Paddy Upton    Getty Images
Paddy Upton said that they had started using the phrase “when we play the final in Mumbai…” long before the tournament started Getty Images

Paddy Upton was India s mental conditioning coach during their victorious run in ICC World Cup 2011. Along with Gary Kirsten, he formed a crucial partnership in the dressing room and helped India chart out the path to success. In an interview with Nishad Pai Vaidya, Upton reflects on the victory, Yuvraj Singh s role, playing Pakistan in the semi-final and MS Dhoni s decision to promote himself in the final against Sri Lanka.

South Africa had lifted the Rugby World Cup at Ellis Park in Johannesburg in front of a 60,000-strong crowd in 1995. It is a moment history will remember as a nation united, shedding the inhibitions of the past as President Nelson Mandela handed the William Webb Ellis Trophy to the captain Francois Peinaar.

In the crowd was Paddy Upton, a young First-Class cricketer who was charting a career in coaching and similar professions. Sixteen years down the line, he was India s mental conditioning coach when they lifted the ICC World Cup 2011 in front of their home fans in Mumbai.

I cannot chose which was more exhilarating, South Africa winning the 1995 World Cup or India winning the 2011 World Cup. These were undoubtedly the two most exciting moments of my entire life, says Upton. The two victories mark huge moments in Upton s life, who is now an accomplished cricket coach, high performance manager. His expertise is not only limited to cricket, but also extends to the corporate world.

On the field of play he had formed a successful partnership with Kirsten. The duo had not only showed India the way to the World Cup triumph but have also masterminded South Africa s rise to the No. 1 spot in the Test rankings.

Visualising the final and dealing with pressure

As a mental conditioning coach, Upton s job was to get the players up and ready for the big games. The World Cup was at home and the pressure was indescribable. A billion-strong population expected nothing short of a victory: To add to that was the fact that it was Sachin Tendulkar s last World Cup.

We knew the pressure would be intense. No team had ever won a World Cup at home, possibly due to the pressure. We started preparing 13 months before, often using the phrase “when we play the final in Mumbai…“.

So, the focus was not on winning, but every day for 13 months, focusing on doing the things on and off the field that would give us the best chance of making the final, says Upton.

Virender Sehwag spoke about the same visualisation techniques during India s celebration at Wankhede on the night of April 2, 2011. Upton says, When we made the final, it was about simply doing the things we had been doing, game by game, for the past 13 months. We wanted to prepare so that there was no surprise if we won. There was huge excitement, but no surprise.

Tough road in the World Cup

But, the journey wasn t all that easy. India managed a tie against England, where they collapsed in the batting powerplay. The victories against the minnows were far from comprehensive. Then came the big match against South Africa in Nagpur: Sachin Tendulkar s century had put them in a great position at 267 for two in the 40th over, but they collapsed inexplicably, losing their last eight wickets for 29 runs.

South Africa a team that has seldom done well under pressure, especially in the World Cup pulled off a tense run-chase in the last over and a nation was left doubting its team. Will they go on to win the World Cup? What was the atmosphere in the dressing room like?

Upton says that there was no need to press the panic button. He recalls, I was not upset or concerned with the defeat against South Africa. In fact, I was almost happy. At that time, India were always best when coming from behind, not when leading from the front. The loss knocked us down and focused the minds. It also relieved some of the pressure to not lose a game. Also, I knew South Africa could be a tough opponent later in the tournament, and beating us like they did put them under more pressure which at the time we knew they possibly would not respond well to.

The Yuvraj factor and the comeback

Following the defeat against South Africa, India met West Indies for their last league game. Yuvraj Singh rose to the occasion and smashed a ton against the West Indies, followed by two crucial wickets. Then, in the high-pressure quarter-final against Australia, his counterattacking fifty took India to victory after a few hiccups along the way. The man had shown great character, shielding the personal health problems he was facing then.

The famous Yuvraj celebration after beating Australia in the World Cup 2011 quarter-final    Getty Images
The famous Yuvraj celebration after beating Australia in the World Cup 2011 quarter-final Getty Images

Upton adds: Yuvraj [Singh] was fantastic. Don’t forget, he was dropped out of the squad only six months before (the World Cup). His focus and determination to fight his way back was a remarkable show of his strength of character. He had dreamed of winning the World Cup for a long time, and his dream was beating Australia in the final to do it. In essence, that knock against Australia cemented the team belief that we could beat anyone. It also removed one of our biggest obstacles to the trophy.

Playing the neighbours

Arch-rivals Pakistan were next! The Punjab Cricket Association Stadium, Mohali was at fever-pitch when the subcontinent rivals clashed in the semi-final. From Bollywood actors to businessmen, the Indian diaspora was at the venue. Not to forget the Prime Ministers of both nations, who shook hands with both teams after the anthems.

Surely this would have been the high pressure game of the tournament! There was always huge rivalry whenever we played Pakistan. As coach, it was always easier, because there was no pressure to motivate the team. In the World Cup, there was major impact on losing. It would mean Pakistan travelling to Mumbai to play the final along with Pakistani supporters. The Mumbai attacks were too fresh in the minds for most, so this would not have been good. So there was social pressure that went beyond the game, says Upton.

Tendulkar s hard-fought 85, backed by cameos from Sehwag and Suresh Raina took India to 260. Pakistan faltered in their chase and were strangled by a disciplined bowling attack. The World Cup final beckoned for Dhoni and his men!

The victory and Dhoni s brave move

Up until the final, Dhoni had scored only 150 runs from eight matches. Yuvraj was miles ahead at 341 in eight games. But, on the big day, the captain decided to take matter in his own hands. Chasing 275, India were 114 for three in the 22nd over when Dhoni walked in ahead of Yuvraj.

At the time the second wicket fell in the final, Dhoni had not scored well in the tournament, and Yuvi [Yuvraj] was on a run of incredible form, and had already sealed the Man of the Series award. So Yuvi may have seemed the obvious next in. Dhoni s choice to go ahead of Yuvi was nothing short of a masterstroke. An excellent example of his gut-feel for the game, says Upton.

Showing great character, Dhoni absorbed the pressure with Gautam Gambhir and put India on a comfortable path to victory. Upton had a premonition of victory when Dhoni walked out to bat. Yuvi [Yuvraj] had delivered so many great performances. He possibly had used up a lot of his mental energy, and his energy tanks were near empty. Dhoni’s were still pretty full, and he is possibly the best in the world game for taking on the high pressure to close a critical game for his team. When he walked out to bat, I turned to Gary Kirsten and said, He’s going to go and fetch the world cup for us”.

MS Dhoni celebrate with teammates after hitting the wining runs of 2011 to World Cup final    Getty Images
MS Dhoni celebrates with teammates after hitting the winning runs of 2011 World Cup final Getty Images

How true was Upton s instinct! While Gambhir scored a calm 97, Dhoni s unbeaten 91 off 79 balls took India home and lifted the trophy. It was an incredible high for a nation waiting for 28 years to become World Champions. Dhoni s brigade had won the World T20 in 2007, but the 50-over World Cup is the biggest prize there is in the sport.

In the background, Kirsten and Upton had a feeling of fulfilment. Never the ones exposed to public, they operated quietly in the backdrop and played crucial roles in that triumph. Along with them, they had the great explorer Mike Horn, who motivated the team before the final. Tendulkar thanked the trio during the celebrations. They could leave India with their heads held high and take on the next challenge in life!

(Nishad Pai Vaidya is a Correspondent with CricketCountry and anchor for the site s YouTube Channel. His Twitter handle is @nishad_45)