Looking back at World Cup 2011: The Dhoni-factor works wonders

Mahendra Singh Dhoni, the Indian skipper, had infected the team with his own brand of quiet confidence and supreme belief to overcome obstacles.

The look on skipper M.S. Dhoni's face when he struck the winning six in the final said it all. He had done it his way.   -  THE HINDU PHOTO ARCHIVES

After the history, the hysteria. India were favourites ahead of the World Cup, then slipped into mediocrity in the group phase before beating three former champions in a row to claim the title. It was a tournament of two halves for the champions; they began sluggishly and finished strongly, which is better than doing it the other way around.

The look on skipper Mahendra Dhoni’s face as he struck the winning six in the final against Sri Lanka said it all. He had done it his way. He had picked the players he wanted, managed the difficult task of keeping them match-fit and motivated through six weeks, ignored the criticism from the media and former players, ensured that the weakest links contributed, publicised how the players took care of one another regardless of who was in and out of the team, and above all saw the team peak at the right time. This meant they played their best cricket in the final match. That six seemed to focus all these diverse elements in one moment.

Gone was the tentative approach of the early games, the uncertainty over whom to play, and gone too was frustration that Dhoni alone seemed to understand what the plan was. Just because you don’t see a pattern it doesn’t mean there isn’t one, he might have shouted at the media which had appeared more confused than Sreesanth. But that would have been rude, and Dhoni was magnanimous in victory. It wasn’t about proving others wrong so much as proving himself right.

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Had India lost, all the stock criticisms would have been given another airing: the terrible fielding, the inconsistent team selection, the refusal to experiment in inconsequential games, the confidence in some players to the exclusion of others, a refusal to attack at crucial phases, and more. But victory is a solvent in which all criticisms disappear. Dhoni won the World Cup his way — and that has been the most remarkable feature of India’s triumph.

That, and the inexplicable turnaround in the fielding. If anyone had said in the group phase that India’s fielding would make the difference, that would have been obvious. Except that the difference would be on the negative side. Yet here was Yuvraj Singh throwing himself around with the attitude of a teenager trying to impress his girlfriend. Even Zaheer Khan, who tended to maintain a distant relationship with the speeding ball, was now diving and attacking it with vigour. India saved 25-30 runs in the final, and that made the difference.

Where did that energy come from?

When did a bunch of players who were driving their supporters and even Dhoni to distraction, suddenly decide to raise the tone of their fielding? “You can’t do anything about our fielding. It is not going to improve,” Dhoni had said repeatedly. For once, he was wrong. The improvement began with the quarterfinal against Australia when Suresh Raina came into the team. That immediately doubled the number of good fielders in the side — Virat Kohli having played a lone hand till then. But it was the reawakening of the others that was remarkable. Sri Lanka, a superior fielding outfit till then, now looked ragged. India’s transformation had shocked them into exploring their inefficient side.

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Sachin Tendulkar was playing his last World Cup, and Virat Kohli was the next big thing.   -  THE HINDU PHOTO ARCHIVES


Perhaps the over-emphasis on Sachin Tendulkar’s century of centuries had enabled the bowlers and fielders to work on their skills away from public notice. If so, that was another, unheralded contribution by the Little Master. In the end, the World Cup belonged to Dhoni. Yuvraj Singh might have been the Man of the Tournament, and deservedly so, for his runs and wickets but the skipper had infected the team with his own brand of quiet confidence and supreme belief to overcome obstacles, especially after a largely forgettable performance in the preliminary stage.

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By coming in ahead of Yuvraj in the final, Dhoni combined cricketing nous with psychological acuity. With Gautam Gambhir, it maintained a left-right combination; and with the off-spinners in action it gave him a chance to upset their rhythm. Above all, he showed himself to be a leader, pushing himself into a situation where he would take the pressure. It was a stunning gesture, and had the desired result. Gambhir and Kohli showed they had learnt from the masters, Virender Sehwag and Tendulkar, after the openers got out early. There was always a suggestion as the team chased, that someone would come to the aid of the party. This was not a one-man team, however reliant they might have been on Tendulkar or Sehwag to score the runs and Zaheer Khan to take the wickets.

Former India pacer Zaheer Khan celebrates the wicket of Thilan Samaraweera in the final at Wankhede Stadium in Mumbai.   -  AFP


Was this the finest World Cup ever? The figures will be available soon — the number of spectators, the amounts of money spent by fans, the impact on tourism, the joy of the sponsors, the money generated by the television coverage, the success of the security, the lack of a major embarrassment, the turnout for matches not involving the hosts — everything will be broken down to figures and compared with earlier tournaments.

After the fiasco in the West Indies four years ago, anything would have been an improvement anyway, but this was something more. Two countries struggling to come to a political understanding showed that where cricket is concerned, the politicians dare not interfere. The meeting of the Prime Ministers of India and Pakistan during the semifinal between the two countries might have been largely symbolic, but symbols are important milestones towards normalisation of relations.

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Just as the tournament put the stamp on Asian resurgence, it brought to an end the domination of Australia who had won the last three championships. Ricky Ponting bowed out with one of the most courageous centuries in one-day cricket, standing tall as everyone around him fell, and ignoring a fractured finger and calls for his head. It had begun for Australia in the 1987 World Cup in the subcontinent, so things had come a full circle.

Other teams lived up to the cliches around them. South Africa choked again, twice. Pakistan oscillated between brilliance and silliness, New Zealand was good enough for the semifinals but not further, England were inconsistent, losing to Bangladesh and Ireland but beating South Africa and the West Indies. And the West Indies, who once strutted like champions, now seem to be in terminal decline, with players displaying little pride in their work.

India’s victory has strengthened their hand as the epicentre of the game in the world. They have the money, the consumers, the fans, the infrastructure, and now the World Cup. The future of the sport will depend on how well India use their power. Dhoni’s leadership has benefitted India’s cricket; will India’s leadership benefit world cricket?

(India's World Cup review in 2011; first published on April 14, 2011)

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