Cricket teams rarely become good overnight. They take steps. They take a step. And then they take the next step. The confluence of talented players, intelligent coaches, luck and the best laid plans help teams get better. Allan Border and Steve Waugh speak fondly of the ’86 tour to India and how big a step that was in the country’s evolution from pushover to world-beater. Mark Taylor looks back at the otherwise miserable tour to India in ’98 and how the lessons learned made the Aussies a formidable opponent even in subcontinent conditions for the next decade.
For the Indian cricket team which had muddled thru two decades of mediocrity away from home, 13 July 2002 was a seminal moment and a day when they took a huge step. On that day, a generation of Indian cricketers helped the country and a fan-base conquer the dual demons of chasing scores and playing away from home in a dazzling and spectacular manner. To a generation that is used to Dhoni escapades like the one from last Thursday, it wasn’t always like this. Once upon a time, India were bad chasers and the fan-base dreaded a chase that involved Sachin getting out early.
To truly quantify the size of the demons we are dealing with here, some cruel numbers need to be revisited. In the period between the 1996 World Cup and the 1999 World cup, India in ODIs still relied heavily on the bat of Sachin Tendulkar. Ganguly was starting to be Ganguly but India were still losers more often than they were winners when chasing targets. In a four year span, against teams not named Zimbabwe or Bangladesh, India only had two wins chasing when Sachin failed to score 50. Also, between January 31’st 1999 (when this happened) and July 13’th 2002, India lost NINE successive ODI finals. Five of those defeats were while chasing. Cometh the big game, choketh the side it seemed like.
So when on July 13, 2002 in the final of a triangular ODI tournament, Nasser Hussain and Marcus Trescothick blunted and decimated the Indian attack en route to England’s highest 50 over score ever, Indian fans like me had that sense of deja vu that only a tormented fellow fan would understand. And when India after a brisk start lost five wickets for 40 runs including that of one Mr. Tendulkar (clean bowled Giles),the deja vu turned into fatalism and a why-us diatribe to the cricket gods. I even turned the TV off or ran away from it. I think.
Thank the gods that the protagonists were not as fatalistic as their fans. Heroes of past Under-19 world cups, two fearless 20 year-olds decided that Lord’s was no place for history to supersede the future. In a partnership of the ilk that appears fairly often now but was then rare, Mohammed Kaif and Yuvraj Singh pooh-poohed any possible mental or emotional baggage. Buoyed by an aggressive captain who backed his players to the limit and a coach and structure that had planned for this very situation (turning Dravid into the wicket keeper just weeks prior to extend the batting order to 7-deep) the two turned the game on its head.
I started watching from the 35’th over onwards. I watched every run and every ball after that. The India fan in me that had been beaten to death by years of futile and failed chases kept the reverse-jinx tone one. “Won’t last”, “Eyewash” and “England will win” accompanied every run scored. The cricket fan in me that sensed talent and special moments kept telling me that this was incredible history I was witnessing. Deep inside I knew the cricket fan was right. On the outside I pretended to possess reverse jinxing superpowers.
Yuvraj’s dismissal woke up the reverse jinxer loudly but Harbhajan’s eventual fearlessness and Kaif’s crisp driving kept the awe alive. The massive Indian contingent that would eventually piss off Nasser Hussain was rocking and with 12 needed off 13 every Indian fan knew this was make-or-break. The cursed chasers of the past two decades carried it over to the new millennium? Or was this team going to finally point out to the world that chasing was just another thing.
Kaif and Zaheer would win with three balls to spare. The eventual euphoria was drowned out by the enormous relief. Kaif’s dad would be the toast of the news media for being one of the reverse jinxer fatalists and missing his son’s most glorious moment for a Shah Rukh Khan potboiler and Saurav Ganguly would take his shirt off. In one afternoon, a run chase would destroy years of pent-up defeatism and a fan base would never fear chasing targets as much. In the years to follow, outside of a traumatic World cup 2007, India built on their new found fearlessness and team after team chased down many an impressive score in every form of the game.
But for those who endured nightmarish losses in Colombo, the Caribbean and Calcutta among many other venues and for a generation that believed a chase was over when Sachin got out, that London evening will forever be etched as the day India learnt to chase.