For a young cricket journalist, the 2011 ODI World Cup was my first major assignment. I had spent six weeks traversing through various parts of India, following major teams across the tournament.
I got to witness some stand-out moments — Ireland beating England at Bengaluru in a sensational chase, Sachin Tendulkar’s hundreds against England and South Africa, a thriller between South Africa and England on a slow Chennai surface, Yuvraj Singh’s mercurial knock against Australia in Ahmedabad, and India beating Pakistan at Mohali in that semi-final.
That tournament is unforgettable for many obvious reasons, and the most prominent one was the pull I felt as a cricket-lover and a media professional. How do you segregate the two? When Tendulkar pulled Dale Steyn for a flat six at Nagpur, I was stunned. When Kevin O’Brien's ton shocked England, I was stunned then too — different moments, similar feeling, yet in deep contrast to one another.
And towards the busy end of that tournament, the lines started getting really blurred. When India won at Mohali, a 40,000-plus crowd sang AR Rehman’s rendition of Vande Mataram in unison. I still get goosebumps thinking of that moment. How do you top that? Well, a World Cup final is different, and this realisation only dawns on the pre-match day as preparations round up.
Ground staff ready at the nets, players going about their business, various stalls getting supplies in, security discussing finer points of their detail, and so on — regular routine for any international game in India. It was no different at the Wankhede eight years ago, but you just knew at the back of your mind — something is different. From the players to media personnel, to ground staff, to administrators, to security, to stall-keepers, everyone was trying to go about their work without fuss.
It was pretention at best — trying to keep a straight face, I could feel it in my bones. How could I not be excited, never mind professional commitment? By evening, I had decided to wear a jacket to the game, marking the high occasion, never mind the intense heat and humidity of Mumbai.
The other decision was to leave early. An ICC email the previous evening informed us of heightened security, so much so the media entry had been shifted to the University Ground gate. Outside, I noticed stacks of coins collected from those entering the ground as police personnel went about their jobs with due diligence. The jacket was already heating me up, or maybe, it was tension ahead of the game. Walking in, fans were lined up for miles, and unprecedented security checks didn't help either. I had always heard about serpentine queues for cricket in India; this was it!
Prior to the game, a friend had asked to arrange for one ticket. The going rate in the black market was fifty thousand rupees, for a top-tier back of the stand seat. And here I was, walking in with a media pass dangling around my neck. As I stepped into the packed press box, I felt grateful. Working as a cricket journalist, you can sometimes get very lucky, and a World Cup final at home is one of those moments.
Honestly, I didn’t know what to do. I sat for a while at my corner seat, overlooking the second-tier of Sachin Tendulkar stand. Nervous smiles as a sea of blue poured in. I walked around, taking in some sumptuous lunch, as toss-time arrived. As if there wasn’t enough tension in the air, Kumar Sangakkara decided not to pay attention at the toss. And we had two tosses — unheard of — what drama!
Sri Lanka made a slow start, thanks to Zaheer Khan. Eight years is a long time, and the pacer had redeemed himself from Johannesburg in 2003 when he was a bundle of nerves against Australia. The more striking aspect though was India’s fielding — Suresh Raina, Yuvraj Singh, Virat Kohli, and Virender Sehwag — it was a tight offside cordon and the Lankan batsmen just couldn’t pierce through in the first ten overs.
Mahela Jayawardene came up with a gem. Never mind personal affiliations, you simply had to applaud his knock given the World Cup final’s stage and how daunting it must have been to play against a partisan crowd. He maneuvered the bowling at will, particularly in the middle overs, fine artwork at times, as Lanka notched up 274-6. Was it enough? The T20 era had not set in just yet — it could be enough, some wondered loudly.
I eat when I am nervous, and the dinner buffet in the media box helped in that regard. Afterwards, I spoke with the late Peter Roebuck. He opined that the game was in balance. I spoke to two other senior journalists, and they shared a similar opinion. Then, I called a senior journalist in Delhi, and he said India would win this. Perhaps he told me what the fan in me wanted to hear.
The Men in Blue didn’t start off well — 31-2 with Tendulkar and Sehwag both back in the hut. You know the story thereafter — Gautam Gambhir, with his most uncelebrated knock in international cricket, resurrected Indian fortunes along with Kohli, who surpassed his age and showed maturity which reflects in his world-dominating status today. Together, they set the stage for you-know-who.
Yes, everyone was surprised to see MS Dhoni walk out to bat ahead of Yuvraj Singh. All through the World Cup, he had ignored questions about his own form, side-stepping them in press conferences like only he can. I could only imagine the pressure in such a situation, especially when taking this humongous gamble.
But words like pressure are for mortals. Dhoni is cut from a different cloth. He started slowly, prodding at most deliveries, and then out of the blue, he smacked Muttiah Muralitharan for a boundary. It was an extraordinary shot — Murali coming round the wicket, angling it away from the right-hander, laying his usual trap, Dhoni on the backfoot and creaming it through cover.
“It is not the shot of a batsman out of form”, I exclaimed to my friend, Devendra Prabhudesai, then BCCI media manager, and he nodded in agreement.
An hour or so later, anticipation had built up to unprecedented levels at the Wankhede. Gambhir missed his hundred, but Dhoni and Yuvraj carried India to the doorstep of victory. One hit away, hushed silence, a million flashlights from phone cameras, and the ball sailing over long on — that’s my memory of the moment when India won the World Cup on home soil.
I called up my mother. I cried. I called up a friend. We cried. I called up the senior journalist in Delhi who had assured me of victory, and yes, I cried. It was the moment I had waited for all my life, at least all my life since I started loving cricket. Across the glass panels of the Wankhede press box, I saw similar emotions. They had waited for this moment too. On the ground, Indian players were crying too. Their wait for this moment, perhaps, surpassed all of ours.
For the next two hours, I suppressed the fan in me, and finished my professional commitments. Dhoni and Yuvraj were given a standing ovation as they entered the post-match conference. As they settled down, it was even awkward for a moment — no one wanted to ask a question. There was nothing to ask, perhaps. But they were patient and answered every question that came forth thereafter.
Fourteen hours after I had left home in the morning then, I was finally done with work. Bag in hand and still wearing that jacket in sultry Mumbai, I marched to the middle of Wankhede, and took a picture at the match-wicket – the hallowed turf. A few minutes later, I made my way to the Marine Drive. It was packed to the brim.
Joined by a few friends, I danced the night away (I remember boarding the train back only at 6 am). I didn’t know where my laptop was. I had got rid of that jacket too. It was time to party. No music or booze was needed though.
We were already high. Strangers hugged and jumped in joy. Rich or poor, it didn’t matter where we came from, or where we would go next. In that moment, through that night, we were there, all of us, united by cricket, in triumph.
“Sachin… Sachin”… “India… India”
I will never forget that night in Mumbai.