The Curse of The No 1


The Curse of The No 1

Illustration: Sushant Ahire / Arré

Australian captain Steve Smith was not having a good day. His body bounced off the turf as he made a desperate dive to take Hardik Pandya’s catch, arms outstretched, fingers splayed, but ultimately clutching nothing but air. The ball slipped from Smith’s grasp to land safely on the turf, and Pandya grinned to himself as he made it home safe.

Sometimes in sport, when a player is in sublime form, it feels like the laws of chance and luck are being bent backwards as they go from strength to strength. On any other day, Smith would have probably pouched the catch comfortably, but today Lady Luck had eyes only for Pandya. Meanwhile, Smith’s expression said it all: The vaunted Australian team, the champions of the world, were confused, worried, and bereft of ideas.

In that moment, Smith’s dejection and Pandya’s elation set the tone for things to come. India won the match with embarrassing ease, taking their lead to an unassailable 3-0 and winning the series in the process. As I watched the match play out, I could hardly believe what I was seeing. Team India, dismantling the World Cup holders, and hardly breaking a sweat. There was a confident, predatory air about the team as they stalked the pitch, inexorably running down the Australian target. This new attitude is a recent development, which is what enabled this crop of players under Virat Kohli to do what even MS Dhoni, Sourav Ganguly, and Kapil Dev could not do – earn a decisive series win over Australia in straight matches.

For all the high-on-emotion hype, rhetoric, and posturing surrounding India vs Pakistan as the biggest clash in world cricket, the truth is, that an Indian victory over Australia means much, much more. It has been, after all the one of strongest sides in the world: The one whose posters adorn the walls of budding cricketers, the one held up as the gold standard against which other teams will forever be measured.

Smith’s squad came to India representing a legacy of excellence. From the days of Allan Border, through the Steve Waugh, Ricky Ponting, and Michael Clarke captaincies, the Aussies have toured India with deadly intent, and I’m not talking just about the blood feud between Symonds and Harbhajan. Of the 51 ODI matches the two teams have played on Indian grounds, the Aussies have 25 wins to India’s 21. Head-to-head, the Australian team has scored 68 wins over India, far outstripping India’s tally of 40.

The series that we’re currently witnessing seems more like glimpses of an alternate universe, where up is down, left is right, and India is demolishing the formidable Australians. In the two most recent matches, the effortlessness with which Virat Kohli’s team swatted away the challenge posed by Smith’s boys reminded me of another encounter between the two teams, back in 2003. At the World Cup final that year in Johannesburg, Sourav Ganguly led a legacy squad including Sachin Tendulkar, Virender Sehwag, Rahul Dravid, and Yuvraj Singh out to play against Ricky Ponting’s Australians. As the day unfolded, the star-studded Indian line-up was taken down a couple of hundred notches as they withered away meekly in the face of the Aussies’ killer attitude.

What was supposed to be a contest between the world’s two best teams became a 125- run execution, as India lost its way with both the bat and ball.

Memories from 2003 played over and over in my mind yesterday, when in Indore, the hunters finally became the hunted. I watched with mounting elation, as India hammered the final nail in Australia’s coffin to end the series with two matches to go. How things had changed in merely a decade and a half! The win put India at the top of the ODI rankings, and we now hold top position in this format as well as Test cricket.

I know what commentators and watchers of the sport are going to say. They will argue that this Australian team possesses a weakened line-up, that holding the home advantage put India in a favourable position. But the truth is that this Indian squad comprising young and hungry players has achieved something even the star-studded line-ups of the years gone by couldn’t. The unassuming Ajinkya Rahane and the hardscrabble Hardik Pandya may not be cricketing demi-gods with Tendulkar’s talent and Dhoni’s charisma. But they are the ones breaking new ground and carrying the torch of Indian cricket into uncharted waters. Yesterday, when the trash-talking, roughhousing Australian fast bowlers began walking around the field with stooped shoulders, looking like whipped pooches, I knew this wasn’t the Team India my dad used to root for.

But with uncharted waters come unanswered questions. As the aphorism goes, “To be the man, you got to beat the man,” and India just beat the man hollow. Now that we are top dogs, what conquest is worthy of the team’s attention? Where do we go from here?

It’s the curse of success: Once you reach the top of the mountain, there’s nowhere to go but down. There is evidence all around us, and not just in sport. JK Rowling followed up her Harry Potter success with the much-maligned novel, The Casual Vacancy. DC Comics struck gold with Christopher Nolan’s cinematic Batman trilogy, and tried to follow it up with the dumpster fire of a motion picture known as Batman v Superman.

Team India

The Indian team is breaking new ground and carrying the torch of Indian cricket into uncharted waters.

BCCI / Twitter

For an Indian cricket fan like me, the future is both bright with optimism and fraught with peril. It’s like we’re waiting in queue outside a theatre, but we don’t know if we’re going to see Sholay or RGV Ki Aag. The team’s trial by fire will arrive in 2019, at the next edition of the World Cup, when it will be revealed if they can wrest the crown they laid claim to yesterday from Australia.

Guys like Jasprit Bumrah, Kuldeep Yadav, and Manish Pandey are shouldering an immense burden. They walk in the footsteps of legends, but aren’t legends themselves. They bear the hopes of an entire cricket-crazy nation, and all the highs and lows that entails are theirs to endure.

Will they be able to endure it? Will they defend jealously their new title of world number one? Or will history books dismiss them as a ragtag team that lucked out against the strongest side in the world in a freak series?

Whatever happens from now on, at least the boys can take comfort in the warm, supportive embrace of Indian cricket fans. Remember though, that Indian fans can be as fickle as Mumbai’s monsoon. This might be your coronation, boys, but do not forget the old saying, “Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown”. The series might be won, but your reign has just begun.