I call it The Wince. You may be talking to different players at different times, but the mention of those two matches, both played on March 23, elicits the same reaction from all of them. The wince – the look of a man punched in the gut with a leaden fist.
Two decades after the near-miracle at Lord’s against mighty West Indies, India were back in a World Cup final. A generation of players inspired by the feats of Kapil Dev and his 1983 side now had their own shot at immortality. Australia had swatted every opponent aside on their way to the 2003 final, but an Indian team trounced by nine wickets at Centurion had since gone on an eight-match winning streak of their own.
For once, there was absolutely no doubt that the two best sides in the competition had made the final. Only one of them, though, started the match switched on. India worked themselves into a lather, Australia picked off the boundaries. By the time Matthew Hayden and Adam Gilchrist were separated, the run-rate was over seven.
Damien Martyn made a sublime unbeaten 88 with a broken hand, while Ricky Ponting was in such imperious touch that his 140 not out even comprised a one-handed six. At halfway, the match was all but over. When Sachin Tendulkar then miscued a pull back to Glenn McGrath, the realisation started to dawn that The Wanderers would not be Lord’s Redux. Virender Sehwag fought bravely for his 82, but the gulf between the two teams, 125 runs, aptly reflected the difference between a very good side and an all time great one.
Exactly four years later, it wasn’t the World Cup trophy on the line, but survival. Having lost to Bangladesh six days earlier, India needed to get past Sri Lanka to progress. Tendulkar, Sehwag, Sourav Ganguly, Yuvraj Singh, Zaheer Khan and Harbhajan Singh remained from the Wanderers heartache. Rahul Dravid now led the side. Anil Kumble, as he had been in South Africa, was on the bench.
Sehwag and Dravid apart, there was next to no fight as India subsided to a 69-run defeat. Greg Chappell, their coach, would up sticks and leave a few weeks later. Kumble, Dravid and Ganguly would not play another World Cup game, watching from the sidelines as Tendulkar and six other survivors from the 2007 debacle ended a generation of pain at the Wankhede Stadium on April 2, 2011.
The joy then was unalloyed, but a mention of The Wanderers or the Queen’s Park Oval still brings forth the winces. For some like Kumble, who didn’t even get the chance to change destiny’s path, the disappointment is especially acute. For others, the Johannesburg final is something they look back on with a sense of pride – of having got that far – while the Trinidad torment is a bad dream best forgotten.
But next to genuine loss, sporting grief can be a trivial thing. A year to the day before India capitulated at the Bullring, Ben Hollioake lost control of the car he was driving and crashed into a wall by the side of a freeway in Perth. He died instantly. It took his girlfriend, Janaya Scholten, weeks to regain consciousness.
Ben and Adam Hollioake, older by six years, had made their Test debuts together at Trent Bridge in 1997. Earlier that summer, in a Texaco Trophy game at Lord’s, the younger sibling had announced himself with a 48-ball 63 against an Australian attack that had Glenn McGrath, Shane Warne and Jason Gillespie.
“Third ball he drove Glenn McGrath back down the ground for four, and he took 13 from McGrath’s next over,” said the Wisden Almanack. “When he went down on one knee and swept Shane Warne over mid-wicket, Lord’s purred. The press didn’t just wax their lyricals, they preserved them in honey.”
He was 19 then. We have no way of knowing what kind of career he would have enjoyed hadn’t fate intervened so cruelly. As it is, the cricket world remembers him as a kind of Peter Pan, who splashed colour across our eyeline for all too brief a while.
Those that have studied Indian history think of Bhagat Singh on much the same lines. Hanged in Lahore on this day 86 years ago, when he was just 23, the revolutionary has been an inspiration to four generations of Indians. For the youth, his name remains the ultimate riposte each time some old fogey comes out with that What-do-you-young-people-know line.
Adam Hollioake walked away from the game weeks before his 33rd birthday. The two years after his brother’s death had been enough of a struggle. At one point, two months after Ben had been laid to rest, and to keep a promise he had made, Adam journeyed to the Pyramid Arena in Memphis to watch Lennox Lewis fight Mike Tyson for the world heavyweight title. The seat next to him was conspicuously empty. He would not allow anyone else to sit there.
That is what grief can do to a man. And as Indian cricket looks back on two of its darker days, it’s worthwhile to remember that there are far greater tragedies.