As Yuvraj crashed the fourth ball of the 48th over to the boundary and sank to his knees in wild jubilation, 8 years of heartbreak and disappointment over the missed opportunity in the 2003 World Cup final came crashing down. For the millions of people whose dreams were crushed that day, the exit of Australia from the World Cup despite Ponting’s century would have been sweet revenge. It was not exactly a thriller to match the England-India game at Bangalore, but it had its shares of nail biting moments, thanks to some trademark Aussie grit and suicidal running by Gambhir; in the end, though, lack of quality spinners and disciplined fast bowlers cost the Aussies and India have set up a dream clash with Pakistan at Mohali next Wednesday.
There were a lot of key performers from both sides; Brad Haddin was the first to up the ante, while David Hussey gave the finishing touches in the Aussie innings. As for India, Zaheer Khan was at his usual best, giving his side timely breakthroughs. Ashwin took perhaps the most important wicket of all, when he castled Watson early, and was also surprisingly sharp on the field. Tendulkar was all class and Gambhir was steady throughout his innings except for the final moments extending to his dismissal. Raina’s selection ahead of Pathan proved to be a master stroke, as he repayed the faith in him, by hastening the Indian victory. Ultimately though, this game was about two men, who entered the tournament in desperate search of redemption and found it in the quarterfinal; albeit, with differing emotions at the end of the day.
Ricky Ponting is a tough nut. He has always been, and he will continue to be till the day he retires. He has had a rough couple of years, with poor form coinciding with a downward curve in the team’s fortunes. He entered the World Cup on the back of conceding the Ashes at home, and questions swirling around a possible retirement. No sooner had the Cup began, he got into the controversy over a damaged TV set after a dismissal against Zimbabwe, fell to old failings against Canada, displayed a shabby reaction after a misunderstanding with Steven Smith over a catch, and even managed to find himself in the middle of the eternal ‘walking’ debate. All this while rubbishing retirement talk every other day. A lesser man would have thrown his hands up in exasperation and grumbled over the injustice of it all. Instead, he kept stressing that a good innings was around the corner, and eventually knuckled down in the first knockout game of the World Cup for Australia and produced an innings of restraint and skill, which would have been enough on most days, if it was not for the lack of contributions from his team mates. Ponting might yet play for a while longer, and his innings showed that while he may not be the master of old, he still has the fire and hunger to go out on his own terms. A true champion deserves nothing less.
Which brings us to the biggest individual success story of the 2011 World Cup. A man who has been pilloried for the last few years over his weight, lack of fitness, attitude issues, and most importantly, poor form. Dropped from the Test team and temporarily removed from the ODI team, Yuvraj faced a crisis of confidence from where only he could redeem himself. After making an equally baffling return to the ODI side, he didn’t show any signs of what was to come till the tournament began. At the outset of the Cup, he was identified as the primary 5th bowler, even as there were grumblings over whether he even merited a place in the playing XI. After a silent game against the Bangladesh, he warmed up with a now forgotten 50 in the game against England. Then, he got into his stride, with both bat and ball against the lesser teams in the group. This was sandwiched by a failure in the game against South Africa, which raised murmurs that he could only raise his game against weaker opponents. That is what makes his performance against Australia that much more creditable. With the ball, he never really let the batsmen get away picking up the wickets of Haddin and Clarke in the process; but his defining moment came with the bat. He walked into a relative position of strength at 143/3 in the 29th over and saw it stumble to 187/5 after nine overs. With a batsman who was short on practice and confidence for company, he was tasked with shepherding his side to victory and a semifinal clash with their neighbors. The pressure was immense and the possibility of another choke very realistic; but this version of Yuvraj has a certain kind of steel, which has imbued all that the world can throw at him, and transforms him into some sort of venged warrior. He responded in thrilling fashion taking boundaries of Tait and Lee and inspiring Raina to play a blinder of his own. When he hit the winning runs, he let out a roar which was as much a release of all the years of pent up frustration as it was for the cherished victory over a mortal opposition. Redemption is rarely sweeter.
So, hats off to the two champions who performed in the backdrop of another thrilling encounter between these two sides. Their paths may diverge from this point on, but for a few hours on an Ahmedabad evening, it was their day (and night)!