"In a matter of seconds, a billion dreams changed into reality."
Those seconds, which Suresh Raina describes, were the ones in which the ball traversed the orbit off MS Dhoni's willow on that special night at the vibrant Wankhede. It painted a picture that would be transfixed in the memories for a lifetime. Those were the seconds that redefined the cult of Dhoni and inscribed his — and Nuwan Kulasekara's — name in the annals of world cricket.
That hell-raising six by India's then captain off Kulasekara to lift the World Cup still elicits goosebumps and evokes emotions in Raina.
"It’s ironic, but in my mind, everything just went silent as MS cracked that straight six, my eyes just fixed on that ball, watching it travel," Raina winds back the clock with Firstpost.
"It was a mix of emotions, there was incredible happiness, relief and a sense of real achievement. We had worked very hard leading up to the tournament and to fulfill the dream was just amazing. To win the World Cup in front of our home crowd was the icing on the cake."
For Gautam Gambhir, one of the chief protagonists of the win it was all about the bigger picture. “It wasn't about the six, it was about winning the World Cup. Job done. Mission accomplished,” Gambhir recalled on the sidelines of CEAT cricket awards.
It was all happening on that incredible day, 2 April 2011, at the Wankhede. Even before a ball was bowled, confusion ensued. Amidst the cacophony of a 33,000 crowd, match referee Jeff Crowe didn't hear Sangakkara's call the first time at the toss, and so it had to be tossed once again. It went Sangakkara's way and he decided to bat first.
Amidst regular fall of wickets, Mahela Jayawardene played the anchor and along with late bursts from Thisara Perera and Nuwan Kulasekara, propelled Sri Lanka to a competitive 274.
"We knew it was a challenging target and the added pressure of chasing in the final was also there," Raina says. "Our aim was to break the 274 down into smaller targets and keep achieving those."
The team management, though, was quite positive.
“We were pretty much confident,” recalls Gambhir of the talk in the dressing room at the innings break. “With the kind of wicket it was, we should be able to chase with the kind of batting order we had. The kind of depth, quality and experience we had. We backed ourselves to chase that total.”
The start to the chase was far from ideal. Malinga trapped Virender Sehwag right in front off the second ball of the innings. It happened in a flash and all of a sudden Gambhir was preparing to stride out to the middle. There was no time to think. The mind was blank.
“Probably, that was a blessing in disguise that I hardly got to think about it. Think about the occasion. By the time I realised, I was already in the middle facing Lasith Malinga,” Gambhir recalls.
Sachin Tendulkar and Gambhir then tried to steady the proceedings. There was that trademark straight drive that elicited hopes of a Sachin special. In a few minutes, those hopes were dashed as Sachin edged one behind off Malinga. Stunned silence descended on the ground, and in a matter of seconds, it gave way to thunderous applause and a standing ovation.
"There was pin-drop silence I remember in the stadium," Raina recalls. "But we regrouped and kept chipping away at the target. In a final, you have to keep your nerve and not get overawed by the situation."
Gambhir and Kohli eased the nerves with an 83-run stand. And just as it seemed that India were easing into the chase, Tillakaratne Dilshan pulled off a blinder off his own bowling to send back Kohli.
To everyone's surprise, Dhoni strode out to the middle ahead of the in-form man of the moment and tournament, Yuvraj Singh. It would prove to be a masterstroke for the ages. The Indian captain neutralised Muttiah Muralitharan's threat with nimble footwork and along with Gambhir, added 109 runs for the fourth wicket which took the match away from Sri Lanka. By this time, Gambhir was too immersed in his innings to realise or think about who was walking in next.
“I was in my own zone, it really didn't matter who was walking in,” Gambhir says. Ultimately for me, the important thing was to bat as long as I can. And obviously, it would have helped me having a left and right-hand combination,” the former India opener said.
And there was no specific chat between the two as Dhoni walked in.
“Sometimes, having no chat is enough,” Gambhir explains. “Because we've had enough experience, we batted enough together and we’ve played enough cricket together. So we knew what was needed of both of us. And sometimes no chat is better than having a chat.”
"Dhoni had established himself as a dependable finisher by then, and we needed someone to hold the team together," Raina says of the move to promote Dhoni up the order.
Dhoni did hold the innings together. He mastered Muralitharan and also finished off the match by scoring an unbeaten 93. However, for Raina, Gambhir was the unsung hero.
"Gambhir’s 97 was one of the reasons we were able to seal the win. His and Dhoni’s partnership really brought us back in the game. He was truly the unsung hero of that final."
The key to Gambhir’s success was an uncomplicated approach and mindset. There were no jangling nerves on the eve of the match and no sleepless night as well.
“Absolutely (I slept well). It's not that I don't sleep well. I don't see the occasion and sleep,” Gambhir says. “I have always believed that the contest is between the bat and ball, it's not the occasion that should get the better of you. I slept the way I was sleeping throughout the tournament.
“The mindset was to watch the ball and react to it. That is how you bat the best, not thinking anything, just reacting to what's coming towards you and that is exactly what I was doing rather than thinking about how I have to approach.”
The plan was to bat as deep as possible.
“It was the similar kind of innings I was playing throughout the year as well,” the former Delhi batsman explains. “I wanted to bat deep because I was batting at No 3 and my job was to bat long and probably I knew I had enough capability accelerating whenever I wanted to. They had three off-spinners too, so it was important for me to bat as deep as I can and I knew that we obviously had people like Dhoni and Yuvraj Singh to follow. If I can bat deep, then it's going to get easier for them as well. That is how I approached the innings and I knew that if I bat deep that we would be able to chase anything that was posted.”
