The young men were tasked with a massive responsibility. Their senior, more experienced counterparts had fallen twice at the final hurdle in the preceding eight months, running into the indefatigable Australians on each occasion. It was up to Uday Saharan and his intrepid lads to break the Australian jinx in the final of the Under-19 World Cup, in Benoni on Sunday.
It wasn’t to be. Like Rohit Sharma’s men in the final of the World Test Championship at The Oval in June and the 50-over World Cup in Ahmedabad in November, India came second best to Australia, beaten by 79 runs in a one-sided title clash between unbeaten sides.
At least in this instance, it wasn’t hard to see why Australia emerged triumphant. They had the resources to exploit the conditions better; their four tall pacers were not just quick, they also procured substantial bounce from the Willowmoore Park deck. Saharan bemoaned a series of rash strokes from his batters, himself included, but several of those ended up in fielders’ hands simply because the ball either came on quicker or higher than the Indians expected or were used to.
There might have been a different story to tell had the World Cup stayed in Sri Lanka, the original hosts until the Sri Lankan board was suspended by the International Cricket Council for governmental interference. India were better equipped to make the most of the slower, lower tracks in the island nation. But in Benoni, India were outplayed by Australia, fair and square. They might have been knocked out in the semis itself if not for a stirring fifth-wicket partnership between Saharan and Sachin Dhas after their top order had been decimated by the South African quicks. Maybe then, there may not have been an extension of the Aussie hoodoo at all.
The obvious, and tempting, explanation for India’s string of losses to Australia – the women too were schooled in the final of the T20 World Cup by the hosts at the MCG in March 2020 – will entail extolling the winning culture that sweeps across sports in the Antipodes. There is no denying the fact that the Australians don’t ‘settle’ easily, they don’t like coming second best, there is nothing that drives them more than the prospect of wrapping their hands around silverware. Especially in team sports, they thrive in the comfort of numbers, drawing energy and inspiration from each other. There is an aura of intimidation and swag about them in finals, especially in cricket finals which, allied with their immense skillsets, makes them a potent force that will never roll over and surrender.
Lack of skills, mental block or easily satisfied?
Does that mean Indians are satisfied all too easily? After all, this is the country where, for years on end, the result was almost incidental to the fans so long as Sunil Gavaskar or Sachin Tendulkar brought up individual milestones. It wasn’t as if either legendary Mumbaikar was content with individual glory, but collectively, as a nation, we were too forgiving for too long before traversing the spectrum and going to the other extreme of expressing disappointment violently at a poor cricketing outing, such as during the 50-over World Cup in the Caribbean in 2007 when India failed to progress beyond the first stage.
There was a time when India celebrated athletes merely qualifying for the Olympics. Now, there is a genuine expectation of medals from a select few competitors. That’s how much the sport-loving public has matured.
So, why do India keep waving the white flag to Australia in cricket finals? If there was a simple answer, a singular reason for that, there would be no jinx, would there? Both at the WTC final and the World Cup title clash, India were comprehensively outclassed. Especially in Ahmedabad, defeat was a bitter pill to swallow, given the extraordinarily impressive and commanding campaign India had mounted all tournament long. Perhaps, the middle order was overcome by stage fright once Rohit was dismissed after providing his customary belligerent start. Perhaps, because of the occasion and the stakes involved, they forsake the aggression that had served them so well and replaced it with conservatism, and therefore paid a heavy price. Or perhaps, Australia were just so good on the night – they are allowed to be, right? – that they forced India to veer from their game plans, just like Ben Stokes’ England are doing currently in the ongoing Test series.
Until India put one past Australia in a final, there will be no turning of the corner. The baggage of past defeats, even if the personnel are different, will continue to add up. Ask Pakistan, who are 0-8 against India in 50-over World Cups.