On March 23, 2003 India's much cherished dream came crashing down to earth at the Wanderers. Australia routed India by 125 runs to win the World Cup for a historic third time. Skipper Ricky Ponting played the innings of his life scoring an unbeaten 140 and was involved in a belligerent 234-run partnership with Damien Martyn, thereby batting India out of the game. India's only hope was Virender Sehwag and the rain, but it was not to be. And the prayers remained unanswered.
Now, eight years and one day to that day India take on Australia at the Sardar Patel Stadium at Motera in a World Cup knockout game that has the potential to bury the ghost of the Wanderers. Over the years India have done enough at home and on tour to not just challenge Australian supremacy, but deal them the knockout punches. A Test win at Perth, Test wins at home, an ODI series win Down Under, and even a T20 World Cup spanking, but none of them would have made up for the loss at the Wanderers. The stage has been different, the stakes have been different. Nothing else but a win in a World Cup game can exact revenge for that fateful day. And it can't get better than doing it at home.
As the Men in Blue take the field on Thursday, there are at least six members in the current Indian squad who would remember the 2003 final ball-by-ball. Sachin Tendulkar, Zaheer Khan, Virender Sehwag, Yuvraj Singh, Harbhajan Singh and Ashish Nehra are like a band of brothers who have an unfinished task at hand. There were those who soldiered with them in the lost cause, and now there are new recruits. But it is these six people who still carry the cross upon their shoulders and now seek a resting place for it.
Among these six is India's bowling spearhead, then an inexperienced lad, who has a score to settle for being taken to the cleaners eight years ago. Sourav Ganguly's decision to bowl first has been debated over reams of pages and hours of air time, but it was Zaheer's first over where he went for 15 runs that set the tone for the game. His inexperience came to the fore when he exchanged words with Adam Gilchrist, known to have a stomach for a fight, and who then went about a demolition job in such a manner that Ganguly had to bring on Harbhajan in the 10th over.
Zaheer has since grown as a player and as a bowler. From that day when he wanted to bowl fast and furious and run through the batting, Zak has become the incisive weapon and a game-changer for India. Every time his skipper has thrown the ball towards him, Zaheer has led from the front even as he has lacked support from the other end and on Thursday it is his battle against the Aussie lineup that will again determine the outcome of the game. This is one battle he must be waiting for, patiently sharpening his skills and strategy.