June 24, 2010: 10 months before World Cup India was playing the final of the Asia Cup
That morning at the breakfast table, Gary Kirsten asked the question: “If this was the World Cup final, do you think we are ready as a team to go out there and win?” The answer, between bowling coach Eric Simons, Gary and myself was “No”. We don’t think we are ready to win a World Cup if it were today. That really sparked the conversation in earnest and detail. Like what are the things we need to do in the next 10 months? We spent the next 10 months, literally every single day, preparing the team, so that when we arrived at the World Cup, we would be ready.
Feb 19, 2011: Game 1 (Bangladesh) Playing the opening game at Dhaka, Virender Sehwag blasted 175 as India strolled home by 87 runs.
We didn’t put too much pressure on ourselves to try and win every one of the round robin games. So I think we went there with the natural nerves of starting a World Cup, but as a team very prepared, and fortunately, fairly familiar with the kind of conditions in Bangladesh as well.
We focused on the process and let the results look after themselves. It wasn’t just rhetoric and thoughts and ideas. It was something that we were really loving at the time, as best we could. We were focusing on the process. The kind of cricket we were playing, we knew that if we played really good cricket consistently for 100 overs of an ODI game, we would win more games than not. If we did that, we had a very good chance of going on to win the World Cup.
So we really did not focus on losing or winning, but on the kind of cricket we’re playing. We knew at that point that we were already playing good cricket throughout the 100 overs of a one-day game, both with the bat and ball. The focus was to keep playing the best possible cricket and not worry too much about the result. In the opening match, it was the usual sort of nerves, a combination of nerves and excitement of starting what was going to be a really big tournament, where we had very big goals.
Feb 27: Game 2 (England) Zaheer Khan and Munaf Patel bowling India to an incredible tie.
Before the England game, Ravichandran Ashwin and me emerged out of elevators into the breakfast area at the same time. I remember it clearly, Ashwin asking me, “Paddy, do you believe in fate?” and I said, “how come?” And he went, “I just believe that we are meant to win this tournament.” There was such a calm knowingness about the conversation. It wasn’t somebody trying to believe or trying to create a positive thought. It was a deep knowingness. I must say I rarely felt it before and something in my head said, ‘don’t get caught up in this’ but there was a real sense.
The real positive we took from that game was how we stood up and played really good cricket at key moments, when we needed to control the game back. So that was a real big positive that under that sort of pressure, against one of the bigger teams like England, we were able to hold our nerve. Particularly in the bowling department – we probably went into that tournament slightly stronger in our batting department. So it was really nice to see bowlers stand up and be counted when they needed to.
Munaf especially bowled superbly. We had worked quite a bit together. What was really great was that Munaf really opened up to me and told me about his youth and upbringing. I’m not sure how public it is where Munaf came from and what he went through in his process to becoming a professional cricketer. It really is an amazing and heart-wrenching story. So in really understanding where he came from, I was able to connect with him in his way and in his “language”, so to speak.
For Munaf, it was not really so much about employing sports psychology principles, or ideas or tools, as it was about having conversations to help ensure that he was just in the most relaxed mood. He performed really well when he was aggressive. If he wasn’t aggressive enough, he wasn’t engaged enough in the battle. And if he became too aggressive, it would start working against him. So it was really just to help him stay in his very confrontational, aggressive mindset that would get him into the best possible space. So he was actually a real joy to work with because he was really open.
I was not sitting with him as a mental conditioning coach but someone really interested in hearing somebody’s story, and his story is fascinating. So it was about one human being really inquisitive about the other without deliberately doing it.
March 6: Game 3 (Ireland) The start of Yuvraj Singh’s World Cup legend, he dazzles with both bat and ball.
In a way playing the minnows did play into Yuvraj’s hands. They were not significantly high-pressure games, and there was no bowler who was particularly fast to trouble him. It was a fairly medium-pressure experience, bowling to their batsman and facing their bowlers. He has often really thrived in those average- or medium-pressure conditions. So it really did play into his favour, on top of him being well prepared, and obviously, really riding a wave of confidence at the time. So it all just played into his hands.
At that time, there wasn’t clear evidence that he was struggling with anything. And I think, fortunately, he had also got himself probably fitter than he had been for much of his career and for that particular tournament. So it was the additional fitness that was able to see him through the difficulties he would have been experiencing with his breathing.
It was not something that we noticed and spoke about. In fact, it was only towards the end of the tournament, and particularly in the final, that you came to know he was actually throwing up in the change room. It is then we started to notice things and even then, in the final, he could easily excuse or pass it off as potential nerves.
March 9: Game 4 (The Netherlands) India stumble while chasing 191, Yuvraj to rescue again.
It’s always more difficult in a tournament like the World Cup to play an underdog. As the underdog, you have nothing to lose, there’s no shame in losing. So you’re able to fully express yourself. Contrarily, as the favourite, you have everything to lose, so one can take pressure onto the shoulders. So that was probably the difficulty, to try and not take the pressure of being the clear favourite in those games and to really go out there and focus on playing the best cricket that we could play against slightly weaker teams, those that are not of the same quality as some of our other opponents.
