As India and Australia embarked on another ODI series, one of the few bilateral match-ups that can still register a pulse from fans, it was not hard to think of the first sliding door, which appeared in front of us in March 2003. When Sourav Ganguly won the toss and elected to bowl in the World Cup final at the Wanderers, was he playing to India’s strengths or (understandably) wary of Australia’s, in conditions that were supposed to favour the swing and seam bowlers? After all, in the league phase earlier in the competition, India had been skittled for just 125.
As it turned out, an Indian batting line-up that had worked itself into prime form over the course of an eight-match unbeaten run was left with the futile pursuit of 360 for victory. For some, there would be redemption on home soil eight years later. For others, notably Ganguly, Rahul Dravid and Anil Kumble – who watched taciturn from the bench – there would be no second chance.
The next door also opened and shut in South Africa. When MS Dhoni, flamboyant dyed mane and all, led India to the inaugural World Twenty20, the country’s cricket-watching population was barely aware of the format. The Indian board thought it an unwelcome distraction, and had held its first domestic tournament earlier in 2007 only because the national side had lasted less than a fortnight at the Caribbean World Cup.
The squad had no Sachin Tendulkar, no Dravid, no Ganguly, and no Zaheer Khan. What they did have was beginner’s luck. It surely can’t have been part of the plan that Joginder Sharma, as pedestrian a medium-pacer as international cricket has seen, would bowl the final over. Misbah-ul-Haq, who led the fightback that took Pakistan to the cusp of victory, would go on to become one of the game’s greats. Joginder quickly faded back into anonymity. But that evening at the Wanderers, it was Misbah that made the mistake, miscuing a scoop to Sreesanth at short fine leg.
Overnight, Twenty20 became a national obsession. Lalit Modi pushed through his blueprint for the Indian Premier League, and cricket’s finances experienced a seismic shift. By the time India made it to the Champions Trophy final earlier this year, it was with a team that had partly cut its teeth in the high-profile cut-and-thrust of the IPL.
Unlike Ganguly, Virat Kohli and the think tank were so confident of India’s strengths that they elected to bowl, ignoring Pakistan’s dismal chasing record in high-pressure games. The result was the same as in 2003, only this time it was made while on the front foot.
It was reminiscent of July 5, 1982, when an Italian team that had barely scraped through the opening phase knocked a legendary Brazilian side out of the football World Cup. Brazil, who needed only a draw to make the semis, trailed twice, and restored parity with goals worthy of being framed from Socrates, the captain, and Falcao.
“I remember Oscar and I shouting at the full-backs to stay back, when it was 2-2,” said Luizinho, the centre-back who was named in the Team of the Tournament, in a documentary made more than three decades after ‘the day football died’ at Estadio de Sarrià. “But they wanted to win the game. Our coach, Tele [Santana], wanted to win the game. To be honest, I don’t think we played with enough humility. We had two chances to hold on to the draw, and we went for the win instead.”
“We wanted to win, but maintaining our philosophy,” said Zico, whose sleight of feet had teed up Socrates for his goal. “I think that group of players didn’t know how to play football any other way.”
Socrates, the ultimate football romantic, died six years ago. A few months before he passed away, he appeared on a TV show, smoking a cigarette and sipping from a bottle of beer. The passage of time hadn’t shaken his belief in the team’s method. “That game was the greatest game of the World Cup, and Italy played extremely well too,” he said. “It is something that people do not remember well…and perhaps the tragedy of our having lost that game is one of the things that has made it unforgettable.”
Had Brazil won, football as we know it might have been very different. But they didn’t. All we’re left with are the sliding doors.
First Published: September 24, 2017, 8:25 AM IST