And, just like that Team India completed their league campaign of the ICC World Cup 2023 with a 100% record. 9 matches. 9 venues. 9 opponents, and 9 comprehensive victories, where different players stepped up to take the juggernaut forward.
On Sunday, as the entire nation celebrated the festival of lights - Diwali, the Men in Blue gave the ultimate Diwali gift as they lit up the Chinnaswamy stadium with their glittering strokeplay, and irresistible bowling, with Virat Kohli and Rohit Sharma chipping in with wickets being the icing on the cake.
Sunday’s match essentially turned out to be the celebration of India’s World Cup campaign in all its glory, with fans enjoying the moments with glee on their face, and pride in their heart.
But, even as we all celebrated India’s irresistible dominance, at the back of our minds, we were all dreading what if we had a rare off-day in the semi-final against our bogey team- New Zealand.
Sometimes, we can get caught up too much in thinking about the immediate future, so much so that we forget to appreciate the present. And, to be honest, it's not without reason. Over the years, no cricket team in the world has inflicted mental scars on Indian fans than the BlackCaps, so even a mere mention of us playing them in a knockout evokes bad memories.
Most consecutive wins for India in World Cup
But, let’s just step back for a second, and appreciate what this team has given us in the past month.
India in WC 2023 League Stage: A juggernaut that kept getting mightier
This World Cup isn't the first where India have dominated the league stage. In the past two editions that were played in Australia/New Zealand and England, the Men in Blue topped the points table, and dropped just 1 match across both league stages.
So, what’s so special about the current performance? Loads actually. You may look at the final results of these 9 matches, and assume that the home side wasn't even challenged in any of the matches.
“Is India peaking too early?” has been a common narrative among ‘pundits’ and fans every time the Rohit Sharma-led unit dismantled their opposition in this World Cup.
But, that's lazy analysis. The fact of the matter is that this Indian team has consistently gotten better with every passing game, and in the games where they were challenged they found a bunch of new saviours to see their ship through.
Think back to the opening game against Australia, when the five-time winners were going along nicely while batting first on a turner. They were 110/2 at one stage before Ravindra Jadeja and Kuldeep Yadav spun the web around them to knock them over for 199.
Then, while chasing, we got reduced to ⅔, but ‘chase master’ Kohli (85) and KL Rahul (97*) iced the chase to perfection.
Think back to the game against Pakistan when, on a flat pitch, Babar Azam and Muhammad Rizwan were amid a partnership. Something had to give, and it did, as Kuldeep Yadav and then the ever-so-irresistible Jasprit Bumrah went bang bang to dismantle the arch-rivals.
Think back to the game against Bangladesh, when we were reduced to just 5 bowlers due to Hardik Pandya’s injury, and the senior bowlers stepped up to reduce the Tigers to a below-par total.
Think back to the New Zealand game, where our fielders had a rare off day, but the bowlers-especially Mohammed Shami ensured that the drop catches did not come back to bite them.
And, during the run-chase, two things pretty much summed up the champion mentality of this team.
Firstly, how captain Rohit Sharma took the attack to New Zealand’s new ball threats, especially Matt Henry, and secondly, how “chase monster” Kohli guided the sinking ship to safety after a middle-order collapse.
That game displayed India of 2023 in its full glory, where the captain took it upon himself to bury some of the scars of 2019 by throwing caution to the wind, and the ultimate insurance card in front of Virat taking the team past the finishing line.
Think back to the England game, where, on a tricky wicket, India lost early wickets, including the big scalp of Virat, before Rohit and KL put their head down to address the fledgling ship.
They still finished with an under-par total, but it proved to be more than enough as the irresistible Indian pace attack put on a threat for the ages to establish their dominance.
The next three games against Sri Lanka, South Africa, and the Netherlands saw India just flexing its muscles with fearless high-tempo batting coupled with hostile bowling, with new heroes emerging in every game.
Mohammed Siraj did his thing against Sri Lanka, Shreyas Iyer displayed why he is one of the best No.4 going around, especially on that dry pitch in Kolkata against South Africa, and KL Rahul showed his all-round game both in front and behind the wickets, and Shubman Gill too chipped in with valuable contributions.
When Team India forced even the opposition to go 'WOW!"
The biggest achievement for any sports team is when it earns respect from the pundits and fans of the opposition. This can only be achieved by playing at a level that forces everyone to go ‘WOW!’
This Indian Cricket Team has earned that respect over the last 7 weeks thanks to the skills and relentlessness that they have displayed during the 9-game campaign.
And, rightly so! For, how can one not be amazed by the theatre that the pace attack of Bumrah-Shami-Siraj created? Or by the magic that their spinners create with their variety and consistency? Or by the flamboyance of their captain at the top of the order? Or by a run-spitting machine Virat icing a chase to perfection? Or by the nonchalance of KL Rahul, Shubman Gill? Or by Shreyas Iyer’s nonchalant treatment of spinners?
However, the format of the tournament is such that none of this will matter in the larger scheme of things if India ends up losing the semi-final or, worse, the final.
New Zealand has inflicted plenty of scars on this generation of Indian cricketers and their fans, and the hosts will have to walk past them if they want to salvage their dream of regaining the title they won in 2011.
The scars of Nairobi, Manchester, and Southampton are waiting to be healed, and if ever there was a perfect time and team to do it, then this is it.
Watching this team during this World Cup has been an honor, and no matter what happens on November 15th, that will never change.