With 52 needed off 53 balls, India seemed to be cruising towards the target but they suffered a minor blip. Gambhir, on 97, charged down the track by giving himself room and looked to slash a Thisara Perera delivery but missed and was cleaned up. Three short of a century, that too in a World Cup final would have been heartbreaking for any other player but not for Gambhir.
“Instincts,” comes Gambhir’s instantly reply when I ask him what made him go for that shot. “I backed my instincts throughout the innings and there is no regret about it.
“97, winning the World Cup was far better than scoring a hundred and not winning the World Cup. If someone would have told me one night before, I would have taken it hands down. Obviously, I regret not finishing off the game but I was very satisfied.”
Getting back in the dressing room, Gambhir watched it with same calm with which he was out in the middle for the 40-odd overs.
“I don't get nervous. I watch, and it's not that I have got any superstition that you should not watch it and that kind of stuff. Yes, I was watching it, and watching it with absolute ease.”
It's not just that Dhoni six in the final, the visuals of Yuvraj Singh going down on his knees, letting out a huge roar while swatting his bat in the air at the Motera stadium had become iconic earlier in the tournament when he smashed Brett Lee through extra cover to power India into the semi-final.
And amidst all the madness, there was Raina charging down to embrace Yuvraj. The Punjab all-rounder was the protagonist of the match with an unbeaten 57 off 65 balls, but Raina was an unsung hero.
Raina wasn't played for the first five matches of the tournament but ended up playing vital roles in the quarter-final against Australia and the semi-final against Pakistan. Walking in at a tricky 187/5 at the fall of Dhoni, Raina hit 34 off 28 balls and shared an unbeaten 74-run stand with Yuvraj to send the country into a frenzy.
"I had my blinkers on. I saw a target, I knew my potential and was aware this was a do or die situation for all of us in the team. I couldn’t let the boys down under any circumstances," Raina recalls that innings.
"I was playing each ball on its merit and I knew we could win it. With Yuvi at the other end, we kept rotating the strike, not allowing the Aussies to target either of us with their plans."
The talk in the middle was very simple.
"We kept each other pumped up and focussed on the task at hand. Yuvi and I are natural stroke-makers so we told each other to play our natural game and the rest would fall into place."
There was another one in store in the next match, against Pakistan. With India struggling at 187/5 having lost Tendulkar (85) in the 37th over, Raina strode out to play a vital innings of 36 off 39 balls, one which would precipitate the team to a challenging 260 at the PCA Stadium, Mohali.
"To follow up on what Sachin had already done was tough, but I knew I had no time to lose. And to face Saeed Ajmal, I had my nerves going all crazy. But, I was able to convert those crucial balls into important runs," Raina explains.
Raina's success was down to single-minded dedication — that of lifting that coveted trophy.
"When you’re up at the world stage, you’re automatically motivated to outperform yourself. That was what exactly happened to me. I was driven by the dream of lifting the World Cup, putting smiles on billion faces."
For Raina, there wasn't any one factor that led to India's success at the World Cup.
"There was always another team player to back the other up. If wickets were down early, the player coming in at No 3 would make sure that the gap is filled, and we’d have enough runs on the board. We totally, completely played like a team and everyone gave their 100 percent."
While Yuvraj was the man of the moment, the World Cup was all about giving the favourite boy of the nation a grand farewell. It was an emotional roller-coaster for Sachin himself who got lifted on his shoulders by Kohli and Co on the victory lap around the Wankhede.
"He was excited and completely looking forward to it. Of course, he knew it was his last World Cup, but that never stopped him from living every moment on and off the field during those few weeks of the tournament," Raina says.
"Nothing can beat the experience of taking that victory lap around the stadium in Mumbai, with our home crowd cheering us on. We all were taking turns to lift Sachin as the crowd chanted. There are some experiences which cannot be topped or replicated. India had waited since 1983 for this moment. I felt humbled and privileged to be part of the squad to achieve it."
The celebrations went deep into the night, on the ground, in the stands, on the streets. If Tony Grieg had been alive, we would have heard the vibrant tune of 'They are dancing in the aisles.' Wankhede was buzzing with a rendition of the national anthem in unison. It gave you goose pimples no matter where you were, and it still does.
"It’s one of the most unforgettable moments of my life. We achieved the dream of a billion Indians by lifting the trophy. That chant of Indiaaa, Indiaa…just vibrating across the stadium is etched in my memory.
"We couldn’t hear ourselves celebrating; the cheer was so, so loud. It’s was a milestone of an experience," Raina recalls.
For Gambhir, it was the other way round.
“I was too exhausted to celebrate. I had fielded for 50 overs and batted for 40 overs and was pretty much exhausted and hardly had any energy left to celebrate.”
So what is that one World Cup moment that will stay with the two forever?
“Winning the World Cup, as simple as it gets,” Gambhir says. “I played in only the one World Cup and won the World Cup. Probably that is what you live for and that is what you should play for.”
"That I am one of the youngest to have lifted it," Raina beams.
Gambhir will always be prominently remembered for that innings which helped India clinch the World Cup. Does he sometimes walk down the memory lane by watching the highlights of that 97?
“I never look back at things. I don't look back at what I did in 2011. This is 2019. It was over the day we won the World Cup,” Gambhir signs off in the most Gambhir style.