World champions again, after 28 years… MS Dhoni’s team after beating Sri Lanka in the 2011 World Cup final at Mumbai’s Wankhede Stadium on April 2, 2011 © Getty Images
World champions again, after 28 years… MS Dhoni’s team after beating Sri Lanka in the 2011 World Cup final at Mumbai’s Wankhede Stadium on April 2, 2011 © Getty Images

April 2, 2011. When MS Dhoni launched Nuwan Kulasekara over long-on, India triumphed in the World Cup after 28 years. Arunabha Sengupta relives the moments during the riveting final at the Wankhede Stadium.

It had been done once before — 28 long years ago. In June 1983, when Mohinder Amarnath trapped Michael Holding leg before wicket, the whole of India erupted in unrehearsed reactions. The country witnessed unbelievable scenes. Cricket had been catapulted into the forefront of public consciousness where it has remained ever since, the associated glitz, glamour and glitter of gold increasing exponentially with every passing year.

In two previous World Cups, India had scored just one victory — against unpretentious and unheralded East Africa. No one expected them to win when they played the first match against West Indies at Manchester. India beat West Indies in their opening game and they ensured that their victory against the World Champions at Berbice in March 1983 was no flash in the pan.Every subsequent victory was welcomed with the pleasant surprise that flavours the feelings of the one who roots for the giant-killer. The ascent to the semi-final was considered phenomenal. The emphatic victory over England at Manchester (the venue where India began their victory march) exceeded all expectations. As the television screens, a good proportion of them black and white, tuned in to watch the national heroes take on the might of the West Indies, few expected Kapil Dev to lift the Prudential World Cup. When it finally happened, there was a sweet delight of the unexpected.

Unlike India’s fairytale win on June 25, 1983, things were very different this time around in 2011. On April 2, exactly two years ago, when Mahendra Singh Dhoni walked out to toss alongside Kumar Sangakkara, the nation sat on the proverbial edge of their seats. The country expected India to win. Nay, they demanded it as their birthright. Gone were the days of restraint, reserve and frugality. India of 2011 was very different unlike 1983. In the era of globalisation and internet, of open economy and easy money, of galloping Sensex and pre-approved credit cards — it was the voice of the consumer clamouring for the trophy. This was a generation with a sense of entitlement beyond the widest belief. The Indian team had been put together with the sole purpose of winning the World Cup for them. And losing was no longer an option. The game had been transformed from fun to fancy to fanaticism.

Every move of Dhoni had been mercilessly criticised, severely hauled over calumnious flames of downright abuse. With the benefit of hindsight, a loss and a tie in the initial games had been piled up as the sins from which he could get absolution only through a win in the final. The lack of form of the captain with the bat had been placed under colossal microscopes for relentless censure. Every small stutter along the way, of every member of the outfit, was crucified in the media — print, electronic, television and social.

After the final, Dhoni revealed that a lot of the players had not been eating properly due to the anxiety that dogged them continuously. Asked about Man of the Tournament Yuvraj Singh, Dhoni said that he had been vomiting a lot.

On these very human souls had been thrust the stature of gods. Millions worshipped them. The sense of reality had disappeared in potholes of near-fundamentalist blindness. The Men in Blue had been cast as infallible. And Heaven help them if they failed the scary expectations of a fanatically cricket-mad nation.

Of course, a modern day cricketer must be well equipped to handle pressure. But, to be held at ransom by an entire country! To be at a virtual gun point of the most inflammable and most numerous fans who ever followed a sport?

How Dhoni walked out to toss out with not a crease on his brow remains a mystery. With billions of feet raised to stamp on his head at anything remotely resembling failure, with the baiters gnashing their teeth at his heels all through the progress to the finals, he looked his familiar detached self — the same image that had given rise to the nickname ‘Captain Cool’.

In the evening he walked out at the fall of the third wicket. One good ball or one false stroke could plunge him forever into the quicksand of eternal vilification. The dauntless spunk was eerie. And he went on to play an innings that sent his critics scurrying for cover, often under the guise of celebration. Epics have been written about far lesser acts of bravery. This innings by Dhoni ranked higher than any legendary quest of all the mythological heroes put together.

The Jayawardene finesse

The pressure must have got to the officials too. Match referee Jeff Crowe did not hear Sangakkara’s call when the coin was tossed. Dhoni had already turned to Ravi Shastri and declared, “We’ll bat.” But, the toss had to be redone. Sri Lanka won and batted.

Zaheer Khan ran in with a maturity stark in contrast to the verbal aggression of the first over eight years earlier — which had  taken 10 balls to complete and enabled Australia get off to a flier. On this day, he was silent, scorching and sharp. Upul Tharanga was taken in the slips by Virender Sehwag, Sri Lanka managed just 31 from the first 10. Zaheer’s first spell read 5-3-6-1.

When dangerman Tillakaratne Dilshan was foxed by Harbhajan, with Sri Lanka on 60 for 2 from 16.3 overs, India had reason to be happy. But, now they were subjected to one of the most aesthetically pleasing demonstrations of destruction.

