I grew up watching cricket in the early 2000s and while it was a period which gave me some unforgettable cricketing moments as an Indian fan, one thing that was always missing was our ruthlessness in the finals.
We won the famous Natwest Trophy final in 2002, but that was just one final we won out of the many that we played between the year 2000 and 2005, none bigger than the 2003 World Cup final itself.
India had a tremendous campaign in the World Cup 2003, but we played Australia twice including the final and both times, the Kangaroos made it look as if it was a contest between the men and the boys.
It was not just the defeat in the World Cup 2003 final which was the problem for me, but the problem was the fact that everyone was easily accepting the narrative that the Australian team in that World Cup was unbeatable.
Make no mistake, Australia had a great team, but the easy acceptance of their superiority was obnoxious.
The World Cup 2003 campaign was an eventual failure, but it was being celebrated as a success even though we got bulldozed by the opposition in the final and returned home without a trophy.
Generally, if we have a great run in the ICC tournaments these days and we lose a game in the knockouts, it isn’t celebrated.
For example, we didn’t lose a single game in the preliminary round of the World Cup 2015 before losing in the semi-finals. The same goes for the Champions Trophy 2017 where we cruised to the final before losing the final.
None of us celebrates those two tournaments despite the fact that we had great campaigns.
We simply don’t accept being the second best. The wonderful campaigns without the trophy don’t excite us. Anything less than a trophy is a failure now.
But, was it always like that? Probably not.
As a kid growing up in the early 2000s, we had lost so many finals that I was almost starting to believe that we didn’t have enough potential to eventually go on and win the final of a world event.
The finals, particularly those of world events, always got me anxious. It was as if the opposition was always starting as the favorites because of India’s tendency to crumble under pressure in the finals.
India’s failure in the finals in the early 2000s was generally justified by the quality of the opposition.
“We couldn’t win because the opposition was really strong” was the narrative even though India themselves had a quality white ball team during that period.
However, every good or bad thing comes to an end and the pain of losing the finals also came to an end in 2007.
A certain chap named Mahendra Singh Dhoni was given the charge of the Indian T20I team and he took the team to the T20 World Cup in South Africa.
The senior players pulled out of the event and it was a team which was mainly assembled with the youngsters who had little to no experience of the shortest format of the game.
India were the massive underdogs going into the T20 World Cup, but at no point did this young skipper give any indication that he was awestruck by any other team, even though there were quite a few teams stronger than India on quality and experience.
There was an interesting little moment in the presentation ceremony after India beat Australia in the semi-final of the T20 World Cup 2007 where Dhoni was in conversation with Ravi Shastri and he reminded Shastri about an article that he wrote ahead of the semi-final calling Australia the favorites.
Dhoni told Shastri that he was happy he proved him wrong. A young captain in his very first tournament was telling a seasoned commentator that he was off the mark.
Shastri, being his jolly self, laughed it off, but Dhoni dropped a strong message there.
That India won that tournament beating Pakistan in the final is something which is a well-known event and doesn’t need to be highlighted.
But, the next tournament which defined Dhoni’s character as a leader was the CB series in Australia in 2008.
Never before an Indian side had beaten Australia in a triangular series in their own backyard, but the reputations never mattered to Dhoni.
Before the CB series, Dhoni decided to convey to the Indian selectors that he didn’t need the services of two former Indian captains in white ball cricket and the selectors obliged.
Given Indian fans’ emotional attachment with their superstars, needless to say that Dhoni received massive flak because of his decision. But, he was always immune to any kind of opinion coming from outside.
A young Indian team went to Australia and the seniors hadn’t pulled out of the team this time around, they were dropped.
When India was on the brink of beating Australia in one of the group games in the CB series, Dhoni sent a message to the Indian dressing room saying that nobody would celebrate aggressively after the victory.
Dhoni told Bharat Sundaresan, the author of the book “The Dhoni Touch” that he wanted to convey to the Aussies that beating them was not a big deal for India and they could beat them again and again. And that’s why he wanted his boys to have a very moderate celebration.
It was subtle, but Dhoni was slowly bringing a complete behavioral change in Indian cricket. There was now no acceptance of anyone else’s superiority.
The Kangaroos were dealing with a leader who didn’t care if he was beating Zimbabwe or Australia. It was all the same.
CB series triumph in 2008, Asia Cup triumph in 2010 and the World Cup triumph in 2011 were just some of the results that followed, but what’s more important was the mentality change that Dhoni brought into the dressing room.
The Indian dressing room was not about bravado anymore. Celebrations from the balcony were not very fashionable anymore. And, getting beaten in the final was not the success anymore. The success was the trophy.
12 years and a number of trophies later, MS Dhoni is not the captain of the Indian team. But, it’s his legacy that the Indian fans now look forward to a final with excitement, rather than anxiety.