Deconstructing India’s World Cup Victory
What made it possible, and does this mean a new era of Indian dominance?
The concluding shot of the 2011 cricket World Cup final—a powerfully struck six by the Indian captain Mahender Singh Dhoni off Sri Lanka’s Nuwan Kulasekhara – sealed India’s fairytale World Cup win in a rare, magnificent style that was far more exciting than a fictionalized climax of a Bollywood film. And with it, a nation of a billion people erupted in ecstasy and euphoria, having held their collective breath for 28 long years since India’s last World Cup victory.The tears and cheers, the fireworks and victory parades that followed all seemed like a just due for a cricket-crazy country. In its afterglow, it seems almost sacrilegious to deconstruct and analyze the victory: How solid or shaky was India’s trajectory to the victory? How durable is its top billing in cricket? Can India do it again in 2015?
On the face of it many factors were in India’s favor. It entered World Cup 2011 as the team to beat, a team familiar with home conditions, a team that was getting used to winning, and a team that prided itself on its ability. This was going to be one of India’s best chances at the World Cup, if it played to potential.
But the reality is never as simple, especially in the subcontinent, where the heart rules the mind when it comes to cricket. Unlike the times when the West Indies and Australia dominated the game through a high degree of professionalism, cricket championships in the recent past have been far more unpredictable. In such times the favorite billing works against the team as it would have to handle a lot more pressure.
How this resilient and focused team used itself best and lived up to its expectations is a wonderful story worth studying.
The higher, common purpose
Several times in the past, players like Tendulkar, Dravid, Dhoni, Sehwag, Ganguly and others have spoken about how important playing for India was for them. This Indian team seemed to have imbibed that pride as its common purpose more than ever before. In interviews after the final, several players dedicated the win to the country. Above all, playing for a madly supportive nation might have been their greatest motivation.
The coach and the support staff
To get the Indian team to perform to its potential has always been a challenge. Mental aspects and team dynamics have always taken the back seat. To get this important area under control the Indian team needed someone who could manage people well. India got just the right man for the job. Coach Gary Kirsten, with help from mental conditioning coach Paddy Upton, played a huge role in keeping the team morale high. In the end the team played as close to its potential as it could in such extenuating conditions, and kept its nerve, which it has often failed to do in the past.
Kirsten brought the values of preparation and processes, got the team to believe in itself, kept the basics right, made everyone responsible and got the team to play as a unit. He is on record saying that at that level, coaching is 10 percent of the job and the rest is about man management. It was not about imposing his ideas; it was about letting this vastly talented team get out of its way and express itself.
To say that one of the biggest factors for the win was the captaincy of Dhoni would be an understatement. Though the man from Krypton, (as legendary cricket writer the late Rajan Bala called him years ago) got some decisions wrong, Dhoni had the courage to go and repair the situation himself. Audacious, gutsy, simple, and clear-headed, Dhoni lives in the moment. His teammates and experts are constantly saying that he is one of the best and quickest when it comes to reading the game and situations—signs of an uncluttered mind. “Cricket is a simple game,” he said the day after the win. “We complicate it by thinking too much about it.” Dhoni is a master at keeping things simple. He took risks, kept his calm in matches, ensured that his team did not feel the pressure, and made everyone give their best when it mattered.
The result? Seniors played their roles to perfection and the juniors emulated them. Gambhir, Yuvraj, Kohli, Raina stepped up their game when Tendulkar or Sehwag didn’t click. Throughout the tournament Tendulkar batted and fielded like a man possessed, Zaheer buried his demons and knocked over wicket after wicket. Yuvraj got some of the best batsmen in the world out, match after match. If one fell, another stood up for him—this team simply cannot be written away. How Dhoni gets players to bring out their best is a mystery. Having Dhoni as captain was indeed a huge, almost unfair, advantage for India.
The administration and the selection
Indian cricket is an institution that is viewed as being rich, power-hungry, petulant, and filled with stars and administrators who often get a lot more than they deserve. We have many factors that would rule out fairy-tale endings—the cash-rich BCCI hungrily milking all opportunities to make money; cricketers earning millions and bent on pursuing fame, glamour and wealth of a kind never seen before; a selection system that has not really epitomized the best in terms of processes; a crazed fan following that swings between wild extremes. In this madness there had to be found some method. Somehow the Indian cricket administration found it in recent years. The game has been doing well in the country, growing exponentially and efficiently, thanks to progressive steps such as the National Cricket Academy, building good infrastructure, a desire to make the process scientific by calling in the experts, and now the Indian Premier League, IPL.
Kirsten and Dhoni got the team they wanted for the World Cup. With Tendulkar and Sehwag opening and Gambhir, Kohli, Yuvraj, Raina, Pathan and Dhoni bolstering the middle, India had the strongest batting line-up in the world. Zaheer spearheaded the new ball with Munaf, while Sreesanth and Nehra provided support. The bowling lacked teeth, but it had lots of experience in these conditions. The selection committee under K. Srikkanth did little wrong.
The World Cup campaign began almost two years ago, as many players said. Probably even before that. Sehwag said the team had visualized the win a year ago—that they would play the final in Mumbai and lift the cup. We have heard how the team was keen that all key players should be injury-free for the World Cup. We have heard of how much time Yuvraj spent with Paddy Upton to get it all right. This team was focused, prepared and wanted to win.
Conquering doubt—the hardest part
Preparing is one thing. Conquering fear and doubt is another. The Indian team started well but showed all the old symptoms in the league stage, frustrating its fans once again and causing them to wonder, “Will India fail at the big stage again?” Doubts arose about its much touted batting lineup, which collapsed against South Africa, and about the bowling, which allowed England to chase 338 comfortably, and let Bangladesh pile up runs at will. As the quarter finalists lined up, things looked rocky.