Mahela Jayawardene did nothing to suggest violence. Every stroke was impeccable and followed the coaching manual to perfection. And they found the gaps in the most meticulously set fields. Every boundary hit was a statement in class. Every placement a fine art on its own. Skipper Sangakkara departed two short of fifty, getting an under-edge trying to cut Yuvraj. Thilan Samaraweera was trapped leg-before, the Indian demand for review bearing fruit, Simon Taufel’s decision overturned. Chamara Kapugedera was sucked into self-destruction by a slower ball from Zaheer. The score read 183 for 5 at the end of 40 overs and the Indians were still smiling. But at the other end, Jayawardene went on and on, as if on a different strip, ground and zone.

Mahela Jayawardene in an aggressive mood en route his hundred in the final © Getty Images
Mahela Jayawardene in an aggressive mood en route his hundred in the final © Getty Images

It was during the batting powerplay that Sri Lanka’s final burst of acceleration did manifest itself. With Jayawardene stroking boundaries with the touch of elegance, Nuwan Kulasekara launched into the bowling with gay abandon. Zaheer, with 25 from 8 overs so far, was smashed into the stands over mid-wicket. And when Jayawardene got strike, he cut between the point and short third-man for four. The next ball was a trademark Zaheer yorker that swung in. The Sri Lankan maestro hit it over mid-off for a boundary to bring up his hundred.

In Zaheer’s last over, Thisara Perera swung his bat to hit 4,4,2,6. The Indian speedster finished with 60 from his 10 overs, 35 from his final 2. Sri Lanka had belted their way to 274. With the final adding several dimensions of pressure to the chase, this was going to take some catching. And with the slung in yorkers of Lasith Malinga and the doosras of Muttiah Muralitharan to deal with, India did have a task on their hands.

The exchange of punches

The Indian start could not have been more disastrous. Malinga got Sehwag second ball, wrapped on the pads, rooted to the crease. It was reviewed (without consultation, as in the semi-final), but the decision stuck.

Gambhir punched a four past square-leg off the first ball he faced. It was a statement made, although aided by a misfield. The Indians were not about to be intimidated by an early wicket.

Sachin Tendulkar was in imperious form. He had started the tournament with two hundreds, had scored a half century in the quarter-final, and a chancy, bizarre 85 to top score in the semi-final. He started with a three off Kulasekara. Two overs later he had driven one down the ground and square cut another for boundaries. The 33,000 at Wankhede sensed something special. The master was looking in supreme touch.

And then Malinga broke millions of hearts. The ball swerved away, and the attempted steer took the edge through to Sangakkara. There was going to be no epic played according to the script for Tendulkar. More importantly the Indians were 31 for 2.

Virat Kohli and Gautam Gambhir however did not show any sign of resignation. The approach was practical, professional, common-sense. The good balls were tapped for singles; the bad balls were dispatched for fours. In between, of course, Kohli took time off to essay some scintillating flicks off even the best of balls. When the bowling Powerplay was taken immediately after ten overs, Gambhir skipped down the track to Perera, converted a good length ball to a half volley and drilled it for four. The intentions were clear. The fight was on.

Suraj Randiv was used before Muralitharan. Gambhir was focused on twisting the initiative away. He almost paid the price. The third ball from the spinner was on the leg stump, and the left-hander drove inside out. It went to long-off, eminently catchable, but Kulasekara responded late. It would prove very, very costly.

Muralitharan was introduced in the 19th over. The batsmen were set. The pitch did not really help, and the champion spinner made little impression. The runs were coming quickly.

At the other end, Dilshan was superbly cut away for a boundary by Kohli. And off the next ball, the game turned again. Kohli drove hard and Dilshan stuck out his hand. It was an amazing catch, and the young Delhi batsman walked back for 35.

And at 114 for 3 in the 22nd over, Dhoni famously walked out, promoting himself ahead of the man in form Yuvraj Singh.

The Dhoni Effect

The Indian captain had scored just 150 in the last seven innings. Yuvraj had scored heavily all through the tournament before falling for a golden duck in the semi-final. The required run-rate was nearly six, it needed to be maintained for 28.2 overs. One mistake and Dhoni would have poison dipped questions launched at him like millions of simultaneous arrows. Yet there he was striding in, the face betraying little emotion.

Later he explained that he had wanted to keep the left-handers in the line-up separated, using the left-hand right-hand combination to the fullest. Besides, he read the doosra of the mighty Muralitharan better than any other man in the middle order. Yet, how many captains would have put their heads on the chopping block like that?

The Indians played Muralitharan with respect, the rest as par the merit of the ball. The singles kept coming, and occasionally the field was pierced for boundaries. And then, in Murali’s sixth over, Dhoni punched him through the covers for four. It stung Sri Lanka. Their great bowler no longer held a threat. The balance was shifting.

And suddenly Dhoni was into his forties. Gambhir nearing the nineties. Less than eighty were required. The asking rate never too much on the wrong side of six. There had been no spectacular hitting, but steady professional approach. India were on top.

Murali came back. The last ball was short. Dhoni blasted it through extra cover. His fifty was up. There was not even a smile from the captain. The bat was almost imperceptibly as an afterthought.

