June 24, 2010, was a red-letter day in Indian cricket.
At the Rangiri Dambulla International Stadium, in the quaint town of Dambulla, India beat Sri Lanka by 81 runs that evening to win the Asia Cup. As the players celebrated, the coaching staff – under the leadership of head coach Gary Kirsten – had a meeting to discuss the future.
With the 2011 World Cup just 10 months away, it was important to assess where the team stood, but in the meeting, the coaching staff discovered that there was still a lot to be done.
“On the day of the Asia Cup final when India was gearing up to play Sri Lanka in Sri Lanka, Gary Kirsten asked me and bowling coach Eric Simmons: If this is the World Cup final, are we as Team India ready to win it? The answer was no,” Paddy Upton, who was then the team’s mental conditioning and strategic leadership coach, told Sportstar on Thursday.
“That really sparked the question and the conversation as to what we need to do in the next 10 months to prepare the Indian cricket team to win a World Cup final at the Wankhede Stadium.”
Till then, no team had won a World Cup at home, so the job at hand was a daunting one.
“Playing a final at the Wankhede Stadium, which is one of the loudest stadiums in the world, that too in Sachin Tendulkar’s home town (and it was his last World Cup), so it was going to represent the highest amount of pressure on the Indian team. We had a lot of work to do. It was a fascinating moment to get players ready for the moment,” reminisced Upton, who played a key role in motivating the team.
After returning from Sri Lanka, the Indian team came up with a strategy on how to approach every tournament over the next 10 months. While the players were given specific roles, they were repeatedly briefed about their duties, and being a closely-knit unit, the team took successes and failures in its stride and moved on.
That eventually helped it gear up for the World Cup.
“We knew we had everything – the players, the strategy, the will to get to that final. As the tournament unfolded, we really focused on playing good cricket. We did not focus on winning or losing. It was something that we had done for 10 months in Team India,” Upton said.
Despite being the favourite, India had an average start to the tournament as it suffered a defeat against South Africa and settled for a tie against England in the group stage. How did the team deal with the early stutter?
“The conversation was all about the kind of cricket we played and in the first four-five games. We lost one, tied one and won three. We had played good cricket, but we hadn’t put a solid performance together. The sixth game of the round-robin league against the West Indies is perhaps when Team India really clicked. We put up clinical performances – both with the bat and the ball,” Upton said.
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In that fixture in Chennai against the West Indies, Yuvraj Singh scored a century as the home team defeated the boys from the Caribbean by 80 runs and stormed into the quarterfinals, where it was to face the mighty Australians.
“It was just a great time to find form and head into the quarterfinal against arguably the best team in the tournament. The two best teams in the tournament were India and Australia, so the quarterfinal game against Australia was as good as the final. We knew whichever team won that quarterfinal had the chance of going the distance. Winning that game put us in a really good position,” Upton recollected.
However, the battle was still not won. After a fascinating show against Ricky Ponting’s Australia, India was to take on arch-rival Pakistan in the semifinal, which it eventually won by 29 runs.
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“Going into the final, everything was set up. We were a team that was tightly bonded and we were communicating well, playing great cricket. In the final, there came the much-spoken-about decision of M. S. Dhoni going ahead of Yuvraj Singh and do what M. S. Dhoni does. He is one of the greatest players in the world and seeing the team home under the highest pressure, it was set up for captain Dhoni. He took the calland joined the rock of the Indian team – Gautam Gambhir,” Upton said.
“He (Gambhir) was not as flashy as his opening partner (Virender) Sehwag, but he was the person who was the rock and he helped in keeping things together along with Mr Reliable – Dhoni. When Dhoni hit that six, that erupted with millions of cricket fans. It was sheer ecstasy that I have never experienced in my life. It feels like yesterday and I remember that fondly and it has to be the best day of my life,” the noted South African mind coach stated.
It has been a decade since that historic victory, and just like the players, even Upton cherishes those memories. It was certainly a challenging time for the Indian team, but over a period, the team battled past the odds to achieve its goal.
From a June evening in Dambulla in 2010 to a starry night in Mumbai on April 2, 2011 – those 10 months eventually changed the face of Indian cricket. Forever.
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