For a long time, football observers were always intrigued as to why Spain were not winning big tournaments. Until before 2008, the Iberian nation hadn’t won a major competition for over forty years. Despite possessing some of the most talented footballers and perhaps the two biggest club sides in the world, success had eluded the national team time and again.
On 29 June 2008, at the Ernst-Happel-Stadion in Vienna, Spain’s long wait finally came to an end–courtesy a Fernando Torres goal in a 1-0 win against Germany in the Euro 2008 final. Two years later, they won the FIFA World Cup for the first time ever and then added another European Championship to their collection in 2012.
A team which struggled to deliver during the big occasions was suddenly winning everything in front of them. They weren’t even at their best for most parts of the 2010 World Cup or Euro 2012, yet they had made winning such a habit that they went on to be victorious. From no major titles for 44 years to three in four years, Euro 2008 was definitely the turning point. It only needed that one moment – the Torres goal in Vienna – to open the floodgates with regards to trophies.
India’s wretched run in finals
Coming to cricket, around the turn of the millennium, India always tended to come up short in finals. The Men in Blue had lost nine consecutive finals in tournaments consisting of at least three teams.
Heading into the NatWest Trophy final against England in 2002, India’s last win in a final was in November 1998. Under Sourav Ganguly, who took charge as captain in 2000, the Indian team had shown signs of improvement, but they struggled to cross the finishing line repeatedly.
Just like Spain in football, India in cricket possessed some of the biggest names in the sport. Yet, they seemed to falter on the big occasions.
In the 2002 NatWest Trophy tri-series, India and England quite comfortably qualified for the final, with Sri Lanka securing just one win from six matches during the league stage. India, almost always, receive huge support wherever they play and it was no different in the final of this series which was held at the iconic Lord’s Stadium in London. At times, going by crowd reactions, you could have mistaken Lord’s for Eden Gardens.
England post big total
The hosts won the toss and captain Nasser Hussain elected to bat first. Then, the English batsmen took full advantage of batting-friendly conditions to post a score of 325/5 – it was their highest-ever total in a 50-over One-Day International (ODI) innings at the time.
Marcus Trescothick was terrific, with his aggressive start against India’s new-ball bowlers putting England on the front foot from the get-go. A 100-ball 109 from the left-handed opener set his team up for a big total.
Before the match, Hussain had faced criticism from the media on his batting position in England’s ODI team. While he was captain of the side, he hadn’t scored a century in white-ball international cricket yet and was occupying the crucial number three spot. He answered his critics with a fine hundred here, after which he famously celebrated by drawing the media’s attention to his jersey number which was identical to his batting position.
Trescothick and Hussain’s 185-run partnership for the second wicket, followed by a 32-ball 40 from Andrew Flintoff seemed to have given England a winning total. After all, only once in the history of ODI cricket had a target of over 320 been successfully chased down until then.
India’s quick start
There was so much that happened in this match that people often forget a breathtaking opening partnership from Ganguly and Virender Sehwag. Chasing 326 for victory, India needed to get going from the onset and the openers, batting with a positive approach, provided a magnificent platform.
Ganguly, especially, was sublime – scoring 60 from just 43 balls. The opening partnership yielded 106 runs from only 87 deliveries, giving India a chance to win the match. But England fought back fabulously immediately after.
Alex Tudor disturbing the Indian skipper‘s stumps brought about a stunning batting collapse. For 40 runs, India lost five wickets. Ganguly, Sehwag, Dinesh Mongia, Rahul Dravid and Sachin Tendulkar were all back in the pavilion with 180 runs still needed. Ashley Giles and Ronnie Irani led the fightback for the home team with two wickets apiece.
Step up, Yuvraj and Kaif
The onus now fell on Yuvraj Singh and Mohammad Kaif who were the last two specialist batsmen in India’s lineup. They were also the youngest of the lot. While both were great talents, at the time, you’d have thought that this massive task that lay in front of them was a bridge too far.
But one thing is important to note. While the senior team was losing final after final, Yuvraj and Kaif were part of India’s youth team that won the ICC Under-19 World Cup in 2000. While most of the team hadn’t tasted success in finals for a good while, this duo had, albeit at a junior level. Yuvraj had been a part of some of India’s final failures in the previous couple of years too, but he’d be a massive part of turning this trend around in the years to come.
As India’s last recognised batting pair, Yuvraj and Kaif were in a situation where they knew that a wicket at the time would result in India’s hopes in the match, more or less, ending. Despite being in such circumstances, they kept up with the required run-rate magnificently. When the boundaries were needed, the ball found its way to the fence via the bats of Yuvraj and Kaif.
The pair brought up a century-run partnership and just as it seemed like India were in the driver’s seat, Yuvraj was dismissed and 59 runs were still required off 50 deliveries.
Around the time this match occurred, there was a debate raging about India’s combination in ODIs. While some advocated for India to play five frontline bowlers, the team management preferred to field seven specialist batsmen with Dravid keeping wickets. The player who benefited the most due to this strategy was Kaif who became a regular in the team as a result.
That decision was vindicated to a great extent in this game as Kaif, batting at number seven, was India’s saviour. After Yuvraj’s dismissal, Kaif took charge and found good support from Harbhajan Singh who scored a crucial 15.
There were nervous moments after the 48th over saw Harbhajan and then Anil Kumble dismissed within three deliveries. Now eight down, India were in serious danger of getting bowled out.
Zaheer Khan made sure that no such thing happened as he stuck around with Kaif before hitting the winning runs to complete one of Indian cricket’s most memorable victories. Ganguly waving his jersey on the balcony of the Lord’s dressing room was an unforgettable moment.
Kaif was undoubtedly the Player of the Match for his brilliant unbeaten 87 off 75 deliveries.
This victory served as a confidence-booster for the Ganguly-led side. Over the next few months, India would become the joint-winners of the ICC Champions Trophy and reach the final of the 2003 World Cup. But India’s record in finals continued to be poor.
Unlike Spain who needed one title to spark off an incredible run in football, India lost their next six competed finals in tournaments consisting of at least three teams in cricket (NOTE: Two of the six finals were in the same series – tri-series in Australia in 2003-04). But when victories in such decisive games finally started coming under the captaincy of MS Dhoni, one couldn’t help but think that even years later a bit of the belief came as a result of the 2002 NatWest Trophy win.
Many of India’s famous wins in white-ball cricket in the years that followed saw Yuvraj and Dhoni play pivotal roles, especially when it came to finishing matches off. The prelude to that came in the form of Yuvraj and Kaif whose most remarkable partnership was at Lord’s in 2002.