By Madan Mohan
There’ll be no analysis this time. As Mahendra Singh Dhoni put it, though not in as many words, the victory would take care of everything and bad calls wouldn’t matter now. Instead, I will simply pen my reactions to the campaign, and specifically the match as it unfolded, and in the process relive the moments I am sure millions of Indian cricket fans will cherish for years to come.
Count out 1992 and I am as much a veteran of failed Indian World Cup campaigns as Sachin Tendulkar, though I was just a viewer! The 1999 and 2007 editions were dismal. The 1996 edition promised, but was not overall a very convincing campaign. India went furthest in 2003 and to learn that the best India had got in years was not even close to Australia was a big blow.
This time, India was billed as one of the favourites to win the World Cup from the outset. And yet, I felt skeptical about India’s chances. I was not convinced about India’s bowling and fielding performances and the league stage did not go very far in convincing me that I was wrong. Inspiration and commitment, too, seemed to be in short supply at this point in time.
But I liked what I saw in the quarter-finals and semi-finals. India’s bowling didn’t exactly recall West Indies’s fearsome quartet but it got tighter, more accurate and choked the opposition’s batsmen through restriction rather than annihilation. Virat Kohli, Suresh Raina and Yuvraj Singh between themselves lifted India’s fielding remarkably. Most importantly, I sensed the same determination and resilience in their performances which had taken India to famous victories in the past like CB Series or (earlier) NatWest Trophy.
India was, unfortunately, up against a very calm and ‘professional’ opponent in the final. The prospect of chasing a big total against Sri Lanka’s spinners on the dicey Wankhede pitch didn’t look inviting. And when India lost the toss, I wondered if it was not 2003 all over again.
But Sri Lanka proceeded with a strange batting display which convinced me for the first time on Saturday that India had a great chance to win. After a nervous and pedestrian start, Sri Lanka did not bat badly but always seemed to be backing out of risks or of upping the ante just a little bit more. With due respect to Kumar Sangakarra and Mahela Jayawardene, if they could coast to 274 with risk free batting, why wouldn’t India get there.
The pitch too appeared to be playing true and the seaside stadium (well, not exactly!) promised dew in the evening. Sri Lanka appeared very confident at the innings break with its score but I wondered if it was not going purely on history and tradition. Chasing under the lights at Wankhede had generally been tough and only twice before in World Cup history had a team won batting second. But all that did not necessarily make the target too formidable for the Indian batting line-up. I figured if only India didn’t panic and unless Lasith Mallinga produced something very special, India would be crowned champions again.
I left for a stroll in the park and locale, generally, before settling in the couch for the next three hours. On my way back home, I caught sight of the Indian openers arriving at the crease on a TV screen at a store. I rushed home, but not in time to catch Virender Sehwag’s dismissal. Sachin Tendulkar looked in sublime form before Mallinga deceived him with late swing. Well, now! This called for something special from the middle over. Suddenly, 275 looked formidable again. My father had returned home from office by then and we both mirrored the worried looks of spectators staring back at us from the TV screen. Malinga had already produced something special and were there more horrors in store for us?
Gautam Gambhir and Virat Kohli showed unexpected calm under pressure and steadily consolidated the Indian innings without falling behind the asking rate, either. I thought then that if the duo took India to 150, the match would more or less be in the bag. But Sangakarra made one of his few really telling moves in the defence and brought on Tilekaratne Dilshan. Dilshan’s brilliant catch off his own bowling sent back Kohli and left the innings and match at an inflexion point.
I suspected Dhoni would be in next as he would not want to expose Yuvraj Singh to the spinners. I was right, but Dhoni’s body language as he walked in did nothing to reassure me. He looked pale and tense, much like Mohammed Azharuddin in the disastrous 1996 semi-final. See, the problem with having watched several past editions of the World Cup is you make rather tenuous connections and recall things you shouldn’t.
Wankhede was a batting beauty and a far cry from the vicious turner at Eden Gardens in 1996. And, as I would begin to realize, this Sri Lankan side did not seem to have the buoyancy and self belief of Arjuna Ranatunga’s champions. When Dhoni walked in, he was allowed to push the ball into the gaps and get off to a start. The Lankans didn’t pile the pressure on him.
Shaking off nerves, Dhoni now looked determined and completely in control of the situation. By the time Malinga’s second spell of a lone over was seen off, I knew the captain would lead from the front and see India through to a win. Apart from a few false shots early on and some poor calling, his innings was practically flawless, even if not very aesthetically appealing. Dhoni will be compared, inevitably, to Kapil Dev in the days to come but the innings was reminiscent of Steve Waugh. He was gritty, dug deep and didn’t give the opposition a chance.
By the time Gambhir fell short of a well deserved century, the target was well within reach. Yes, there was a hint of an opening now for Sri Lanka, but surely this Indian team wouldn’t blow it. And they didn’t. Yuvraj wasted no time in getting off the blocks. A tight Malinga over in the Powerplay had my father glancing at the equation, but I said they would take Nuwan Kulasekara apart in the next over.
On cue, the next two overs went for plenty and Dhoni could have a go at striking the winning runs with an over and a half to spare. It was not the fashion in which I would have expected a long-awaited World Cup victory to arrive. India cruised professionally and with consummate ease to a competitive target, the highest chased down successfully so far in a World Cup final. If it could have been done so easily, why didn’t India get there before?
Of course, so many things need to fall in place for a successful World Cup campaign and the decline of Australia made things easier. But India ultimately needed a skipper who would not get weighed down by expectations and shepherd his team calmly to get the job done. And what of the stated goal that had been achieved, after all? Fittingly, with Sachin Tendulkar failing in the final, the rest of the team did win it for him and he won’t join the ranks of Richard Hadlee, Ian Botham or Brian Lara, heavyweights who could not sign off their careers with World Cup triumphs.
(Madan Mohan, a 25-year old CA from Mumbai, is passionate about writing, music and cricket. Writing on cricket is like the icing on the cake)
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