Mohammed Shami and teammates after the fall of a New Zealand wicket in Mumbai, November 15, 2023 (Photo: Getty Images)
IN THE CONTEXT of the match, the first semifinal of this World Cup played between hosts India and the ever-threatening New Zealand in Mumbai, the aggressive flick played by Virat Kohli off the very quick Lockie Ferguson between fine leg and deep square leg was an important one. This was the 42nd over of the first innings and the two runs took India from a team score of 295/1 to 297/1—that much closer to the daunting 300-run mark. The context of individual achievement was a little greater than the team’s, for those two runs took Kohli to a century; yet another ODI century, his third of World Cup 2023 alone.
But it was the context of the history of cricket itself that concerned the roaring fans at the Wankhede the most because as a charging Kohli completed his second run and reached the three-figure mark, he had reached the very pinnacle of greatness in this sport with his 50th ODI hundred—one more than the previous best tally accumulated by his and every Indian’s hero from a certain era, Sachin Tendulkar.
Kohli leapt into the salty air and punched it, before crumbling to his knees and folding his gloved hands in gratitude. But what happened next made it a celebration that wouldn’t be forgotten in a long, long time. Stood in front of Garware Pavilion, Kohli stripped free of his helmet and pointed at Tendulkar, who applauded the moment like every other fan in the stadium before the great on the field gave the great in the stands three bows. The crowd erupted and lost their collective voices altogether when Kohli found his wife Anushka Sharma in an adjacent stand and blew his jumping, beaming missus a kiss.
Given the stage of the tournament, the first knock-out, the venue, Tendulkar’s home, and Kohli’s adopted one, this was the stuff of hallucinations or fantasies. Kohli would say so himself. Speaking to the official broadcaster at the end of the game, he said: “You know, it feels like a dream, honestly. It’s completely surreal. It feels too good to be true.” Those words, in that very sequence, could not just apply but also be the most apt way to describe India’s astounding run at this World Cup, where on November 15 in Mumbai they stormed into the final at Ahmedabad after going unbeaten for 10 consecutive matches at the tournament. This, too, does indeed feel like a dream, completely surreal and too good to be true.
But it is true and one ought not to question this reality, for this Indian team is every bit as good as the statistics and numbers suggest, perhaps even in line to dethrone the Australian side of 2007 as the greatest and most complete 50-over team to have ever played in any of the 13 ODI World Cups so far; all that remains to complete the coronation is that trophy. Which Rohit Sharma’s invincible men will be assured of receiving if they continue to approach the sport and the tournament as they have done right from their first game against Australia over a month-and-a-half ago all the way until November 15, when they faced their first serious challenge against Kane Williamson’s New Zealand.
Although India’s margin of victory in the Mumbai semifinal, 70 runs, suggests that it was a one-sided affair like all their nine group fixtures against every other team at this World Cup, it was anything but. Kohli’s seminal hundred was bolstered by a century scored by Shreyas Iyer as well, his second consecutive three-figure mark in four days as he had also struck one against the Netherlands during India’s final group match in Bengaluru on the Diwali weekend. All that, heaped over the most explosive start given by India’s openers Sharma (he smashed a bang-bang 47 that was studded with four sixes and as many boundaries as well) and Shubman Gill (unbeaten on 80, he would have hit a hundred as well had he not retired hurt due to severe cramps) took the side to an awesome total of 397/4.
But things began to get gnarly during New Zealand’s chase under lights, especially while captain Williamson and the muscular Daryl Mitchell began to knuckle down and show some real fight. At one point during their 181-run partnership for the third wicket, Mitchell clobbered Ravindra Jadeja for a six so huge that when it travelled 107 metres and thudded off the concrete somewhere near the midwicket roof, all of Wankhede fell uneasily quiet.
Firing in all departments is right, for never before has an Indian team perhaps been better placed to win the biggest trophy in the sport
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Not only was it the biggest six off the 622 hit during the World Cup, the only man to have scored a hundred against India in this tournament in Mitchell was threatening to score another, and simultaneously exorcise India’s old demons of losing at the semifinal stage, which they dutifully had during the last two 50-over World Cups—most recently to the Kiwis themselves in Manchester four years ago. While Mitchell managed to pull off the former, a second hundred against India in this tournament—for which he received a begrudging standing ovation from the shellshocked spectators—he failed to enforce the latter, for the best and most in-form fast bowler in the world today decided that enough was truly enough.
Mohammed Shami is perhaps a wizard moonlighting as a cricketer, for he can cast a spell on batters and create the most exhilarating magic at will. Within his folded right palm, Shami holds a ball with a seam position blessed by the gods. With an uncanny ability to find the right length for each batter, the 33-year-old veteran fast bowler releases said ball with the most upright seam and allows the pitch to do the rest. It either zigs this way or that and takes the man facing him into a pretty dark place mentally, and most succumb to the pressure sooner rather than later.
Just a ball after Mitchell notched his hundred in the 33rd over, Williamson was the first of many Shami victims, caught at deep square leg for 69. In came new man Tom Latham and out he went just two balls later, trapped leg before for nought by a rampaging Shami. The curtains had begun to fall on New Zealand, but not Shami’s act as he went on to end Mitchell’s resistance after having notched a personal score of 134 and the final wicket of Ferguson to finish with a match-haul of seven wickets (he had already removed New Zealand’s dangerous opening pair of Devon Conway and Rachin Ravindra earlier in the innings).
Seven wickets—the first time an Indian bowler had ever taken as many in an ODI, making Shami’s figures of 7/57 the deadliest bowling figures by an Indian in the format. Not bad for a man who didn’t make the cut for India’s playing eleven at the beginning of the tournament and ended up missing the first four matches, and only really got a chance to show what he possesses once all-rounder Hardik Pandya injured his ankle against Bangladesh in Pune and was ruled out of the rest of the World Cup.
Since then, he has taken five wickets against New Zealand in Dharamsala, four against England in Lucknow, five against Sri Lanka in Mumbai, two crucial ones against South Africa in Kolkata, and now seven more against the Kiwis in Mumbai, taking his World Cup tally to 23 wickets—the most in this edition. But that’s not the only statistic Shami tops; he now has the most five-wicket hauls at a single World Cup with three, the most five-wicket hauls across all World Cups with four (there was one against Afghanistan in 2019), and the most overall wickets at World Cups by an Indian with 54.
“It’s been quite phenomenal really, the amount of wickets he’s gotten in such a small amount of games in this tournament,” said an awestruck Williamson at the press conference after the defeat. “So, I mean, that Indian team in all departments are firing without a doubt and I’m sure they’ll be looking forward to their next opportunity in a few days’ time.”
Firing in all departments is right, for never perhaps before has an Indian team been better placed to win the biggest trophy in the sport; not even the teams that actually won in 1983 (underdogs) and 2011 (a great team but not the greatest). The start that Sharma and Gill provide sets the tempo, then come the tournament’s batting heavyweights Kohli and Iyer at three and four, respectively, followed by the team’s anchor at number five in wicketkeeper KL Rahul (probably the best behind the stumps, too, in this edition), who can either go big or steady the ship, according to the situation.
Then there are the bowlers Shami, Jasprit Bumrah, Mohammed Siraj, Jadeja, and Kuldeep Yadav with 85 wickets between them at this World Cup. This overall muscle, coupled with India’s unbeaten run, made a reporter ask Williamson if it is going to be difficult to stop Sharma’s men in the final in Ahmedabad on November 19. Without missing a beat, he replied: “Yeah. They’re the best team in the world and they’re all playing their best cricket, so that’s going to be tough. Very tough.”