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Indian cricket’s 50-over hurdle

With the 2019 World Cup in sight, and with a set of fatigued players, it will be interesting to see how the team performs in the ICC Champions Trophy, a bellwether for India's cricketing fortunes

Members of the Indian cricket team after the ICC Champions Trophy win in Birmingham on 23 June 2013. Photo: Getty Images
Members of the Indian cricket team after the ICC Champions Trophy win in Birmingham on 23 June 2013. Photo: Getty Images

No matter how many times India ascend to the top of the Test rankings, or what the administrators say about the primacy of the five-day game, it’s the 50-over world cup that remains Indian cricket’s Holy Grail. It has been that way ever since the halcyon English summer of 1983, when Kapil’s Devils—66 to 1 outsiders at the start of the tournament—shocked the mighty West Indies in the final. It was that victory that launched a “billion dreams", some of which became reality on the night of 2 April 2011, when the trophy was lifted once again.

Over the past two decades, however, another 50-over tournament has also served as an accurate barometer of the national team’s fortunes. In its first two editions, the ICC Champions Trophy was known as the ICC KnockOut, and though India reached the semi-final in 1998 and lost to New Zealand in the final in 2000, few teams treated it with the gravitas that a global event deserves.

That began to change in 2002, when Sri Lanka were the hosts. Under Sourav Ganguly (captain) and John Wright (coach), Indian cricket was enjoying an upswing, and a recent tour of England had seen them best their hosts in an epic Natwest Series final. Both teams would meet again in Colombo, with a place in the last four at stake.

With Ian Blackwell smashing three sixes in a 68-ball 82, England romped to 269 for 7 in their allotted overs. By the standards of the time, it was a big total. For the Premadasa Stadium, built on marshland once used by Buddhist monks, it was a mammoth one. At that point, the highest target that had been chased down there was 244.

During the mid-match break, an English journalist working for one of the broadsheets told us that he was tempted to head back to his hotel and lie by the pool for the rest of the evening. “England have this as good as won," he said. Not too many demurred.

As it turned out, he stayed and witnessed a Catherine-Wheel explosion of strokeplay. India didn’t just win, they strolled home with more than 11 overs to spare. Ganguly, fresh off his shirt-waving on the Lord’s balcony, scored 117 off 109 balls, while Virender Sehwag insouciantly raced to 126 off 104 balls before hitting one back to Blackwell.

In the semi-final, India would squeeze a South African team that was 192 for 1 and cruising towards a 262-run target when Herschelle Gibbs, who had made a sparkling century, went off with cramping arms. With Yuvraj Singh taking a couple of stunning catches and Sehwag, the bowler, coming into his own, South Africa fell 10 runs short.

But there would be no outright victory for India to celebrate, with both iterations of the final ruined by evening showers. The shared trophy was, however, an important stepping stone, and less than half a year later, India would lose to near-invincible Australia in the World Cup final, having beaten every other team they came across.

For that side, that represented a peak of sorts. By the time of the Champions Trophy in the English autumn of 2004, it was a team in decline, and Pakistan nudged India towards the exit in a low-scoring encounter in Birmingham. With the Ganguly magic fading, the scent of change was in the air.

By 2006, Wright had been replaced by another Antipodean, Greg Chappell, and Ganguly—deposed as captain—was in the middle of a 16-month-long exile from the One Day International (ODI) ranks. The Champions Trophy was being played on home turf, but the early optimism of the Chappell tenure had given way to a sense of foreboding, and dark mutterings from within the side.

India won their tournament opener against England in Jaipur without too much fuss, but the knives were already out for Rahul Dravid, the captain who was seen—rightly or wrongly—as an accessory to Chappell’s tough-love philosophy. Andrew Flintoff, instrumental in an Ashes victory the previous year, was treated with kid gloves by the English press, but when it was Dravid’s turn to address the media, the mood soured quickly.

The first question was more slap in the face than inquiry. “Sehwag was a flop. What do you have to say to that?" A stunned Dravid didn’t reply for a few seconds, and by the end of the 10-minute interaction, he was seething. As he exited the room, he told a journalist: “You’d think we’d lost the game!"

They did lose their next two, to the West Indies and Australia, ensuring that there would be no Asian participation in the last four. And, as in 2002, what happened in the Champions Trophy would prove to be a harbinger of India’s World Cup fate. They went to the Caribbean, in 2007, as one of the favourites, but exited in the first round, losing to both Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.

Some storied careers never recovered from that blow. Anil Kumble, the current coach, quit the ODI side after the debacle, while Ganguly and Dravid were purged in Australia less than a year later. Others who had been cornerstones of the Chappell dispensation, like Irfan Pathan, never took the next step.

By 2009, with Gary Kirsten firmly in the coaching saddle, Indian cricket was once again glimpsing sunny days. But even as the Test side took big strides to the pinnacle, the white-ball form continued to stutter. Players and coaches alike now had to contend with the Indian Premier League (IPL) taking up the space in the calendar that was once the off-season.

The months leading up to the Champions Trophy in South Africa had included an ill-fated World Twenty20 in England, when a team enervated by IPL duty flopped badly at the business end of the tournament. Worse still, there had been an extraordinary group media briefing, to ward off talk of alleged rifts in the camp.

Things got no better in South Africa. With the exciting Mohammad Amir dismissing Sachin Tendulkar, Pakistan enjoyed only their second victory against India in a global event. The game against Australia, the eventual champions, was ruined by rain, and it needed a gutsy innings from Virat Kohli—rapidly emerging as a player to watch for—against the West Indies to make sure India didn’t go home winless.

Then came that wondrous night at the Wankhede and Tendulkar’s slow fade. By 2013, when the top eight sides assembled in England, the Indian team looked very different. Shikhar Dhawan and Rohit Sharma, neither of whom had been part of the squad in 2011, set the tone for India’s success, and the bowlers performed heroically in conditions that were more Chennai than Cardiff.

The core of that team would go on to have an exceptional World Cup in 2015, winning seven straight games before unravelling against Australia in the semi-final. Now, on the back of an interminably long domestic season, and the IPL, it’s fatigue that could be India’s greatest enemy as they look to replicate their perfect tournament from four years ago.

The personnel haven’t changed much and, in theory, this should be a team in its prime. But it could have done with a wildcard or two—especially a fearless youngster like Rishabh Pant—given the way so many of the stalwarts struggled in the IPL. For Kohli, who has enjoyed a charmed start as Test leader, this is the first serious test of his white-ball captaincy credentials. M.S. Dhoni, his predecessor, won all three of the tournaments that mattered—the World Cup, Champions Trophy and World Twenty20.

Whatever happens to Kohli and his charges, the Champions Trophy should once again be an accurate weathervane for those looking to 2019, and the trophy that India cherishes above all else.

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