And it is precisely at such times, when it matters the most, that champions dig deep, to conquer doubt and to raise their game. Ricky Ponting showed in ample measure the stuff champions are made of, when he compiled a masterful century against India, coming off a lean run. Mahela Jayawardene did the same in the final to push India against the wall. What these two champions did individually, India needed to do as a team, to prove they were indeed the champions.
From the quarter finals onwards India was a totally different team. All of a sudden, they were combining well. Everyone contributed and played to their roles. No batsman threw his wicket away anymore. Tendulkar struggled like a fish out of water, got dropped four times, but stayed to get enough on the board to put Pakistan under pressure. What if he had got out earlier, on the first chance? I firmly believe that this Indian team would have found the depth in other players, to get those runs even if Tendulkar had gone. Didn’t they do it in the final? But Tendulkar’s desire to hang on was itself a sign of how seriously the team took their responsibilities by not getting out to ordinary shots. He was not playing to prove that he is the world’s best batsman—he was playing to get every extra run for his team. Contrast that with the Pakistani batting, which threw the wickets away to fancy shots after looking so comfortable, and almost gifted the game away.
In the finals, only Mahela’s genius gave Lanka that total in the face of India’s inspired bowling and fielding. But when Lanka celebrated as if the match was over after Tendulkar’s dismissal, it showed how stuck it was in old patterns. Within a few overs, sanity was restored, calmly and efficiently, as Gambhir and Kohli took control of the game clinically, and Dhoni and Yuvraj finished it. Lanka never looked like winning after the first twenty overs.
This is what grit is about. Raina conquered his nemesis, the short ball, and bled the Aussies for crucial runs when he was peppered with short stuff. Yuvraj bowled like a champion when senior spinners were going for runs, and got key wickets in middle overs. The bowling lifted itself. And amazingly, the fielding got increasingly better, so that when it mattered most, the team fielded like never before, and cut off some 30 extra runs that could have made all the difference.
Under the same conditions and against the same teams, this Indian team would have beaten Australia, Sri Lanka and Pakistan more and more convincingly. If there were to be a hypothetical best of ten games against each, I’d wager 6-4 against Australia, and 7-3 against Lanka. This World Cup was certainly not won because of luck. It was won because the Indian team was the best prepared in every way.
Sweet success—A deserving result
2011 was decidedly harder than 1983 because of the huge expectations not just from the crowds but from the players themselves. When Sachin Tendulkar said that it was the proudest day of his life, it showed how much it mattered to him.
But this win needed each one to push their limits. Tendulkar batted out of his skin and played each match like it was his last, Sehwag put pressure on the opposition from ball one, Gambhir shouldered the responsibility of India’s batting when the giants fell, Kohli batted with rare maturity and fielded like a man possessed, Yuvraj batted with destructive flair and bowled like a frontline bowler, Dhoni delivered when it mattered most and led like a battle-hardened general, Raina batted and fielded as if his life depended on it, Zaheer used all his experience and guile to plug the leaks in a weak bowling attack and provided crucial breaks, Munaf bowled so consistently well that he more than made up for his batting and fielding, and Harbhajan brought all his cunning and aggression to play.
So many visuals will never leave our minds—a desperate Tendulkar tumbling while fielding on the line, young Kohli berating himself after his dismissal in the final, Yuvraj’s demonic roar after beating Australia, a diving Sehwag in the slips catching a cagey Tharanga, Dhoni’s eyes following the ball as it crossed the line in the final, Raina’s repeated saves as the Lankans starved for runs, Zaheer celebrating each well-earned wicket. When it mattered, the team forced breaks, squeezed extra runs and choked the opponents out of the game. They wanted to win more than anyone else did. You cannot deny success to anyone who burns with such desire. This team deserved the crown.
Can we do it again?
If nothing else, in the future, the cricket board would do well to follow the same process they adopted for this World Cup. We may not get the charisma of Dhoni, Tendulkar, Sehwag, Gambhir, Yuvraj in one team in later years but they will leave their legacy for the youngsters. In Kohli we already have a future captain who has a mature head on his shoulders and a burning desire to win. He will learn much from just being around Dhoni. Indian cricket has found a way to play to its potential.
India will dominate the game for the next two to three years simply because most of these extraordinary players will continue playing and will only get better. The BCCI needs to nurture talent now and ensure that there is no leakage of talent. India is a powerhouse of talent, as can be seen in the IPL, one of the best stages in terms of extracting raw talent. To see young Paul Valthaty score a 63-ball unbeaten 120 for Punjab Kings XI in the IPL against a Dhoni-led Chennai Super Kings side and shoot down a score of 189 was astounding. How many more such players are there in the hinterlands of India, we do not know. BCCI’s only job is to see that such talent gets the support it needs from the system—mental, physical, technical and financial—and bring these players into a pool that competes against one another for a place in the Indian side. The National Cricket Academy in Bengaluru is doing a great job in nurturing, rehabilitating and restoring players. Today young Indian cricketers have enough inspiration and motivation to give it their all.
Though Kirsten has left, he has shown the way. We need to remember the lessons and follow up. The team has to continue winning, processes have to be persisted with, and senior players have to transfer knowledge. This is perhaps the golden period of cricket in India when everything from administration, finance, exposure, marketing, skill and desire have worked for the game. It is also the period that has thrown up some giants in this cricketing world, people who are already legends even while they are playing. They are all great role models who will inspire generations to continue India’s domination of the game even after they choose to retire. With greater exposure, higher stakes and better facilities, and more importantly the right intent, there is no reason why the Indian cricket team should not be the number one side in the world for many years to come.
[Harimohan Paruvu is a former Ranji Trophy player, cricket blogger, and the author of The Men Within: A Cricketing Tale.]
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