But at the same time, the whole preparation of the team for that tournament was that we cannot rely on any one or two or three individuals to carry us through most of the tournament. Every one of us, at some point, should be able to stand up and lead or deliver for the team. If it’s not your day, what’s important is to get in line and really support the person whose day it is. So we weren’t looking at Sachin or Sehwag to dominate every time. Or, as it emerged, Yuvi. It was a case of every person taking the field and seeking for it to be your day, knowing that only two or three of you will actually have the day as theirs. If it is not your day, then go and support the guys who are in good form.
March 12: Game 5 (South Africa) From cruising at 269/1, India suffer their only loss of the tournament.
Dhoni reacts similarly to wins and losses, in that he doesn’t say very much at all. In the team meetings, he was very much Captain Cool. He largely allowed Gary to do the speaking post games. Gary too is very measured. He talked like there was little difference between the two sides. The conversations were around the same lines, the kind of cricket we played, where we did well, and what could we do better next time. So between Dhoni and Gary, we had a very calm, level-headed leadership that didn’t get overexcited with winning or overly concerned with losing. That went a long way just to help players mentally. Mentally, they were on an even keel through the ups and downs and pressures of a big tournament like the World Cup.
However, the defeat brought a certain humility to our batting line-up. It made us really realise that at no point can we rest on our laurels or take our foot off the pedal, even if we’ve had an unbelievable start.
Another thing was some of the batting slump happened in and around Dhoni, and we knew that wasn’t a problem. We knew that when it really counted, Dhoni was going to come to the party. We didn’t think he would take as long as he did. But we were confident he was always going to come to the party.
March 20: Game 6 (West Indies) India’s most clinical game. Yuvraj’s 100 takes India to 268, Zaheer Khan scalps three, Windies all out for 188.
We didn’t realise how important it was to take your form into the knockouts in any tournament. We didn’t have that awareness then – there weren’t enough T20 tournaments. Teams that are up and down or even those that don’t start well, learn from mistakes. Those are the ones who take confidence from qualifiers. We definitely knew that though we had good phases, we seldom played the full 100 overs the way we know we were capable of. That West Indies game was a real confidence-booster. We started to see how difficult we would be if we play to our potential. We knew no team can touch us. We started to feel that after that game.
March 24: Quarter-final (Australia) Chasing 260, Suresh Raina’s thrilling cameo and Yuvraj’s fifty help India win the most difficult World Cup game.
Almost every game, Gary would say: “It’s not going to be everybody’s game. Only for one or two of you, it will turn out to be your day. So as soon as you find yourself in that place, make sure you take it as deep as possible.”
Suresh was always an exciting, flamboyant cricketer. He plays a high-risk game which when it comes off, he takes it to the opposition. How many times have we seen Suresh hitting the first ball of the over to the boundary! He likes to attack, likes to get on the front foot and put pressure on the opposition. He had the quality to leave an impact on that World Cup and he delivered that day. We were under proper pressure in that chase, we weren’t ahead at any stage. We needed him and Yuvraj to have that mature partnership. One would have thought it was MS Dhoni territory but we had Yuvraj, who had already done so well, do it again for us. In fact, before the tournament, Yuvraj had a dream where he had visions of him hitting the final’s winning runs! In his dream, it was hitting it against Australia. Effectively, the four he hit off Brett Lee was a manifestation of that dream. It wasn’t the final but it was against Australia, very close to a final.
March 30: Semi-final (Pakistan) Tendulkar’s 85 takes India to 260. Five bowlers take two wickets apiece to shoot out Pakistan for 231.
The fierce Indo-Pak rivalry is more about spectators; players themselves don’t have that fierceness and animosity. They know each other fairly well and get along well. Pakistan was always a very easy game for which to prepare the Indian team for as they didn’t need any extra motivation.
There was an additional extraneous political pressure that nobody spoke about but everybody was acutely aware of: if India lost, Pakistan would go to Mumbai and stay at the very same Taj Hotel that was a target of the terrorist attacks. Each one of us knew the symbolism of that without having to say it. That was not really ideal to allow Pakistan to win and go to stay at Taj; it didn’t stack up on an energetic level. So, there was that additional pressure that this was to be a non-negotiable game to lose.
Sachin had played five World Cups. Not just immensely experienced, he was heads and shoulders above the team in terms of his accomplishments, but he was a team player. He didn’t overly speak too much in team meetings but when something needed to be said, he would say it – and when he did, which wasn’t very often, it had gravitas and players would listen. It was his last World Cup and players knew the only thing he didn’t have in his trophy cabinet was a World Cup. I know lot of players had committed to saying they want to win and gift him the World Cup. He knew that he had that support. Sachin wasn’t waiting for other players to gift him that Cup; he knew his time was going to come to do his part in bringing it home. We saw that in the innings he played.
April 2: FINAL (Sri Lanka) India needed 275 for the Cup, they scored 277. Dhoni sealed it with a six after Gambhir played the Rock.
