The Insider Series: The Days Leading To India’s 2003 WC Final Loss

Coming into final, India had lost only one match in the competition that was against the same opponent Australia. 

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Cricket
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Australia’s Adam Gilchrist celebrates in front of India’s Yuvraj Singh after his dismissal during the 2008 ICC World Cup final.
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Before the final, ICC hosted an official banquet at the Sandton Sun hotel where Wes Hall made a long and eloquent speech. Cricket, said Hall, is a super glue which holds people (as in India) and nations (as in the West Indies) together. Hall praised cricket, glorified it, celebrated its power, also pointed to the challenges confronting it, ranging from match fixing to player contracts, to the shape and colour of Kookaburra balls. Change is essential, he said, and cautioned administrators about the grave consequences of failing to move with the times. Dinosaurs became extinct, according to Hall (a preacher, former President of the West Indies Cricket Board and Tourism Minister) because they could not adjust. Basic message: Recognise reality, be flexible – or perish.

Hall praised India and Australia for reaching the final and made a subtle distinction between playing well and knowing the trick of winning. He congratulated SA for a wonderful World Cup but was unimpressed with its policy of quotas for players of colour. 

“Improve quality by teaching kids,” he said. “Give them equal opportunity not a free ticket.”

22 March: A Day Before the Final

This is exam time, something everybody prepared for and looked forward to with fear and anxiety. The uncertainty is nerve wrecking for players, it leaves a tense feeling in the stomach but, strangely, pressure is accompanied by a sense of release because there is little now that can be done. At this point, as the moment of reckoning draws close, events unfold on their own. Only thing to do is keep cool, remain focused and go into the match with a positive frame of mind.

Practice is a formality, a quick, last-minute revision of essentials. The team played volleyball once again on the main ground, a noisy contest, followed by an easy, relaxed net. Sachin refuses a hit, choosing to work with bowlers on one side. Says later he had just one regular net in the entire tournament before Zimbabwe in Harare. For him it has been only fine-tuning of batting mechanics, working on minor adjustments.

Yuvraj smashes several balls into the Wanderers hospitality area causing an admiring Ganguly to comment that he has ‘too much’ talent. When informed of Kent’s interest in signing Yuvraj, Sourav thinks it will do him a lot of good. County cricket is tough, says Sourav, choosing one bat of many before getting into the net teaches you discipline because you are on your own and still have to deliver. 

Later, Sourav met the media and answered usual questions about plans for stopping Australia, countering Brett Lee/team composition (the inevitable Kumble or Harbhajan). By early afternoon, the team returned to the hotel but Sourav had barely half an hour to grab a bite (in the Sandton food court) before the Sports Minister came calling, carrying a good luck message from the PM.

This 1.30 appointment is delayed because the team room (the Jacaranda hall) is occupied – physio Andrew Leipus is giving a rub to a tired Virender Sehwag. But soon the minister arrives, accompanied by TV cameras, to read out the PM's message and present a miniature bat signed by him. Sourav responds like a seasoned diplomat, says this wonderful gesture will inspire the team.

Sahib Singh Verma distributes special barfi from Delhi, which Sehwag accepts gleefully, but only after a quick look to make sure Andrew Leipus had left. Sourav and Dravid do the customary mooh mitha in full glare of TV cameras and barfi dibbas are passed around to media persons present at the function.

While India reached the final pushing away sides that came in their way, Australia survived a few hiccups, barely scraping through against England and Sri Lanka. But, despite these stumbles, odds favour them. Experts think Australia is too strong and too confident. But are they unbeatable?

No, thinks Sachin. He recalls India halted them in tests after 16 successive wins. Now, when they have won 16 straight one dayers — it is time for India once again to break their streak.

22 March: The Final at Wanderers

Security at the gorund was tight because South African Presidents Mbeki was expected.
Security at the gorund was tight because South African Presidents Mbeki was expected.
(Photo: Reuters)

The breakfast routine is so normal this could have been a game against Namibia or Holland. Players rush in carrying bags (and their match bats), mumble quick good mornings all around and settle down to eat. Sachin as usual 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 8 am departure deadline and occupy their regular seats. Sachin first left, behind him Sourav then Yuvraj followed by Ajit Agarkar. On the right Bangar, Dravid, Kaif, Kumble. The short drive to the ground is done in silence and by quarter past 8 the team is at the ground, settling down in the visitor's dressing room.

