The stage was amply set: an acrobatic air show by Indian military planes, performances by star Bollywood singers, a light display, lots of fireworks and — talked about as the highlight — an appearance by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the vast stadium that bears his name.
All India’s national cricket team, undefeated and heavily favored, had to do was win.
In the end, the Indians fell short, losing to Australia on Sunday night in the men’s World Cup, silencing the home crowd of about 100,000 and bringing heartache to more than a billion Indians who have grown used this year to unending validation of their country’s global rise.
The result was a bitter pill for a nation that expected a coronation as the most dominant force, measured in passion and money, in a sport that by some estimates is the world’s second most popular. The result was a bitter pill for a nation that expected to be crowned as the most dominant force, measured in passion and money, in a sport that some estimates are the second most popular.
The Indian team entered the final of the tournament in Ahmedabad (in the western state Gujarat) having won all ten of its matches. Modi wanted to bask in the glory of winning all 10 of his matches at Narendra Modi Stadium. He was hoping for a big moment before the elections that will take place early next year.
The choreography — of a strong leader handing the trophy to a commanding team that swept to victory — would serve to further fuse his image to the story of India’s ascent.
But by the time Mr. Modi reached the stadium toward the end of the match, India’s chances had spiraled downward. After the majority of the crowd left, he presented the trophy to Australia.
“Dear Team India,” The Prime Minister said in a Consolation message After the game, click on X. “Your talent and determination through the World Cup was noteworthy. You’ve played with great spirit and brought immense pride to the nation.”
And there has been a lot for India, now the world’s most populous nation, to be proud of this year. Its economy, the world’s fifth largest, is the fastest growing among major nations (even if that growth is highly unequal). As it hosted this year’s Group of 20 Summit, it became a strong voice for developing countries. It was the first nation to land a rover successfully on the south pole of the Moon.
In cricket, India is the world’s undisputed economic powerhouse. Global cricket officials estimate that at least 80 percent (or more) of the revenues generated by global cricket are from India. Indian broadcast rights to international matches for four years brought in about $3 billion.
In addition, there is the country’s lucrative domestic league, the Indian Premier League. The league’s media rights were sold for approximately $6 billion and its 10 teams, which attract the best players in India and from around the globe, are worth an average of $1 billion.
The sport’s riches are also beginning to trickle to the women’s game. Last year, India launched the $500 million Women’s Premier League, offering hope to young female cricketers in a country where female participation in the formal economy remains abysmal.
But India’s checkbook domination of the game has not translated into comparable success on the biggest international stages. India has won the World Cup, played every four years, twice in the tournament’s 48-year history, the last time in 2011. Australia has won six times.
It felt like yesterday, however, as Indians poured into the final of the tournament on Sunday, full of high hopes. Ahmedabad was flooded with Indians: Airlines increased flights, celebrities landed in chartered airplanes and the city seemed to be overrun. The price of hotel rooms increased anywhere between five and ten times what they usually are.
All morning, the city’s metro ferried people to Narendra Modi Stadium. Every stop saw families dressed in blue crammed into packed cars that became moving soundboxes filled with loud cheers in Hindi.
“Mother India? Long live!”
“Win, win? India will win!”
Many had already become friends by the time they left the train, much like how sporting events can bring strangers together.
Kartik (16 years old) had travelled long-distances, even without a boarding pass, holding on to the hope of a last-minute ticket. He had taken multiple trains from the southern part of the country, and was standing outside the stadium’s gates with a handwritten sign.
“I WANT TWO TICKETS,” The sign reads: “I AM COME FROM 3000 KMS.”
He had written in small letters in the corner, in case anyone was unsure whether he wanted a donation: “I will buy.”
The huge crowd cheered India on during the moments when they showed signs of hope of coming back.
But for much of the night, it was the crowd’s silence that told the story. Toward the end, as India’s defeat appeared certain, it was so silent that the single clap of an Australian fan could be heard in an entire section. When the fireworks announced Australia’s victory, it was so quiet that it felt like salt on gaping wounds.
Pat Cummins (Australian captain) said that his team had won the trophy after he began his day feeling nervous because he saw the sea of turquoise all around him.
“Awesome day,” He added. “The good thing was they weren’t too noisy for most of it.”
After the loss, India’s coach, Rahul Dravid, said his team was shattered to see such a dominating campaign end in a whimper.
Dravid had missed out on World Cup glory several times in his playing career as well, including when he led the team in 2007. He said that now, as a coach, it was his goal to win the World Cup. “tough to see” A team who had “represented India fantastically” Go out on a losing streak
“But yeah, that’s sport. That happens. It can happen,” He said. “And I’m sure that the sun will come up tomorrow morning. We’ll learn from it. We’ll reflect. And we’ll move on, as will everyone else.”