In this excerpt from ‘The Lords of Wankhede: Tales Between Two Titles,’ W.V. Raman and R. Kaushik recollect how Dhoni finished off in style against Sri Lanka with his storied six, reminiscent of Kapil Dev’s in 1983

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“Dhoni finishes off in style.” With these iconic words, proud and emotional, and laced with an unmistakable mixture of relief and elation, Ravi Shastri’s booming voice announced India’s ascent to the summit at the 2011 World Cup. On a muggy Saturday Mumbai night, as a wave of blue swept through the Wankhede Stadium, Mahendra Singh Dhoni applied the finishing touches to a campaign most memorable, the skipper vindicating his decision to bat ahead of the in-form Yuvraj Singh in the final against Sri Lanka with a spectacular assault, which culminated in the most storied six in Indian cricket history, over long-on off Nuwan Kulasekara.

April 2 thus joined June 25 as red-letter days in India cricket. Dhoni would forever be linked with the talismanic Kapil Dev, spoken of in the same reverential breath, celebrated and lauded, and adored and deified. For 28 years since Kapil first led the team to an unexpected World Cup crown at Lord’s in 1983, India had tilted at the windmills without success. They had reached the semifinals twice (at home in 1987 and 1996) and surged through to the final in South Africa in 2003, but the knockout hurdle proved insurmountable. Until…

Eyes on the Prize

India’s build-up to the mega event was measured and carefully thought out. The clamour for sustained match practice was set aside as conditioning—physical and mental—assumed paramount importance. Their last assignment before the World Cup (which started on February 19 in Mirpur, Bangladesh) was in South Africa, when they narrowly went down 2–3 in a five-match series, by which time the contours of the World Cup 15 had already taken firm shape.

Unlike four years previously, when there was a certain uncertainty about the brand of cricket India would embrace, there were no such doubts this time around. Within the chosen 15, there was a strong reservoir of experience—Sachin Tendulkar, Virender Sehwag, Gautam Gambhir, Yuvraj Singh, Dhoni himself, Suresh Raina, Zaheer Khan, Ashish Nehra and Harbhajan Singh—but there was also plenty of young blood, with a bristling Virat Kohli and the temperamental S. Sreesanth setting out stall as the face of the youth brigade.

There were startling similarities between India’s squads of 1983 and 2011. In England, India had a plethora of medium[1]paced all-rounders—Mohinder Amarnath, Roger Binny, Madan Lal, Kapil himself—capable of exploiting the assistance the conditions offered. Now, with spin expected to play a more pre-eminent role, India could fall back on Sehwag, Tendulkar, Raina and Yusuf Pathan, if need be. And, of course, there was Yuvraj.

With so many top-order batters capable of bowling — not just rolling their arm over, but actually bowling to take wickets — Dhoni had multiple choices to fall back on. Tendulkar finished his career with 154 ODI wickets, Yuvraj 111 and Sehwag 96; they were more than part-timers and added greater balance and depth to the squad. India had so much going for them, but a million things needed to fall into place in a tournament like the World Cup.

The Lords of Wankhede: Tales Between Two Titles, By W.V. Raman and R. Kaushik, Rupa Publications, pp. 288, Rs 395

On their return from South Africa, India’s World Cup heroes-in-the-making assembled at the NCA in Bengaluru for a preparatory camp under the eagle eye of Gary Kirsten, who had requisitioned the services of the NCA coaches too. Much of the attention was centred on honing cricketing skills; fitness wasn’t given the go-by, but fielding sessions were largely optional and not everyone in the side was a regular at those drills. By then, most of the squad had enough experience and awareness of what they could and could not do, so no one was unduly concerned that there wasn’t a great deal of emphasis on that discipline at the camp.

There was an air of purpose, and if there was any pressure of playing at home, it was reasonably well masked. It’s not that the players didn’t feel the weight of expectations—as Tendulkar has since famously pointed out, about how reminders surged on an hourly basis, from the driver of the team bus to the receptionists at their hotels, from the room service personnel to those handling their laundry—but they worked out a way through which they could push those thoughts aside and make the most of the privilege of playing in front of thousands of fans cheering them every step of the way.

It helped that in Dhoni, they had the calmest steering hand imaginable. Captain Cool, as he came to be known as, is truly one of a kind, blessed with the equanimity to face and accept victory and defeat with equal fortitude. During practice stints, he was switched on and fully involved, but he didn’t confine himself to cricket alone. The annual Aero India show was on in Bengaluru during the camp and Dhoni, with his love for all things fast, rushed to the venue of the show one afternoon after a quick hit in the nets, immersing himself at the Aero show, with the World Cup seemingly the last thing on his mind.

The Expectations of an Entire Nation

The strides India made in one-day cricket resulted in Dhoni’s men being installed strong favourites to go all the way. In 1983, not even many of the team members gave themselves an outside chance; now, the country expected nothing less than the World Cup. So, while the weight of expectation had been non-existent 28 years previously, it now bore down inexorably on the players.

Playing at home is generally a massive bonus, but it could also be a double-edged sword, which explains why no side had won the World Cup on home turf in the first nine editions. Especially in India, where passions run high and volatility is just one step away, the same fans who could gang up as the unofficial 12th man could also quickly turn against their heroes. None of this was in the players’ control—they could only focus on being the best versions of themselves—but it’s impossible that some of these thoughts might not have invaded their headspace at some point or the other.

(Courtesy Rupa Publications)

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