A Big Year for India on the Global Stage Ends in Cricket Heartbreak

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. It seemed to symbolize how far India has come, on and off the field, and how far it still has to go.

The Indian team had entered the final in Ahmedabad, in the western state of Gujarat, having handsomely won all 10 of its matches in the tournament. The image-savvy Mr. Modi hoped to lap up a moment of glory at Narendra Modi Stadium, in his home state, ahead of elections early next year, when he will be seeking a third term.

An Indian air force aerobatics performance before the match.Credit…Atul Loke for The New York Times

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. He presented the trophy to the Australians after the crowd had mostly exited.

“Dear Team India,” the prime minister said in a consolation message on X after the game. “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). It emerged as a powerful voice for developing nations as it hosted the Group of 20 summit this year. And it became the first country to successfully land a rover on the southern pole of the moon.

Pat Cummins, the Australian captain, receiving the victor’s trophy from Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India and Australia’s deputy prime minister, Richard Marles.Credit…Atul Loke for The New York Times

In cricket, India is the world’s undisputed economic powerhouse. At least 80 percent of revenues in global cricket come from India, global cricket officials estimate. Indian broadcast rights for international matches for a four-year period fetched about $3 billion.

In addition, there is the country’s lucrative domestic league, the Indian Premier League. Its 10 teams are valued at about $1 billion on average, and the league, which draws the best players from India and around the world, sold its five-year media rights for about $6 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.

That felt like ancient history, though, as Indians streamed into the tournament final on Sunday with high expectations. It seemed as if the entire country had descended on Ahmedabad: Airlines added flights, and celebrities kept landing in chartered planes. Hotel rooms shot up anywhere from five to 10 times the usual rate.

Fans waiting to enter the stadium on Sunday.Credit…Atul Loke for The New York Times

All morning, the city’s metro ferried people to Narendra Modi Stadium. At every stop, families clad in blue squeezed their way into the packed cars, which became moving sound boxes filled with roaring cheers in Hindi:

“Mother India? Long live!”

“Win, win? India will win!”

By the time they got off the trains, many had become warmly acquainted, in the way that sporting events bring together complete strangers.

With their team unbeaten entering the final, India fans carried high hopes.Credit…Atul Loke for The New York Times

Some, like 16-year-old Kartik, had traveled long distances even without a ticket, clinging to hope until the last minute. He had taken several trains from the south of the country and stood outside the stadium gates with a large handwritten sign.

“I WANT TWO TICKETS,” the sign read. “I AM COME FROM 3000 KMS.”

In case anyone wondered whether he was asking for a donation, he had written in a corner in smaller letters: “I will buy.”

During the few stretches of play when India showed hopes of bouncing back, the huge crowd cheered the team on in unison.

As it became clear that Australia would win, the large crowd fell largely silent.Credit…Atul Loke for The New York Times

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.

After his team lifted the trophy, Pat Cummins, the Australian captain, said he had begun his day nervous seeing the sea of blue all around him.

“Awesome day,” he added. “The good thing was they weren’t too noisy for most of it.”

Australia has won six World Cups in the tournament’s 48-year history.Credit…Atul Loke for The New York Times

After the loss, India’s coach, Rahul Dravid, said his team was shattered to see such a dominating campaign end in a whimper.

World Cup glory had evaded Mr. Dravid several times during his playing career, too, including when he captained the team in 2007. Now, as coach, he said it was “tough to see” a team that had “represented India fantastically” go out with a loss.

“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.”

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