In 'Nostalgia Drive', Anindya Dutta celebrates a significant victory in Indian cricket which occurred in that corresponding month in history
Mike Horn walked into the room and took his place in front of eleven men with the weight of the world on their young shoulders. It was 10 February 2011 and the South African was going to give the first of his two talks. The coaches hoped the talks would change the mental frame of an Indian cricket team that was fully expected by 1.3 billion fans to lift the World Cup for the first time in 28 years. It was as if the victory was divinely ordained. The sense of entitlement, a sign of the times, was all pervasive.
At the moment, as the World Cup campaign started, the team was a group of highly trained and talented elite sportsmen, but inside, they were scared young men plagued by self-doubt, very far from the ultra-confident superstars their images portrayed.
Horn is probably the world’s greatest modern-day adventurer. He has crossed the Andes on foot, swam 7,000 kilometers of the Amazon on hydro-speed (basically, a body board with handles), spent six months to reach the North Pole in mid-winter, and circumnavigated the globe around the equator solo, covering 40,000 kilometers without motorized transport. He was there to talk to the team about climbing atop the mental summit.
Among other things, Horn spoke about conquering self-doubt and negativity, getting the will to win to conquer fear of losing, and using imagination as a powerful tool. He told the batsmen: ‘Imagine walking into a specific cricket stadium with your bat under your arm. Then imagine your stance and the bowler running up. Can you hear the crowd? What is the smell? What is the temperature? Your knowledge of the conditions becomes the most stable thing in your life. You prepare for that...It’s like having scored three centuries at the venue before getting there for the first time.’
The two sessions from Horn would be just what the doctor ordered. The team already had belief in their ability. The miracle at Eden Gardens a decade earlier, the epoch transforming T20 World Cup in 2007, had all been leading up to this moment. What the South African passed on was the mental resolve to take the final step.
The Final Countdown
The World Cup is not designed to be a cakewalk for any team. There are no easy matches, and no room for complacency, as the Indian team knew better than anyone.
In 1983, Kapil Dev’s incredible 175 had brought India back from the brink of a 17 for 5 disaster. In 2003, perhaps the best Indian ODI team of all time had crumbled in the final against a Ricky Ponting onslaught. In 2007, disaster had struck the campaign, as much fancied India was waylaid by unheralded Bangladesh.
But the team had to focus on the positives as they fought through the field with facile victories over Australia and Pakistan to qualify for the finals at the Wankhede Stadium in Mumbai.
Sachin Tendulkar had been in majestic form through the tournament. He had kicked off the tournament with two centuries, had followed it up with a fifty in the quarter-final, and a chancy 85 to top score in the semi-final.
Yuvraj Singh, the architect of India’s 2002 chest baring NatWest triumph at Lord’s was having the tournament of his life. Other than his duck in the semi-finals against Pakistan, his had been a flawless journey. Behind the scenes, he had been frequently vomiting. Some members of the team, including the captain and the coaches, thought it might be from the stress he was putting himself under. After the campaign was over, Yuvraj would reveal to the team and the world at large his ongoing battle against cancer, through which he had made a remarkable comeback to the top of the sport. He would go on to be adjudged the Man of the Tournament.
Zaheer Khan as a bowler could not have been more different to the one who had been flayed by Ponting eight years before. He was now an acknowledged master of the reverse swing and had added Wasim Akram’s unplayable swinging yorker to his arsenal. The semi-final against Pakistan had been won despite the Indian batsmen, not because of them. Zaheer Khan and Harbhajan Singh had been the architects of that victory.
Cricket fans’ memories are elephantine. India had been knocked out of the World Cup by Sri Lanka in Kolkata in 1996, ingloriously, with tears streaming down Vinod Kambli’s face. It was a victory that had put the island nation on the path to cricketing glory over the next decade. 15 years later at the Wankhede, for Indian fans, it was payback time.
Wankhede Stadium - Mumbai, 2 April 2011
The North Stand Gang (NSG), a group of die-hard Indian (and Sachin Tendulkar) fans, have been ubiquitous with their presence in that section of the stadium for many years. But even they had never seen anything like it when they walked into the stadium that match day. They allowed themselves to soak in and be swept away by the electric atmosphere.
They recall the memorable moment: ‘Just before the match started, when the two teams walked out, we had goosebumps as we all stood up and started singing the national anthem. We sang it as loud as we could and at the end we immediately started chanting ‘Bharat Mata ki’ which was followed by a reverberating ‘Jai’ from the packed stands.’
The match itself began in fittingly dramatic fashion. MS Dhoni won the toss and decided to bat. Or so he thought.