There was certainly no concerns about it being a cakewalk or taking the feet off the pedal. The gravitas of playing a World Cup final in Mumbai wasn’t lost on any single player or support staff. It was about whether we can keep the players on an even keel and not get them overly excited and anxious. If fans think it was a big moment that day, you must know what it was like in the team hotel and the team bus driving to the stadium to play a World Cup final in India at the world’s noisiest cricket stadium. The whole theme over the last 10 months was about the kind of cricket we played and not about winning or losing. It was about each player taking responsibility when it was their moment to bowl or bat. That really was the challenge, to stay within that process and not let the mind run away to the end where we had either won or lost the cup.
If we go back 10 months, one of the strategies we devised was to handle the pressure of the World Cup that no one had ever handled before. One of the ways we ensured it was that every time we had a team meeting – in those 10 months, in any game we played – Gary or myself would use the language ‘when we play the final of the World Cup or when we play the final in Mumbai’. That was the two ways we prefaced every single meeting for those 10 months. Players would have heard that 50 times from Gary’s mouth and 25 times from me. We might be playing Australia in Nagpur in that phase, but instead of just talking about that match, we would say, ‘when we play the final in Mumbai’’ and then talk about the kind of cricket we wanted to play.
We never said, ‘when we win’; it would always be ‘when we play the final’. So the players were used to that and when we reached the final, the players were used to going to that place so many times in their heads. We have prepared every single time we met the last 10 months – plus longer than that in our lives – we have prepared for this moment. And we are ready for this moment. And this is not a surprise or extra big moment. This is what we have been preparing for. The key was to preserve that mood – we have prepared, we have the game plan, we have everything we need, we don’t need to do anything different, clever, or special – we are ready.
Nothing in my life compares to what I felt when that ball left Dhoni’s bat and we all realised that it was going the distance. I can’t tell you how long that feeling lasted – three minutes, 15 minutes, I have no idea. That ecstasy flowing through my body – if I could package it and sell it, I would be the richest man in the world. It was mind, body, spirit and soul blowing.
Talking about the final, I need to mention Gautam Gambhir’s contribution. Everyone talks about Dhoni’s innings but Gambhir held the entire inning together. Mind you, Gambhir played his best cricket with Sehwag, a flamboyant and expansive batsman who was so exciting to watch. Gambhir, meanwhile, was the nuggety little guy at the other end. Gary always used to call him “The Rock”. He was so stable and consistent. When India would do well, it would always be Sehwag on the highlights package. Gambhir did what he had done all through his career – he was Mr Stable, not the show pony, not the guy playing glorious shots. He was the glue that held the Indian batting together. The Test team had Rahul Dravid as The Wall, the one-day team had Gambhir as The Rock.
I often get asked about Dhoni’s elevation in the batting order, him going ahead of Yuvraj. This is a first-hand recollection and not a story that I heard. To start with, Dhoni always likes to stay inside the dressing room during a game and not sit out. It was the same that day. He was behind the full glass frontage that is there at the Wankhede dressing room. Gary was sitting outside and I was right next to him. I remember distinctly, I heard a knock on the window. Gary and I turned around the same time. It was Dhoni, he indicated he was batting next. That was it. Sign language. Gary just nodded. There was no talk between the two. Dhoni had made the decision that this was the time for him to stand up and do what Dhoni does. He would do what he is the best in the world at – which is seeing a team home in a chase in the second innings in a white-ball game. He had delivered nothing in the eight games before the final. Yuvraj had done his bit, he had played his tournament. He was done, he was spent. That moment was set up for someone like Dhoni. There are very few players in the world who are genuine “massive high-pressure” players. Yuvraj Singh is not one of those, Dhoni is. The moment ‘t just a testimony to his leadership and courage, it spoke a lot about his relationship with Gary. Mind you, Gary didn’t have to stand up and have a conversation with Dhoni to discuss the merits and demerits of the move. It was just the two leaders of the team being on the same page. The knock on the glass, him pointing to himself, Gary’s nod… and it was done. I do remember very clearly when Dhoni walked down the stairs, I turned to Gary and said “Do you realise Dhoni is going there to fetch us the World Cup?” I had absolute conviction that Dhoni would come back with the trophy.
The Indian team suffered a massive form slump after the final with stars like Tendulkar and Zaheer failing to match their Cup performances ever.
In hindsight, it was very clear to myself and Gary that we knew that we would finish our tenures after the World Cup, regardless of where India finished. So we had planned and prepared for the World Cup, but not for ‘what next’. The best analogy that I can use is that of mountaineers. About 80 per cent of the mountaineers who die on the mountains are on their way down. The reason being that they plan to go to the top, but don’t plan to get down. We made the same mistake as the mountaineers. We were leaving but we didn’t have the insight to tell the team or the BCCI that ‘you guys need to have firm post-World Cup plans’. So I think we all are responsible for the team drifting for 12 to 18 months. They came down to earth for the big bump.