Column | It was a triumph of Men in Blue's team spirit

Unforgettable night
From left: Gautam Gambhir, S Sreesanth, Sachin Tendulkar, Harbhajan Singh, Suresh Raina and Piyush Chawla celebrate with the ICC World Cup trophy. File photo: AFP
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As a person who has been witness to both the occasions when India lifted the International Cricket Council (ICC)World Cup, I have been asked which victory was sweeter. Of course, I am referring to the original World Cup that has been in existence since 1975 and not to its poorer cousin the T20 tournament that we won in 2007.

I have no doubt in stating that 1983 win was sweeter as it came against heavy odds, when only the most optimistic among the followers of the game expected the side to reach the last four stage, let alone proceed to final and win the championship. We were a bunch of no-hopers who had failed to win even one game during the previous edition of the tournament and had been castigated by England fast bowling great Fred Trueman as not even being worthy for consideration as an automatic entry for the championship.

Strong side

Matters were certainly different in 2011. In the first place India were co-hosting the championship, which meant that there was a great deal of anticipation and hope. The team had improved by leaps and bounds since the first round exit in the 2007 edition and appeared a well-knit unit.

The batting line-up, which boasted of the great Sachin Tendulkar, the hard-hitting Virender Sehwag and the brilliant Yuvraj Singh, was widely acknowledged as the best in the world.The bowling attack led by the experienced Zaheer Khan was a balanced one, with the right mix of fast bowlers and spinners.

The Indian fielding had improved considerably and could compare with the best in the world, as the new fitness regimes brought by foreign trainers started producing the desired results. And most importantly, in Mahendra SIngh Dhoni, the side had a captain who was not just shrewd and tactically sound but stayed absolutely calm under pressure besides being lucky as well.

However, it was not that India started as favourites. Australia, under Ricky Ponting, had won the title on three occasions from 1999 and were still the leading contenders, though their form had dropped a notch or two in the run up to the tournament.

South Africa might have earned the unenviable reputation of being chokers ever since the 1999 semifinals, but they possessed the strongest side on paper. Sri Lanka, who had won the championship during the last occasion it was played in the subcontinent, was a formidable side in familiar conditions.

England had a new look side, which looked eager to remove the stain of not having won the Cup despite figuring in the finals thrice. And Pakistan continued to be the mercurial side, always capable of causing an upset. The West Indies and New Zealand did not look like going the full way, but no one could afford to take them lightly.

India won the first match against Bangladesh with ease but found themselves in a spot in the next game against England. Batting first, the hosts put up a total of 338, helped by the brilliance of Tendulkar, who scored 120 and half-centuries from Gautam Gambhir and Yuvraj.

Though this appeared to be a formidale total, England looked all set to overtake it with ease, when they reached 280 losing only two wickets at the close of 42 overs. But Zaheer, who had leaked runs in his first spell, struck with the old ball and claimed three quick wickets, including the prized scalp of skipper Andrew Strauss, who had amassed 158 off 145 balls.

England, however, hung on gamely and when the last over started they needed 14 runs, which came down to two off the final ball. Graeme Swann could manage only a single, thus resulting in a tie.

Thriller at Nagpur

After a couple of easy wins against Ireland and the Netherlands, India took on South Africa at Nagpur. In a match that went down to the wire, the Springboks emerged victors by a margin of three wickets, with two balls remaining. India started well and had reached 267/1 in the 39th over, thanks to another brilliant century (111) by Tendulkar, who was ably supported by Sehwag (73) and Gambhir (69).

However, the Indian batting came apart after this and the side was dismissed for 296 in the 49th over. South Africa scripted a well planned chase, with good knocks by Hashim Amla (61), Jacques Kallis (69) and AB deVilliers (52). When the last over started, they needed 13 runs. Skipper Dhoni handed the ball to Ashish Nehra, who was his first choice bowler at the death. But Robin Peterson got the better of him and struck 16 runs off the first four balls to seal a thrilling win.

These two matches had exposed a fault line in the mighty Indian batting machine, which prevented them from capitalising on the excellent start provided by the top order. Tendulkar, Sehwag and Gambhir were invariably among the runs, but the middle and lower order could neither build on this nor continue the momentum of run scoring in the final overs. It was evident that the middle order would have to put up a better show if the side was to win games in the knockout stage, where the matches were bound to get much tougher and the competition a lot more intense.

Yuvraj steps up

It was at this juncture that Yuvraj proved his weight in gold. While his abilities as an explosive batsman was not in doubt, the surprise packet was his skill as a left-arm spinner who could not only keep the runs under check but take vital wickets as well. He demonstrated his all-round abilities in the last league match against the West Indies and in the crucial quarterfinal game against Australia.

His tight bowling during the middle overs helped to restrict the Aussies to 260/6 off the allotted 50 overs and when the Indian chase ran into rough weather, he guided the ship to safe shores with a stroke-filled, unbeaten 57 that took the side home by five wickets.

This set the stage for the mother of all matches in the championship ­-- the semifinal clash between India and Pakistan at Mohali. Present at the stadium at the start of the game were the Prime Minsters of both countries and the small airport at Chandigarh was packed with private aircraft of the rich and the famous. Batting first, India posted a total of 260/9 and then bowled with discipline to ensure that Pakistan finished 29 runs short.

Charmed life

The Indian batting was again led by Tendulkar (85), who was fortunate to get four lives, courtesy the butterfingered Pakistani fielders. Yuvraj failed with the bat but picked up two crucial wickets, while all the other bowlers also chipped in.

Meanwhile, Sri Lanka reached the final defeating New Zealand, who had earlier pipped an in-form South African side in the quarterfinals. The final that took place at the Wankhade Stadium in Mumbai would be remembered as Dhoni’s match as the Indian skipper promoted himself in the batting order and steered his side home, with an unbeaten knock of 91.

Etched in memory
M S Dhoni hits the winning six in the final as Yuvraj Singh breaks into celebration. File photo

The Sri Lankan total of 274/6 was a challenging one and India appeared to be in trouble when they lost both Sehwag and Tendulkar cheaply. But Gambhir and Virat Kohli steadied the innings through some sensible batting, after which Dhoni took charge. Gambhir, who played a superb knock, was unfortunate to  miss a well-deserved century by three runs.

The victory set off a round of wild celebrations within and outside the country. It was certainly a moment to cherish for the millions of Indian cricket fans and the sight of Dhoni carting Nuwan Kulasekara over the ropes shall remain etched in the memory of all those who witnessed it. I remember the celebrations in Singapore, where I was working at that point of time, as the Indians took to the streets singing and dancing. The tournament won praise as a well organised one and this, along with the Indian triumph, brought plenty of cheer to the entire nation.

The week that went by saw the ninth anniversary of this win. The lap of honour performed by the Indians, when Dhoni remained in the background while a few teammates lifted Tendulkar on their shoulders, demonstrated the strong bond of team spirit that had carried them to their goal. It is this spirit that future squads should seek to inherit if they are to repeat the success that Dhoni and his men achieved at the Wankhede on April 2, 2011.

(The author is a former international umpire and a senior bureaucrat)

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