The coin had come down Heads, and Dhoni thought Sangakkara had called Tails. The Sri Lankan captain maintained he had called Heads but neither Match Referee Jeff Crowe nor Shastri had heard his call. So reluctant as he was, Dhoni tossed the coin again. Sangakkara won and chose to bat.
In 2003, young Zaheer Khan’s first over against Australia had gone for 15-runs. Eight years later, the first three were maidens. The first run came on the 20th delivery. At the end of his fifth over, Zaheer's figures read an incredible 5-3-6-1 including the wicket of Upul Tharanga. Sri Lanka had scored 31 at the end of 10 overs. The oxygen of runs had been turned off, and the Lankans were on slow choke.
It would take a courageous and unbeaten brilliant knock of 103 off only 88 balls from Mahela Jayawardene and crucial partnerships with Sangakkara and Thisara Perera to bring the Lankans back into the reckoning. By the time they launched a ferocious power play assault on Zaheer Khan, making his first spell seem like a distant dream, and the innings ended at 274 for 5, the Lankans were back in the driver’s seat.
Chasing 275, even at home, would not be easy. Seven of the last nine World Cup finals had been lost by the team batting second. History was against Dhoni’s team. But then this was a team that was out to make history, not repeat it.
Virender Sehwag was not a man to indulge in self-doubt. Sachin Tendulkar was in the form of his life. Together, they made the most explosive opening pair in world cricket. The stage was set for a battle of the ages - Lasith ‘Slinga’ Malinga versus 33,011 players on the ground, and 1.3 billion outside it.
It was Malinga who would draw first blood. The vociferous crowd was stunned into silence as the second delivery of the innings angled into Sehwag’s pad and found him stranded before the stumps. A few balls and two boundaries later, the stadium was in mourning, for the unthinkable had happened - Tendulkar had steered a ball into the secure gloves of Sangakkara behind the stumps. As young Virat Kohli walked out to join a defiant Gautam Gambhir, the dream was beginning to unravel.
Gautam Gambhir had always been a difficult man to like — a pocket dynamo, big on attitude, irascible and contentious by nature, as if carrying a permanent chip on his shoulder. Paddy Upton in his book Barefoot Coach writes: ‘I did some of my best and least effective mental conditioning work with Gautam Gambhir. He was riddled with insecurities, doubts and vulnerabilities. He was one of the most negative people I have ever worked with... He won ICC’s International Test Cricketer of the Year award in 2009 and said in his speech: ‘‘The award does nothing to help overcome my insecurity. I can’t help it.’’
But Gambhir was also a fighter to the core, never letting his omnipresent self doubt come out when he played. If you wanted someone to bat for your life with your back against the wall, Gambhir was your man. That day in Mumbai, once again, it would be Gambhir to the rescue. When he finally departed after a brilliant, defiant 97, the crowd, and India, was back in the game.
The twist in the tale, came however while Gambhir was still in full flow. When Virat Kohli departed in the 22nd over at 114 for 3, instead of sending in the man in form Yuvraj Singh, captain MS Dhoni promoted himself up the order.
It was a bold move. The captain had had an indifferent tournament. He had scored just 150 in the last seven innings. But promoting himself up the order had not been a Hail Mary* decision. Far from it. As he would explain later, the Lankans had brought on Muthiah Muralidharan. Murali had been a part of Chennai Super Kings in the IPL, an outfit Dhoni captained. Dhoni had played him extensively in the nets and believed he knew exactly how to tackle the most dangerous spin bowler in the world.
He was right. By the time Gambhir departed 3 runs short of his century in the 42nd over and Yuvraj finally walked in, the match had swung decisively in the host nation’s favour. There were 43 runs to get from 50 balls.
The pair proceeded at a fair clip and with Yuvraj on 21, Nuwan Kulasekara ran in to bowl to MS Dhoni. There were 11 balls to go and only 3 needed for victory. The Lankans brought in the field in a last desperate gesture to cut off the singles. Dhoni looked around him, settled down serenely, then with unexpected viciousness in his swing, launched into Kulasekhara with a trademark helicopter shot.
As 1.3 billion stunned fans looked up, hearts firmly in their hands, the little white ball flew over long on and into eternity.
Note: * The Hail Mary is an American Football reference to a pass that is thrown in desperation by a Quarterback with time running out in the game, leaving it up to the Virgin Mary to deliver the points needed for victory.
Anindya Dutta is a cricket columnist and author of four bestselling books. His latest, Wizards: The Story of Indian Spin Bowling won India’s Cricket Book of the Year award for 2019 and is long-listed for the MCC Book of the Year.
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