The romance of cricket has but one competitor, the mystery of conspiracy. When the two become part of the same narrative, there is an all-time best-seller. We have had two in one week.
The credibility of both SMSes and bookies rose sharply before the India-Pakistan semi-final when a pre-match SMS circulated what the bookies thought — or knew? — what was going to happen: India would bat first, make 260, lose 3 to 4 wickets in first 25 overs, Pak would cruise to 100, lose 2 quick wickets, be 150 for 5, crumble and lose by over 20 runs. Twenty minutes before the finals on Saturday I received this SMS: Lanka will bat first, score between 240 to 250. Tendulkar would fail (meaning, score 37), as would Sehwag, but Gambhir would shine and India would win.
At 2.30 pm Lanka batted first, but the prescient SMS had underestimated their score. They put on a batting performance that began with professional virtuosity, and paced it like a musical overture: minimum fuss at the start, no histrionics, the music's passage crafted by a captain who knew this had to be the innings of his life, but ending with a thunderous clash of cymbals, a mighty final five overs that climaxed a perfect harmony. Mahela Jayawardene's Sri Lanka had outdistanced the know-all SMS by a crucial 25 runs. Would that become the vital difference that kept the World Cup in either the largest or the smallest of the cricket countries of South Asia?
It was evident that Mahendra Dhoni had made his first big mistake of the tournament by investing in Sreesanth. It was not merely the runs that he gave away to Lanka's cool batsmen, but the manner in which he gave them, with that strange alchemy of petulance and ability that has made him a wanderer rather than a fixture in the side. Sreesanth is not a boy big enough for the big moment.
Dropcap OnThe Indian innings was an essay in transition. The old order was giving way to the new. Gautam Gambhir did not merely deliver in mathematical terms, important as they are; a new captain was claiming his place for the future in front of the most important audience of his career. When Gambhir and Dhoni were batting with India at 170 for 3, the only question was whether those last five overs of the Lanka innings had been the game-changer. At this stage, a target of 140 to 250, with Yuvraj still to come was eminently reasonable. India was full of runs and Lanka short of wickets. There was suddenly a big hole where wickets should have been, and for one reason alone: the last finale of the greatest bowler in Lanka's history, Muralitharan, seemed to have lost its magical, piercing rhythm.
Dhoni and Gambhir made the failure of Sehwag and Sachin irrelevant. A team is always greater than the sum of its most combustible sparklers. Such was their dominance that when Murli returned in the last ten overs, he surrendered a wide and was hit for a four. The mojo was gone. Then, as if to prove that cricket would always remain the eventual winner, Gambhir was bowled. Drama revived, a dying game returned to life. Indian hearts were attacked when a run out and an lbw went to the third umpire at 241. But there was a batting power play left. Surely India could not come so near and yet be so far.
If Sri Lanka had a king as their captain, India had an emperor. Moreover, he had a prince as partner, Yuvraj. Emperors save their best for the last. The six that brought India its second World Cup, in the new capital of international cricket, will be adorned in history as the finest stroke of a game that began in England and has become Indian. The final began with the Indian national anthem. Our anthem was the perfect metaphor. Bharat bhagya vidhata...Jaya hey!