2007 - It was a bittersweet year if you were an Indian fan. A year where India was knocked out from the ICC World Cup (There was only the 50-over World Cup then), and then out of the blue, there happens another one (in a new format of 20 overs) that very year, which India manage to go all the way and win it against arch-rivals Pakistan in the final. That year, India’s bitter moment found its manifestation exactly 13 years back to the day. That day, while watching India lose to Sri Lanka at Port of Spain, I found myself clinging back to the scars of Kolkata 1996, that seemed to open up wounds as each phase of the match unfolded.
6:30 PM IST
Having had a bad start, India needed to win this match to safely progress to the Super Six, and hope Bangladesh struggle a bit against Bermuda in the upcoming game. Sri Lanka was almost through, and had to ensure they don’t lose too badly. That was how we Indian fans saw it. It was one of those games, where you felt that all was not okay. It was a pressure game, too early on into the tournament, since it was just the 3rd game for India. The format of the tournament suddenly presented India with a slippery slope, on which it could either bravely climb or succumb to the pressure that comes along with such moments.
Rahul Dravid won the toss and put Sri Lanka in. At the toss, he told Lakshman Sivaramakrishnan in a very fact of the matter serious tone "We have bowled well to them in the past, and we just need to put the ball in the right areas." Somewhere the stat of India’s 17 consecutive chases under Dravid made it look like another day in the office. But the reality was that in a pressure game, you would prefer to put runs and choke the opposition to make them make mistakes chasing. This was a bold India though that preferred to play to its recently acquired aura/strength of chasing down totals.
A point Mahela Jayawardene said at the toss made my mind go back to 1996. He said it was a fresh wicket and they would need to negotiate the first half hour well. It was quite the same in 1996. It was a knockout game being the Semi-final and Mohammad Azharuddin allowed Sri Lanka first use of a relaid/fresh Eden strip which backfired so badly. India lost that game despite having Sri Lanka tottering at 1 for 2 and 31 for 3. A lot of us thought India had closed the game within the first half hour, largely swinging to the tune of Tony Greig’s high pitched voice where he shrieked ‘The most feared men in World Cricket are back in the pavilion’ and the ‘Bengalis are going berserk’ after Javagal Srinath accounted for the openers in that first over. In 2007, India again allowed Sri Lanka to bat. Would it become tougher for India to chase as the day went on?
John Wright (India’s recent ex-coach) on commentary mentioned that the pitch did not have much grass and mentioned that his chat with the groundsman revealed that the wicket might slow down. That statement took me back to the scars of 1996. As an informed Indian fan, insecurity can show up on crucial match days, as the mind tries to look for validation with past patterns. Within the first hour, we had Sanath Jayasuriya edging one to Third man. A little bit like 1996, but not really like that electric start in 1996. This was a bit like slow death, with no sense of adrenaline.
2007 did not have a moment when India felt they were on top, nor did you feel Sri Lanka were racing ahead, but Sri Lanka did well to stay slightly ahead at all times. After Jayawardene’s wicket, thanks to a brilliant catch by M.S.Dhoni diving to his left, India had sensed a chink in the Lankan armour. One more wicket and this game was India’s to have. Kumar Sangakkara and Upul Tharanga continued attacking, playing airborne strokes to Munaf Patel’s pitched up deliveries. The lack of inhibition and fear from these southpaws reminded me of Tamim Iqbal and Shakib Al Hasan’s onslaught against the same attack, less than a week back. Sri Lanka were counter punching, with no real mental history of the 1-6 drubbing 18 months back. Actually, that was my mind being selective about which stat I wanted to see. India had actually only had a 9-7 Win:Loss record against Sri Lanka in the last 4 years. Additionally India had not performed well against Sri Lanka on sluggish wickets or against them under lights when the dew comes into play. It was a bit like playing football, knowing you had a big Achilles heel.
I glanced at the scoreboard and India had done reasonably well to keep Sri Lanka at 78/2 in 20 overs, but honors were still even. Sanga played a forward defense off Harbhajan Singh to Sourav Ganguly at long-off and managed to run two, without breaking a sweat. This prompted David Lloyd on air to make a remark ‘That was always two with Ganguly at long-off’, and images of Harbhajan being unpleasant about it with his hands on hips, looking motionless at Sourav’s lethargic throw. This started to create the doubt in the mind, whether we were nursing an unfit Sourav and losing momentum to Sri Lanka. My mind went a step further and rewinded to how Aravinda De Silva attacked India in that 96 semi-final and took the momentum away. Just when the game was getting away, Sourav had Sanga slapping a ball straight down the languid Munaf’s throat at long-on. Sourav had an instant redemption moment, celebrating with his arms going back and forth.
Just like 1996, India aimed at keeping things quiet when the batsmen attacked, and waited for them to make a mistake. India’s no-risk approach allowed Chamara Silva, Tharanga and Tillakaratne Dilshan to string valuable partnerships that rose its stock on India’s defensive mindset and bad out-fielding. India used Sachin Tendulkar and Ganguly to fill up overs, leaving no one else to attack except Harbhajan who ended up conceding 53, with no wickets. Sri Lanka finished with a shade above 250, just like 1996.
As India went into the lunch break (dinner break for us fans), I had the mild premonition that India have not really batted well on sluggish wickets around that time. India’s run of 17 chases was in-fact broken in 2006 at West Indies, where India struggled on the slow-low wickets against a pedestrian Caribbean side losing 1-4. It did take the sheen away that year from a rampant side that had got used to thumping 3 other sides 6-1, 5-1 and 4-1 respectively. India also performed badly on slower tracks at home for the Champions trophy not qualifying for the final four, and also did badly in Malaysia and Sri Lanka.
India started off tentatively Robin Uthappa, trying to attack his way against Chaminda Vaas, giving an early breakthrough. On the other end Virender Sehwag seemed to be batting in sublime fashion, scoring boundaries at will. He smote Vaas over cover and straight over his head, with no sign of swing in the air. Meanwhile India had lost Ganguly and Sachin in the run-chase early on, leaving the the dashing Sehwag and Dravid to rebuild. Sachin’s wicket amidst Ian Bishop’s booming voice, did give the midnight chills to every Indian fan following the game.
Sehwag was in his elements, and striking above 100. Mahela sensed that Sri Lanka would need to get Sehwag, and wanted to make run-scoring tough, so brought Muttiah Muralitharan around the wicket. Murali was making Dravid use his pad tentatively, and had Sehwag not sure of what to expect with that line. At 98/3, playing for the Doosra from around the wicket, Sehwag edged a routine off-spinner to 1st slip, and India’s World Cup was hanging dangerously. That score 98, was also the point at which the 1996 game changed irrevocably with a collapse to the Sri Lankan spinners. It didn’t take too long for India to toe the 1996 line, after Yuvraj Singh and Dhoni fell in quick succession. Dhoni’s first ball duck against Muralitharan, removed the last drop of hope India had. The scars of 1996 had been opened up again, and it would take 4 more years for redemption to happen at the Wankhede and to lay the ghosts of 1996 to rest!