India vs South Africa: ICC Men’s T20 World Cup 2024 final Barbados

The path to the T20 World Cup final has been difficult for varying reasons for India and South Africa, but glory awaits in Saturday’s final in Barbados.

Captain Rohit Sharma, right, has been the star of the show with the bat for India at the T20 World Cup
Captain Rohit Sharma, right, has been the star of the show with the bat for India at the T20 World Cup [Randy Brooks/AFP]

Bridgetown, Barbados – And then there were two.

India and South Africa have made it to the T20 World Cup Final, each side undefeated through the group stage, the Super Eights and the semifinals.

Both teams arrived in Barbados on Thursday night ahead of Saturday’s final, such is the hectic – even shambolic – nature of the congested fixtures. South Africa waited all day at the airport for a delayed charter flight from Trinidad. India flew after their semifinal win over England in Guyana, eventually landing around midnight.

But both teams have been on far longer journeys, and faced greater obstacles than logistics, to reach this point at Kensington Oval.

India have met and overpowered two nemeses. They banished the sour memories of last year’s defeat by Australia in the World Cup Final at Ahmedabad. They blew away England, the defending champions who blasted them out of the 2022 T20 World Cup in the semifinal in Adelaide, with a semifinal reversal in Georgetown.

Nine players from the 2023 one-day squad are in Barbados – and yet, this looks like a wholly different India team. They have no discernible weakness and, while their victories have not all been easy, they have never looked like losing.

India's wicketkeeper Rishabh Pant, right, celebrates after stumping out England's Moeen Ali, left, during the ICC Men's T20 World Cup second semifinal cricket match between England and India at the Guyana National Stadium in Providence, Guyana, Thursday, June 27, 2024. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)
India’s wicketkeeper Rishabh Pant, right, celebrates after stumping out England’s Moeen Ali, left, during their comprehensive victory in the second T20 World Cup semifinal [File: Ramon Espinosa/AP Photo]

In the US and the Caribbean, there has not been the same wall-to-wall television and print coverage of their every movement. The crowds and the travelling press pack have often been sparse compared with those that followed them last year in India. It has perhaps unburdened them to play away from the stifling pressure of expectation in a home World Cup.

A day before the final, there was no sign of them at Kensington Oval. No news conference, no training, no inspection of the pitch, no external forces bearing down on them.

Rohit embodies India’s T20 World Cup endeavour

Their captain has embodied their newfound mindset. Sharma’s batting has been brave and aggressive, never more so than in India’s last two matches against Australia and England. His 92 off 41 in Saint Lucia was an extraordinary display of fearlessness and power, and his half-century in the semifinal set the tone for India’s domination.

Ahead of the England match, he spoke of the change in approach India has attempted but only really mastered in this tournament.

“We’ve tried to play with very free minds in the last two or three years that we’ve played our T20 cricket and even the ODI cricket,” Sharma said in Guyana. “So not a lot has changed as such. We saw throughout this tournament, the conditions had its own challenges. And we want to do that, we want to be a smart cricket team, we want to assess and play. The moment we realise it’s a good pitch, we want to play the way we play.

“I have tried and kept things very simple for myself personally and also for the team because … these guys have played a lot of cricket, a lot of high-pressure games. You’ve got to try to give them the role clarity, which I think we have done pretty well. And then obviously, we want to rely on them making good decisions on the field.

“You have to have an open mind when you want to do things, but as much as the team is concerned and I’m concerned, our priority was to keep things very simple and give them the freedom that you all want playing this format.”

Cricket - T20 World Cup - Semi Final - South Africa v Afghanistan - Brian Lara Stadium, Tarouba, Trinidad and Tobago - June 26, 2024 South Africa's David Miller with former player Dale Steyn REUTERS/Ash Allen
South Africa’s David Miller with former player Dale Steyn [File: Ash Allen/Reuters]

While South Africa do not carry the same burden of more than a billion people’s expectations, the current players have broken free of the millstone that weighed down even the greats of the past in becoming the first men’s team to win a semifinal.

Of the 2023 World Cup squad, 11 have returned for this tournament, carrying painful memories of a three-wicket defeat by Australia in the semifinal. But unlike India, their albatross is intergenerational; they have gone where the likes of AB de Villiers, Dale Steyn, Jacques Kallis, and Allen Donald all failed to go.

Their path to the final has been more fraught, mostly marked by tight finishes and near misses, the sort of scenarios that have seen off better sides.

But, according to their captain, the difference is that this team has won the key moments and maintained calm under pressure.

“There’s been close moments in games that would have probably affected the result and we managed to win those moments,” Aiden Markram said in his pre-match news conference. “To have done them two, three, maybe four times throughout the competition so far has given the team the belief that you can win from any position, which I think is quite important for a team to have.

“We’ve been together now for quite a few years as a white-ball squad and guys finally really understand their roles within the team. I think that’s starting to help us win those small margins and those knife-edge moments.

“There’s a really strong will to win. I don’t think it’s on the level of desperation, but it’s an extreme hunger to win games of cricket, and we haven’t achieved ideally on the world stage what we would have liked to and I think that gets the juices going a bit for the boys to finally achieve it.

“You’ve seen it in the close results, probably have not played some of our best cricket in certain games, but that will to win sort of drives you to, by hook or by crook, get the job done. That’s probably one thing that’s really stood out for me in this group.”

South Africa receive ‘a lot of support’ ahead of India showdown

These players have all shared the pain of South Africa’s knockout history, as either a player or a fan. Markram said the “gut-wrenching” 2015 World Cup semifinal, which New Zealand won with one ball remaining, was his worst memory. Former players from that team, and others before it, have shared their congratulations and encouragement in person or from afar.

“There’s been a lot of support from past players which is special for us as a group,” said Markram. “They are the guys that inspired us when we were younger and to now be firstly making them proud but also having their support obviously means a hell of a lot to us as a team.

“The journey has now finally got us here to our first final which is a proud and special feeling, not just for me but for everyone involved in the squad, and to have an opportunity to win our first trophy, you have to be in a final to have that opportunity and to at least be involved in that tomorrow is a massive achievement for us.”

Markram was speaking at Kensington Oval, where six other South African players arrived for an optional training session. They milled around the pitch, occasionally getting down on hands and knees to inspect it more closely. Names like Baartman and Coetzee and Maharaj and Hendricks, that are not yet in the pantheon of South Africa greats, but that may change if they bring home South Africa’s first World Cup Trophy.

To do so, they will have to defeat the form team of the tournament.

India and South Africa have each faced and conquered their demons, past and present, on the road to Bridgetown. But only one will walk away with the ultimate prize.

Source: Al Jazeera