Ricky Ponting © Getty Images
Ricky Ponting © Getty Images

Ransack. Plunder. Shatter. History books have used these words to describe the acts of a Genghis Khan or Mahmud of Ghazni or Timur (not to be confused with Taimur Ali Khan). Imagine the cricket field as a combat zone, the bats being swords, the equipments the armours. Ricky Ponting, on this day, in 2003, was no less than King Arthur and that Kookaburra he wielded was his Excalibur. Suvajit Mustafi, then 17, recalls the horrors.

Getting off the bicycle, I was rushing in through the gate with the Pepsi Blue bottle. Nilu-mama (Blue and Nilu, ironical and coincidental) from our neighbourhood stopped me.

“Will you pass 12th?” he questioned.

“Haven’t given it a thought. Will think after the final.”

“Final, huh! Do you even know today is the 68th death anniversary of Bhagat Singh? All you think is about the hyped sport,” he questioned again.

A movie aficionado that he was, I was sure of his source of knowledge—the numerous Bhagat Singh films from the previous year. I had the privilege of sitting through his detailed narrations of Chori Chori Chupke Chupke and Dhai Akshar Prem Ke. Yes. Detailed. He even danced the moves of Preity Zinta in Deewani Deewani number.

‘Scarred’ was an understatement to describe what I endured. ‘Scared’ was more apt. And glad too, about the fact that respecting elders came naturally.

“Oh yes! I know. Along with Rajguru and Sukhdev. Nilu-mama, I think maa just called me inside. See you,” I sped in with anxiety my fuel and I had to tell Baba of my great discovery.

“Wait. Wait. Don’t drink that petrol…”

March 23, 2003. World Cup Final.

Usually around this time of the year a teenager’s life is immersed in the books. It was not very different for me. My 10+2 board exams were on. Not that I complained that it came in the way of the World Cup, but writing three-hour papers and sitting through never-ending science practical tests would often make me miss the first half of the day games.

Computer science practical examinations were on the next day. The only C language I was programmed with was cricket.

Oh, and the discovery. I had figured out a pattern on the morning of the match. Not counting the 1975 World Cup edition, Clive Lloyd, a left-handed batsman and captain had won the 1979 edition and Kapil Dev, a right-handed captain, won in 1983. The pattern continued: Allan Border in 1987, Imran Khan in 1992, Arjuna Ranatunga in 1996; Steve Waugh in 1999; filling the blank was easy.

Sourav Ganguly, the lefty batsman is destined,” I thought.

By now my family had given up on me. They too were made to accept that board exams would follow the next year but World Cup will take another four.

***

Joys knew no bound when Ganguly won the toss. The utterance of “fielding” got me to that sunken feeling. I could anticipate what was coming.

1nb, 0, 2nb, 1, 0, 0, 5w, 4, 1w — the order was set from first over. Zaheer Khan leaked 15. India were under pressure, and who better than Matthew Hayden and Adam Gilchrist to capitalise?

India pacers, exceptional till the final, sprayed around and were gleefully plundered for runs by the Australian duo.

There was nothing unusual I noticed about Ponting when he walked in. It was 105 for 1 after 14 overs. India had Harbhajan Singh, someone who had tormented the Australian captain enough.

Damien Martyn joined him in the 20th over and began with a flurry of eye-alluring cuts and drives. Desperately wanting him to be back in the hut, I couldn’t help shadow practice those attractive strokes. For all the adjectives used, cricket is about scoring runs but such artists are ornaments to the game.

As the partnership built, I pinned my hopes on 326 —the total India chased at Lord’s eight months back. It was in the 39th over that Ponting reached his fifty and it had taken him 74 balls. Martyn, in contrast, was 56 from 58.

Another learning here on what separates greats from the very goods. Martyn’s knock was very good. He did that with a broken finger. I thought he would do what Nasser Hussain did to India at Lord’s. 326, the NatWest number, was a reality. Another 100 in 12 overs would get them there.

Then Ponting the great decided to step in.

Fifteen years on, when I think of this day, the first visuals I imagine are the two back-to-back sixes over deep midwicket he struck against Harbhajan. The run rate shot to over six and soon would be seven. It often made me, and I am sure many, wonder why couldn’t Ponting do that more often against Harbhajan. The hits, the assurance in foot work was near perfect. That was the start.

In the 41st over, Ashish Nehra’s slower delivery ended up being a full toss. Ponting had positioned himself early but went with a shot that was yet to be named. Remember, this was in the pre-T20 era. An insanely executed one-handed swipe over deep square-leg.

And I knew this was not the end. That shot made me believe that it was Ponting’s day. He bat listened to his command. In the next nine overs, he would smack five more sixes.

His hundred came off 103 balls in the 46th over. It had taken him 29 balls for his second fifty. He would score another 40 more off 18 balls.

Javagal Srinath, India’s spearhead, was taken for 18 off his last over. His decorated career ended with standing six way over long-on, into the second tier and a pull over leg gully for four.

Srinath finished with 10-0-87-0, Ponting with 140 (121)* and Australia with 359 for 2.

The Indian body language said it all. These were pre-T20 and pre-Virat Kohli days. There were the Tendulkars, Gangulys, Sehwags and Dravids but no Kohli; and there were Glenn McGrath and Brett Lee.

Virender Sehwag entertained at one end and a fight resumed for the losing cost.

There was a moment where I managed to burst the stacked-up crackers from Diwali. Play was called off and the buzz was that the match would start afresh next day. Even weather played a practical joke. Rain stopped and play resumed. Australia  won by 125 runs.

(Trivia: Eight years and a day later, India beat Australia in 2011 World Cup quarter-final to end their reign as champions)

Ponting lifted the gold, well deserved. A billion hearts were shattered. India were second best in the tournament. They were certainly.

For this 17-year-old, he skipped dinner, fought tears and went to bed. Till the time, whenever I was filled slam-books, the entry against the saddest moment would invariably be March 23, 2003.

In other news, I passed 10+2 and there began my journey as a cricket writer. As much for the heartbreak, Ponting’s brilliance won a part of me.