But this, of course is no ordinary game. This is final and the significance of the match is only too visible. It is early for a 9.30 start, but the ground is already filling up, the Indian tricolour is visible around the ground. Security is tight because Presidents Mbeki is expected.

Earlier that morning the team received a message from Rashtrapati Bhawan conveying the President’s best wishes and after that a fax from Deputy PM Shri LK  Advani.
Earlier that morning the team received a message from Rashtrapati Bhawan conveying the President’s best wishes and after that a fax from Deputy PM Shri LK Advani.
(Photo: Reuters)

Just as boys go down for their stretching routine an urgent message from Rashtrapati Bhawan, Delhi conveying the President's best wishes is received. A fax from Deputy PM Shri Advani brings similar sentiments. By this time, Sourav is already out in the centre to look at the wicket but the others have 30 minutes before reporting to Adrian Ke a Roux for training. During this period, players check out gear, change clothes, flip through the match brochure, read a newspaper, drink tea — all this is careful preparation to calm nerves before slipping into the intense, high pressure contest.

Usual formalities over, now it is time for action. How do players get ready? Some (Sachin, Dravid) get into tights, some (Sehwag , Mongia) eat bananas and apples; others clean sunglasses, apply sunblock cream. Harbhajan and Ashish Nehra choose the match ball from the box brought in by the third umpire.

Last thing done by the team before going in to field? They sign a paper which has the slogan ‘I CAN, WE CAN’, a match ritual which started in Zimbabwe.

Unfortunately, the match is a disaster from the first over itself. Bowlers hit the wrong length and Aussie batsmen hit the right shots. Ponting plays out of his skin, a dream innings where he could do no wrong, he even hit a one-hand six off Srinath. The last 10 overs produced 109 and India went for 359, which is a decent test match score.

After the carnage, during the break, there was silence, the gloomy atmosphere broke only once. When Zaheer Khan came looking for food in the dining area and Sehwag joked: “Itna khaya ground mein phir bhi bhook baki hai?”

While the Indians collected their thoughts, the Australians gave them a little more to think about. Just outside the change rooms at the Wanderers is a tiny stretch of grass, a passage used by players to walk down to the middle. During the innings break Aussie pacers (Lee, McGrath, Bichel) decided to loosen up there, right in front of the Indian dressing room. They bowled from a two-step run up, pitched short, the ball making a thudding sound before Jimmy Maher collected it with a baseball glove. Was this normal loosening or a subtle psychological ploy to unnerve the Indians?

How does any team approach a monumental and seemingly unattainable total? Sourav, waiting for his turn, weighed options and concluded there was no option except to slog and hope for the best. No team should realistically reach 359, not even against Bangladesh, certainly not against Australia.

Sachin Tendulkar, the game’s greatest star, played match-winning innings right throughout the Cup but the final wasn’t his day.
Sachin Tendulkar, the game’s greatest star, played match-winning innings right throughout the Cup but the final wasn’t his day.
(Photo: Reuters)

Sachin tried and perished. His first over dismissal was caused by pressure more than McGrath. There was a stunning silence in the dressing room as he returned, no words were said but the dull sound of a bat being flung into the coffin was enough to convey the utter hopelessness of the situation.

From a personal perspective of players and that of the team, the final was a huge missed opportunity. Sachin Tendulkar, the game's greatest star, played match-winning innings right throughout the Cup. Any player would, justifiably, feel proud of what he'd done but not Sachin whose hunger is fueled by a fierce rage from within. The grim look on his face, as Sehwag scattered the bowlers, advertised an internal grief. Wouldn't he have loved to perform on this wonderful stage and win the World Cup for India. But even true champions have off days, and Sachin will have to wait, and continue his search for attaining cricket nirvana.

Yuvraj, not one to quit easily, thought there was a chance if the team got around forty runs in two overs. 
Yuvraj, not one to quit easily, thought there was a chance if the team got around forty runs in two overs. 
(Photo: Reuters)

Not all hopes were extinguished with Sachin's dismissal. Though wickets tumbled, Sehwag attacked fearlessly. Yuvraj, not one to quit easily, thought there was a chance if the team got two twenty run overs.

