wickets, Shoaib ran in fast, good length ball on the off stump, Dravid’s bat met the ball with his head above the point of contact. After he ‘tuck’ed Shoaib for five balls in a row, Shoaib spread his hands in exasperation towards Afridi, I guess, at mid-off, pleading for ideas. The next ball was loose and pulled away for four. For some time, it was the Rahul Dravid show and when Shoaib bowled out, Yuvraj and Dravid started display of skills.

In the end, India won comfortably without any more twists. The streets were filled with fire-crackers, the tournament was on, India had bounced back. Half the people had already had their world cup — beating Pakistan.

That feeling of triumph lingered on for days. India made it to the super-sixes, not an hour went by when Sachin’s six over point was not on TV.

The first match of super-sixes was with Kenya. It was a closer affair than desired and at one time, India lost too many wickets too quickly, chasing a modest target. Back then, I remembered the names of Kenyan players, all of them, something which surprises me today.

The next match was with Srilanka. Vaas was bowling particularly well in the tournament and Murali is always dangerous. India put on a decent target but it was the bowlers who stole the show. Srinath bowled a beautiful spell and ran through the Srilankan top-order before they could put up 20 runs. Zaheer and Nehra finished Srilanka off for a massive victory. It was almost too easy.

The next match was a formality for India — they were mostly through to the semis, barring some unexpected turn of events. However, this was a match we had a lot of emotion for, the kiwis at a neutral venue. After being humiliated by the Kiwis at their home, it was India’s chance of revenge. India were running rampant, NZ had been recently beaten by Australia.

NZ were to bat first. After Ashish Nehra and Srinath had their moments of success, this was Zaheer’s turn. He got the first one LBW, followed by shattering the stumps of another one. NZ were 5/3 or something like that and were settled for hundred something. India had them by their neck.

Only, the second innings didn’t start that way. India followed NZ in the act and lost wickets quickly. Sachin was hitting well, I think he hit six fours, before he got out. But when he got out, India were close to 30 for 3, the match was on. Mohammad Kaif played a sensible knock and I don’t remember correctly, if it was Dravid or Yuvi with him, but India won the match pretty comfortably in the end. NZ were knocked out, we had our revenge.

The Semi-final was a walk-over practically. Kenya did make it to the Semis but they had their slice of luck and India had a pretty easy game. It was a boring affair.

The final was against the Australians again. India were humbled and humiliated by the Aussies in their previous meeting.

The atmosphere was electric. Lagaan was nominated for the Oscars and Aaj Tak kept on playing ‘Baar Baar haan, bolo yaar haan’. Some channel raised the slogan, ’20 saal baad’ — to date from the 1983 world cup win. It was cricket every where.

The final was on 23rd of March, my birthday. We guys gathered at my house. Saurav Ganguly surprised everyone by winning the toss and electing to bowl first. He had developed a high confidence in his bowlers and wanted to send the Australians in with the ball seaming.

Unfortunately, Zaheer Khan lost nerve. He threw in 10 wides in his first over, for a total of 18 runs. Gilchrist was doing what he did best — slashing and pulling hard. Very soon, Australia were 120+ for no wicket after 15 overs. Gilchrist later revealed that his job was to change the opposition from a hundred thousand and eleven Indians to eleven Indians. He succeeded.

India were losing the plot quickly. Harbhajan came in and got rid of Gilchrist and Hayden — a ray of hope. He has always done well against the Aussies. Let’s get a couple more and we can choke them like we did Pakistan. Ponting had a very bad 2002 series versus India and he was almost Bhajji’s bunny.

Nothing went India’s way. Ricky Ponting and Damien Martyn toyed with the Indian attack and by the time, the first innings was over, the match was sitting in Australia’s lap. India had to chase 360.

“Come on India, give me my birthday present”. We were dejected but still hopeful, waiting for some miracle to happen.

Sachin Tendulkar walked in with Virender Sehwag. Glenn McGrath with the ball. Sachin pulled the fourth ball of the over with authority for a four. A glorious shot, the crowd went berserk. Next ball, similar line, similar length, similar shot, only this time, it was top-edged and McGrath took an easy caught and bowled. I almost cried, almost.

Saurav Ganguly and Sehwag played well, but the required rate kept on going up. Ganguly went, quickly and then, Kaif went for nothing. Soon India were 80 something for 3. Sehwag was playing beautifully and Dravid was still there, when rain arrived. I had never been so happy to see rain in a cricket match. If the match got abandoned or if they come up with Duckworth-Lewis, with Sehwag in, we still had the chance. Ahh, the happiness and the joy — the Gods had heard my prayer. For ten minutes.

I don’t remember if they cut the target or not, but Sehwag made sure that India were at par with the DL target. Australia, tried to get their main bowlers in, before rain arrived again. Sehwag went after them all. There was Sehwag, there was hope. Let the rains come, please.

And then, Brad Hogg outfoxed Sehwag. Dravid departed sometime close as well. DL score shot up. I even prayed for Dinesh Mongia to score but he was helpless against the Australian pacers, comic almost. The rains never arrived, India lost by a big margin.

This was the saddest I had felt for a very, very long time. Perhaps my first encounter with true sadness. Nevertheless, I was a proud fan, proud of the team I had supported and their inspired performance. Sachin won the man of the series.

The players were rewarded lavishly by the BCCI, there was talk about Parthiv Patel being paid ridiculous sums for warming the bench. Shortly afterwards, India played Srilanka in a friendly match for Lata Mangeshkar — Dinesh Mongia managed to score a century there.

India did win the World Cup 8 years later in 2011, but it was nowhere as inspiring or dramatical as the 2003 World Cup. I have other fond memories of cricket — the 1999 World Cup, the test series against Australia and the inaugural T20 world cup, but this one stands right at the top with them.

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I have been meaning to write this post for a very long time. I have recited these events a couple of times to my students who were too young when this happened and I wanted to pen it down as I remember it.

I have a very fond memory of the 2003 World Cup, I almost lived it again while writing this post. A statutory warning, I have written most of this post from memory - some of it might be faulty.

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