Off Murali’s next over, Dhoni latched on to an over-pitched delivery and drove it against the spin past long-off. The plan of his coming ahead and countering Murali had paid off handsomely. The match was almost in the bag.

Now, on 97, Gambhir committed hara-kiri. Perera’s delivery was just about good length, and the left-hander stepped out towards the leg side, and tried to biff it through the off. The needless stroke cost him a memorable hundred in the World Cup final. But, he had done his job and then some more. It was 223 for 4. The 109- run stand had almost brought it home. Fifty-three were required with 58 balls still remaining.

If Sri Lanka entertained notions of getting back into the game, they were quickly quelled by Yuvraj. The third ball he faced was short, and was pulled away in front of mid-wicket for four. It was the strike of a man in the form of his life. There would be no breather as the new man played himself in.

Sealing it with a six: MS Dhoni launches Nuwan Kulasekara into the orbit to mastermind India's triumph in the World Cup final © Getty Images
Sealing it with a six: MS Dhoni launches Nuwan Kulasekara into the orbit to mastermind India’s triumph in the World Cup final © Getty Images

Off the first ball of Perera’s next over, Dhoni cut over point. The ball kept sailing all the way and landed into the crowd . The Sri Lankan shoulders dropped. That brought the equation down to 37 off 41 balls. And off the next ball, there was a misunderstanding resulting in a near run-out. In the end nothing untoward happened, and a run was added to the score. Up went Dhoni’s bat and down it came, resoundingly on his pad. It had been a near error in judgement and he was furious with himself. Under the infinite calmness and inscrutable visage, there was a severe zeal to win.

In the 47th over two fours — one apiece from Dhoni and Yuvraj — made it 16 required off 18 balls. Malinga ran in, one last throw of the Lankan dice. Dhoni flicked the slower ball to the square-leg for four. The next ball was another slower with the same end result. By now, even the security guards employed in the stadium were dancing with the crowd. The end was in sight.

Finally Kulasekara pitched one in the slot, and Dhoni’s bat swung in that famed arc. The ball was sent into the orbit — over long on. India had won. The captain was unbeaten on 91. Yuvraj knelt on the pitch and emitted the scream of euphoria. And the captain? Barely a smile, with which he uprooted one stump as souvenir.

Sachin Tendulkar was the first on the ground with that most brilliant of smiles worth travelling miles to see. The smile that had been stopped five times in the past and could be flashed now without any inhibition. The other Indian players were out on the field as well, hugging each other, in the shared joy of success. Tendulkar was soon chaired around the field — Virat Kohli coming up with that immortal line, “He carried the Indian team on his shoulder for 21 years. It’s time we carried him.”

The measure of success

It had been a remarkable achievement. Not because of the quality of opposition or keenness of contest. The Indians had been under a degree of pressure perhaps unmatched ever in the history of sports. The challenge did not come from the teams they played against. The biggest hurdle was the expectation of a nation unused to sporting greatness, the raging fire of fancy fanned by the media. The World Cup was not a cricketing tournament but an obsession to the point of national psychosis, a fanaticism stretching across the realms of sporting, political, ethnic and to some extent religious.

Dhoni had led India to the summit in the Twenty 20 World Cup in 2007 and at that moment India held the No. 1 spot in Test cricket as well. Yet, the extent of downright hatred for the man for every failure or questionable tactic was not just unusual, it was scary. Against this backdrop, the feat can be compared to a triumph in the psychological counterpart of Coliseum of the ancient Rome.

In a couple of months, this victory would be a thing of the past. The team would be severely criticised for defeat in the hands of England – and then Australia.

Explorer Mike Horn, who had worked with the Indian team during the World Cup preparations, had spoken to me in February 2012. He had talked at length about the drop in the performance of India, voicing that often the biggest accidents took place on the way down after the summit had been conquered.

In a way, we can find explanations of the debacles in England and Australia if we look at the amount of obvious relief — mental and physical — that the cricketers must have experienced when the war was finally won against all possible odds. It is perhaps the cost of fame, success or the immense popularity of the game in the country. Whether it is justifiable or not is subject to debate. Now, victory achieved, the nation and the various Diasporas around the world let their hair down and revelled in the triumph.

To come back to the match, the margin of six wickets and 10 balls is misleading given the closeness of the actual encounter. There was keen tussle till the end and no team gave an inch.

Mahela Jayawardene essayed one of the finest knocks ever, and became the first man to score a hundred in a World Cup final in a losing cause. And Dhoni joined Clive Lloyd and Ricky Ponting as captains to win the Man of the Final award.

Brief Scores:

Sri Lanka 274 for 6 (Kumar Sangakkara 48, Mahela Jayawardene 103*) lost to India 277 for 4 in 48.2 overs (Gautam Gambhir 97, MS Dhoni 91*) by 6 wickets.

Man of the Match: MS Dhoni.

Photo Gallery:  India’s epic triumph over Sri Lanka

(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history and the romance of the game, punctuated often by opinions about modern day cricket, while his post-graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces. The author of three novels, he can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/senantix)