These good overs did not come but threatening clouds and stray drops of rain provided a temporary glimmer of hope. Dravid carried the Duckworth I Lewis calculation sheets to the crease, when rain interrupted the game and hopes were raised but, alas, this was only a passing shower.

Sadly, for the team, the moment passed, the World Cup eluded their grasp and the pain, anguish, disappointment came to the surface. As the dream of winning the Cup crashed, the rosy optimism of the morning was replaced by grim reality and a terrible feeling of emptiness.

The Insider Series: The Days Leading To India’s 2003 WC Final Loss
(Photo: Reuters)

Sourav, leader of India's vigorous campaign, rued the missed chance. The sombre look on John' s face said all that had to be said —for months he worked like a man possessed, driving himself and all around him, determined to win despite sniggering doubts from sniggering doubters. Leipus and Adrian, in true professional fashion concealed their emotions but Harbhajan, Yuvraj Srinath, Kumble were gutted. Nothing dramatic happened. There was no yelling or screaming, no injuries caused by spiked shoes hurled across the dressing room. Just a dull sense of loss and deep, deep feeling despair.

In moments of stress, reason is a casualty and it is difficult to sensibly weigh matters. But, after the botched-up final on 23 March what could players possibly be thinking.

Should Sourav be happy that India made it to the final, played like champions but lost to a superior side who had an outstanding day. Or should he be in mourning, shedding tears.

Should Sachin be satisfied with the Man of the Tournament award or grieve about not making a sizeable contribution in the final? (He answered this during the press conference by saying individual peformances did not matter, he'd be far happier had India won).

The team left the ground, cheered by fans who showed support, and received a similar warm reception at the hotel. 
The team left the ground, cheered by fans who showed support, and received a similar warm reception at the hotel. 
(Photo: The Quint)

Should Srinath, Zaheer and Nehra be lauded for winning matches or blasted for an ordinary performance against Australia ?

Basically. should India cry or hold their heads high? Is reaching the final an achievement or is losing to a superpower a disgrace?

Of course, nobody had clear answers to these questions. And when the match ended nobody thought about them anyway because there were more urgent, practical matters to attend to. Bats, shirts had to be signed, kitbags packed one final time. Sourav deciding to clean up, gifted stuff away – spikes to someone, a glove and thigh pad to someone else.

The team left the ground, cheered by fans who showed support, and received a similar warm reception at the hotel. The team gathered in the hotel for a debrief session where John made an emotional speech congratulating player for their great effort and brilliant performance. Then on a more personal note he said it was a privilege to work with such a talented bunch of cricketers.

Sourav, like a general addressing his officers after a failed campaign, told the boys to keep their heads high. He made a stirring speech – congratulated Sachin, thanked the bowlers (who were hammered in the final) for bringing the team this far, praised others for playing outstanding cricket, made a special reference to Anil Kumble’s support.

Sourav spoke from the heart, said things that showed maturity and balance. Overcoming the disappointment of a dreadful day, he looked ahead with optimism, talked about carrying on keeping the team united and taking Indian cricket forward.

The team raised three cheers for Srinath who said he would make a formal announcement of retirement. Srinath made a candid admission, said he was sorry for letting the team down in the final and proceeded to deliver a farewell speech. He thanked Sourav (for having faith in him). The physio and the trainer (for keeping his body together) said this was India's best ever team, clearly superior to previous ones in terms of attitude, approach, hard work and intensity. Srinath praised Zaheer and Nehra for their fantastic contribution and predicted a bright future for them and Indian cricket.

The meeting made players feel better, by talking to each other. Exchanging reassuring words helped ease the pain of defeat. Players knew they missed out but were proud of what they achieved and satisfied they did not fail for want of effort . “Crore nahin mile to koi baat nahin , kam se kam joote to nahin padenge,” observed one disappointed but alert individual.

(Amrit Mathur is a senior journalist, former GM of the BCCI and Manager of the Indian Cricket Team. He can be reached at @AmritMathur1)

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