It is like students at exam time – they have prepared for it but wait anxiously. It’s nerve-racking for some players, a tightness in the stomach. Yet, the pressure is accompanied by a sense of release because there is little now that can be done.
Practice is a formality. Like they had done all tournament, the team played volleyball on the main ground, a noisy contest, followed by an easy, relaxed net. Sachin refused a hit, choosing to work with the bowlers on one side of the ground. He later said he had just one regular net in the entire tournament, before the match versus Zimbabwe in Harare.
The rest of the team did its drills: Yuvraj smashed several balls into the Wanderers hospitality area, leading an admiring Ganguly to comment he has “too much” talent.
Later, Sourav met the media and answered a few questions about plans for stopping Australia/countering Brett Lee/team composition (the inevitable Kumble vs Harbhajan question). By early afternoon the team was back at the hotel.
Sports minister Sahib Singh Verma has carried a good-luck message from the prime minister. He distributes the special barfi brought from Delhi, which Sehwag accepts gleefully, but only after a quick look to make sure physio Leipus had left.
Experts say Australia are too strong, too confident. But are they unbeatable? No, says Sachin. He recalls that India halted them in Tests after 16 successive wins. They had won 16 straight one-dayers and it was time for India to again break their streak.
The breakfast routine is normal. Players rush in carrying bags (and match bats) and settle down to eat. Sachin is on cereal and fruit, Dravid on cereal topped with a dash of honey, Sourav asks for tea, Yuvraj sticks to croissants, some fruit and guava juice.
The bus ride is no different from other games, players beat the 8am departure deadline and take their regular seats. Sachin first left, behind him Sourav, then Yuvraj followed by Ajit Agarkar. On the right are Bangar, Dravid, Kaif, Kumble. The short trip to the ground is done in silence.
How do players get ready? Some (Sachin, Dravid) get into tights, some (Sehwag, Mongia) eat bananas and apples; others clean their sunglasses, apply sunblock cream. Harbhajan and Nehra pick the match ball from the box brought in by the third umpire.
Before going into the field, they sign a paper with the slogan “I CAN, WE CAN”. It is an old match ritual which began in Zimbabwe, the match in which the tide turned for India.
Unfortunately, the match is a disaster from the first over. The bowlers hit the wrong length and the Aussie batsmen hit the right shots. Ponting plays out of his skin, a dream innings when he could do no wrong, even hitting a one-handed six off Srinath. The last 10 overs produce 109 runs and India concede 359, which, never mind 50 overs, is a decent Test match score in a day.
During the break, the dressing room is quiet, the gloom broken only once. Zaheer Khan comes looking for food in the dining area and Sehwag jokes, “itna khaya ground mein phir bhi bhook baki hai?” (you got stuffed in the field and you’re still hungry?)
While the Indians collected their thoughts, the Aussies gave them more to think about. Outside the change rooms is a tiny patch of grass, next to the passage for players to walk down to the middle. During the innings break, the Aussie pacemen (Lee, McGrath, Bichel) decide to loosen up in front of the Indian dressing room. They bowl from two steps, pitch short – the ball thuds into Jimmy Maher’s baseball glove. Normal loosening or a ploy to unnerve the Indians more?
How does a team approach a monumental, seemingly unattainable, total? Waiting for his turn, Sourav weighed his options and concluded there was no option but to whack it and hope for the best. In those days, no team realistically chased 359, certainly not against Australia.
Sachin tries and perishes, his first-over dismissal caused by pressure more than McGrath. There is stunned silence as he returns. No words are said but the thud of the bat being flung into the coffin is enough to convey the hopelessness of the situation.
Though wickets tumble, Sehwag attacks fearlessly and Yuvraj, not one to quit easily, says there is a chance if the team somehow gets two 20-run overs. Those good overs don’t come but threatening clouds and stray drops of rain provide a glimmer of hope. Dravid has carried the Duckworth-Lewis calculation sheets to the crease, but it is only a passing shower.
Sadly for India, the World Cup has eluded their grasp. Yet, nothing dramatic happens – there is no yelling/screaming, injuries caused by spikes hurled across the dressing room. Just a sense of loss and deep, deep despair. After the botched-up final on March 23, you wonder what players could possibly be thinking.
Should Sourav be happy India made the final, played like champions but lost to a superior side who had an outstanding day? Or should he be in mourning and shed tears? Should Sachin be satisfied with the Man-of-the-Tournament award or grieve about not making a sizeable contribution in the final? Should Srinath/Zaheer/Nehra be lauded for winning matches with an excellent, disciplined and aggressive display through the tournament or get blasted for an ordinary performance against Australia?
Nobody had clear answers. When the match ended nobody thought about them anyway because there were more urgent, practical matters to attend to. Bats and shirts had to be signed, kitbags packed one final time. Sourav decides to de-clutter and gift stuff away – spikes, gloves, thigh pad.
The team left the ground cheered by fans who showed support and they received a warm reception at the hotel. The team gathered in the team room for a debrief session. John made an emotional speech congratulating the players for their great effort. Sourav, like a general addressing officers after a failed campaign, told the boys to hold their heads high.
The team raised three cheers for Srinath who said he would soon be making a formal announcement that he was retiring from cricket.