India probably paid the price in two matches nine years apart, for not playing to their strengths but to the opponents' weaknesses.
By Suresh Menon
Both in 1987 and in 1996 – the two previous occasions when the World Cup was held in the subcontinent – India were expected to win the tournament. Both times they lost in the semifinals. Both times the captains might have erred in choosing to field first on winning the toss; both times the captains threw their wickets away, adding to the pressure. Both times the Indian batsmen displayed a strange obsession with playing the sweep (especially after the early wickets).
Both times the rival captains, England’s Mike Gatting and Sri Lanka’s Arjuna Ranatunga, confessed it might have been a good toss to lose. In 1987, opener Graham Gooch (who scored a century) said he would have batted first despite the description of Wankhede Stadium as a “giant Turkish bath.”
The role of the captains, despite the increasing influence of the coach/manager, decided the destination of both World Cups. In the final against Australia, Gatting decided to reverse sweep the first delivery from his opposite number, Allan Border, to be caught behind and hand the match over on a platter with all the trimmings.
India probably paid the price in two matches nine years apart, for not playing to their strengths but to the opponents’ weaknesses. A Kapil Dev with greater confidence in his batsmen might have chosen to take first strike, to give his spinners Ravi Shastri and Maninder Singh something to bowl at. Or perhaps he lacked faith in his spinners. He was handicapped by the absence of his best batsman, Dilip Vengsarkar who was out with food poisoning.
Azharuddin claimed after his defeat at the Eden Gardens, that it has been a “collective decision.” He had Anil Kumble and offie Ashish Kapoor (to counter all those left handers) in his side.
Kapil Dev got two things wrong. After the first ball from Maninder Singh turned, the English batsmen decided to play the lap shot. It became the productive shot of the day for them when the Indian captain decided not to place fielders to prevent it. Had Srikkanth, normally a safe fielder, managed to cling on to a difficult Gooch chance, India might have still made it.
The skipper was presented with a chance to personally wipe out his mistakes when India batted. He raced to 30 in 22 deliveries, abruptly stepping up the pace with a series on swipes and swings that were not for the weak-hearted. He tonked off spinner Eddie Hemmings to midwicket for four, causing Gatting to move back towards the boundary. Next ball, Kapil obligingly popped a catch to Gatting.
Still, with only 56 runs to get in ten overs with five wickets remaining, India remained favourites. A rash of swings and roundabouts, hoicks and tonks saw those wickets fall for 20 runs in 33 balls. The defending world champions turned out to be a team in a hurry, and in their haste laid waste weeks of preparation, hype, anticipation.
Lessons unlearnt saw another Indian captain repeat the mistakes. Azharuddin, one of only two survivors from 1987 (Navjot Sidhu was the other) looked like a genius within ten minutes when the dangerous opening pair of Sanath Jayasuriya and Romesh Kaluwitharana were dismissed off successive deliveries.
Aravinda de Silva then took over. His first 31 came in 12 deliveries, and he made 66 in 47 with textbook drives and pulls before finally falling to Anil Kumble the first time he attempted a one-day stroke, a nudge to the off.
Still 252 to win didn’t seem impossible, but by the 29th over India were 110 for five. Azharuddin went without scoring, reaching for a Dharmasena delivery and only managing to lead-edge it back to the bowler.
And then came the rash of sweep shots. At 120 for eight, with just over 15 overs left, the match was called off. ‘Riot’ is too strong a word for the bottle-throwing and rubbish-chucking the crowd indulged in. The ire was directed at the Indian team by spectators denied basic amenities like water on a hot day. Officials must take responsibility for the incredible hardships, not to mention the high ticket rates, the average spectator had to put up with.
Mahendra Singh Dhoni is in a position to change all that. He has the team, he has the right circumstances to ensure that he can keep history from doing what it is best at – repeating itself.