The word “chokers” is synonymous with the South African cricket team in international cricket. Despite possessing some of the biggest stars in the game, the Proteas are yet to win the World Cup even once – ODI or T20I. Their only win in an ICC event came in 1998 when they beat West Indies to win the inaugural Champions Trophy by four wickets. South Africa’s record in knockout games is undoubtedly very poor. However, following India’s loss in the 2023 World Cup final to Australia at the Narendra Modi Stadium in Ahmedabad, one is bound to ask whether Team India and not South Africa are the biggest chokers in world cricket.
It’s been more than 10 years since India won an ICC trophy in any format despite coming tantalizing close on several occasions. If we look at one-day cricket, they lost in the semi-finals in 2015 and 2019 to Australia and New Zealand, respectively. The Men in Blue reached the 2017 Champions Trophy final dominantly, only to be hammered by Pakistan by a huge margin. In T20Is, they lost the 2014 T20 World Cup final to Sri Lanka and were bowled out in the semis in 2016 and 2022. India have also reached the finals of the two World Test Championship (WTC) but finished runners-up on both occasions.
Not a case of bad luck at all
While we can definitely offer our commiserations to the Indian team and praise them for their wonderful performance in the 2023 World Cup, the fact remains that they came second best again. And since the same thing has been happening for over a decade, one definitely cannot put it down to bad luck. It has got to do with much more than that. And unless Indian cricket gets to the root cause of the matter, they are likely to keep fumbling on the big day in mega events, just like South Africa does in knockout clashes.
If we look at the 2023 World Cup, India was as strong as Australia on paper. In fact, one does not even need to discuss the team’s performance. Such was the level of dominance in the 10 matches that they won heading into the final. At the end of the day, though, it all counted for little as the Men in Blue failed at the final hurdle yet again.
The loss in the 2023 World Cup final came despite India getting what they wanted to do in the final (bat first), even after losing the toss. But a strong Indian batting line-up came up with a poor effort on the day that mattered the most. Barring Rohit Sharma, who gave the team another good start, and Virat Kohli, who scored another fifty, the rest succumbed to pressure. With the ball, Jasprit Bumrah and Mohammed Shami started well but could not maintain the pressure, and once Travis Head and Marnus Labuschagne got in, the writing was pretty much on the wall.
Team India not mentally strong enough for D-Day?
Over the years, there has been a pattern to Team India’s losses in crunch ICC games. Whether it be the 2015 or the 2019 ODI World Cup or the 2017 Champions, they have come into knockout clashes on the back of supreme performances. But, on the big day, the same team failed to meet expectations. That being the case, their defeat cannot be attributed to cricketing skills. In that aspect, Indian players are pretty much among the best in business. However, cricket is as much a mental game as it is physical and about being humongously talented in the sport. This is where teams like India and South Africa seem to lag behind Australia when it comes to the big day.
The Men in Blue and the Proteas hammered the Aussies quite comfortably in the league clashes. But Australia hit back to defeat both when it came to delivering the knockout punch. The likes of Mitchell Starc and even skipper Pat Cummins were not at their best heading into the knockout round of the 2023 World Cup. But, come the big occasion, they stood up and delivered. That is what great players do. And you need a different kind of mental resolve for that, a stage the Indian cricket team has failed to reach over the last decade. The same has caused their downfall and has led to heartbreak for Indian players and fans over the last 10 years.
It is not fair to take individual names, but just to make a point; Shreyas Iyer and Shubman Gill had fine World Cups, but looked out of sorts in the final. Even KL Rahul, even though he got 66, never really threatened to hurt Australia in the final. As if it happened in the 2015 and 2019 World Cup semi-finals, a different team seemed to turn out in the summit clash yet again. That being the case, the end result wasn’t surprising as such.
Does India panic before a big final?
India’s USP in the 2023 World Cup was their overall strength in batting and bowling. They had the wherewithal to perform on any kind of surface, and they proved the same by winning on varied pitches in different parts of the country. However, the surface for the final seemed to be prepared, keeping the opposition in mind and not the team’s own strength.
As a result, though, India ended up kicking themselves in the foot as the sluggish surface backfired on the hosts. It begs the big question – did they need to do it? Did the Men in Blue not have faith in their ability to beat Australia on a normal ODI surface? Were they too worried about the opposition than preparing for the big game? And last, but not the least, did they panic before the final and concede the match even before the game began? Many questions need to be answered…