The first half had gone swimmingly for India and, by extension, for their adoring, transfixed supporters. They had got everything and more they had bargained for. A blazing cameo from skipper Rohit Sharma, the hometown hero. A mellifluous unbeaten 80 (interrupted by a bout of cramps) by the king-in-waiting, Shubman Gill. A world record 50th ODI hundred by the king himself, Virat Kohli. A fabulous display of ball-striking by local lad Shreyas Iyer, who breezed to his second successive century. And a telling final kick from KL Rahul, at No. 5 the free spirit that he hasn’t been able to summon in the other two formats as an opener.
The result of all this was a humongous 397 for four. Ninety times out 100, that’s a total far beyond the reach of even the most marauding of sides. In the semifinal of the World Cup, with no second chances and with a miracle required, that’s beyond safe 99.9 percent of the time. And so they danced in the aisles, sang Vande Mataram, kicked off a party even though the final denouement was a distance away.
There is something about the Wankhede Stadium that is hard to put into words. Simply said, there is a genuine cricket vibe to the venue. True, there are vastly bigger behemoths with much larger capacity, with more impressive edifices, with more modern architecture. But the Wankhede holds a special place in Indian cricket. It’s here that, for nearly 50 years now, many of Mumbai’s finest have paraded their wares in domestic and international cricket. Sunil Gavaskar. Dilip Vengsarkar. Ravi Shastri. Sanjay Manjrekar. Sandeep Patil. Sachin Tendulkar. Vinod Kambli. Wasim Jaffer. Ajinkya Rahane. Rohit himself. Shreyas Iyer. Suryakumar Yadav. And most likely a dozen more that we have not named.
The Wankhede believed, not without justification, that India had a foot and a half in Sunday’s final in Ahmedabad, host to the largest cricket stadium in the world. To them, New Zealand had about as much chance of making the final as anyone had of finding snow in the desert. And so they buzzed and hummed and sang and swayed to the beat of the music filtering through the public address system, and to the soulful tunes in their hearts from the sheer delight at watching their favourite sons deliver a command performance.
When Mohammed Shami packed off Devon Conway and the seriously talented Rachin Ravindra inside the first eight overs, they found, if that was possible, a new gear to their decibel levels. They say of Indian crowds that when they are boisterous, you don’t have to look at the score board to figure out which way the game is going. And, that if the crowd goes silent, no prizes for guessing what’s happening in the middle.
For large periods of the 25 overs when Kane Williamson and Daryl Mitchell were leading a spirited Kiwi revival, the crowd lost its voice. It lapsed into stunned silence as the ball sailed deep into the stands, mainly off the Mitchell willow that was producing sweet music of its own. Williamson was the nudger and the nurdler, like Kohli had been in the afternoon; Mitchell reprised the Iyer role, using his bat as an extension of his sinewy arms to smote it a mile.
Suddenly, the hearts started to palpitate. The palms because sweaty, voices choked in throats. The Wankhede was engulfed by the deathly sound of silence. Was it even possible? Would even 397 not be enough? Is this going to be one of those nights? Dear God, no, please.
So, they prayed, and they hoped. They egged the bowlers on, almost pleading with them for the breakthrough that would calm their nerves, that would settle the butterflies in their churning stomachs. For 181 runs, they found no response. Then Shami – who else? – answered their prayers in the most emphatic of fashions, with the scalps of Williamson and Tom Latham in the space of three deliveries. ‘We are back,’ the massive gathering announced, rediscovering its zing and zeal and zest as the party reached a crescendo.
Mitchell was still around, but so was Shami, of course. Steaming in like the wind, with 32,000-plus driving him on, Shami moved the ball this way, cut it that, upright seam and beautiful wrist combining to make life miserable for the lower order. He took No. 5 – a third five-for in a World Cup is unprecedented — and then No. 6. And then, fittingly, No. 7 to register the best figures by an Indian (7/57) in men’s ODIs. The noise – deafening. The party – unending. Thanks for coming, see you later.