It is often said that the planning for a World Cup tournament starts from the previous edition. England’s 2019 ICC Cricket World Cup triumph is a prime example of the goals that were set in 2015 when they did not even move beyond the league stage.
It may be said in a way that the Indian team looked ahead after the 2007 debacle in the West Indies and the new skipper MS Dhoni was clear in who he wanted and looked at youngsters and fresh legs while aiming for the 2011 World Cup, especially as it was being held in India.
Two of the selectors that picked up the squad, Raja Venkat from East Zone and Surendra Bhave from West Zone look back fondly at that edition in which India went on to become the first host team to win a World Cup. The other three selectors in the committee then were 1983 World Cup winners, Krishnamachari Srikkanth (chairman, South Zone) and Yashpal Sharma (North Zone), and former India leg-spinner, Narendra Hirwani (Central Zone).
Venkat, 62-year-old former Bengal left-handed batsman, recalled while talking to news18.com: “We felt we selected the best possible team for the World Cup. What immediately comes to my mind about the 2011 World Cup was Sachin being lifted by his team-mates and Virat Kohli made the statement, ‘Tendulkar has carried the burden of the nation for 21 years, it was time we carried him’. That was what struck me. All said and done, whatever Sachin has contributed to Indian cricket, he deserved it. At the same time, you feel sorry for Anil Kumble or Rahul Dravid who also contributed so much to the game but they, unfortunately, don’t have a World Cup win under their names. Or for that matter, VVS Laxman, who never got to play in a World Cup."
Bhave, the 55-year-old former Maharashtra right-handed batsman, looked back with fondness. “I look back with great memories. I feel it was destined to be like that. Everybody had the right motive, everybody wanted to make it a big one because it was Sachin’s last World Cup. The team gelled with Yuvraj Singh having an outstanding World Cup. Viru (Sehwag), Gauti (Gambhir), MS (Dhoni), all clicked. Apart from the South Africa game, which was a very close match in Nagpur (India lost by 3 wickets), we won all (the game against England was a tie). It is full of great memories."
Asked to go deeper, Bhave remembered the ball Zaheer bowled to get rid of Australia’s Mike Hussey in the quarterfinal. “The best ball of that World Cup, for me, was Zaheer bowling a slower one to Hussey in Ahmedabad. There was a subtle change of pace, Hussey played too early, and was bowled through the bat and pad. MS Dhoni going ahead of Yuvi in the final, Sachin’s 85 in Mohali against Pakistan; everybody was really fired up. We had a couple of tight matches. Beating Pakistan in Mohali was big. Before that beating Australia in Ahmedabad, and then the final. We just had a feeling that we were sort of destined to make something big. We always kept our fingers crossed because the home nation never won. It was also one of the jinxes that had to be broken. Am extremely glad the team did it. It was amazing. The selectors put the right 15, the team management got the right playing 11 in the park. It is the players who win the World Cup. We selectors are glad we played our part."
The planning did not happen overnight. Coach Gary Kirsten and captain Dhoni had a fair idea well ahead of the World Cup about the personnel they believed would win the World Cup.
Venkat remembered the day when the team for the World Cup was picked. He said from Kolkata: “From 2009, we had planned for this World Cup. Since it was going to be at home, we felt we had a good chance. At that time, we did not have the bowling that we have today. We had Zaheer Khan, Harbhajan Singh, Ashish Nehra for the experience. Ravichandran Ashwin was coming about at that time. There was Munaf Patel, Sreesanth. Batting was not a problem. Bowling was the troubled area. That is the area where, we felt, people should be rotated and see who fits in. When you look back, these things paid dividends. Our strength was batting. We knew we had bowlers to bowl in our conditions. Yuvraj turned out to be a match-winner for us.
“In 2008, England had come to India for ODIs. Yuvraj was in peak form. He was batting so well. He was chipping in with a few overs and the team knew he was one of those guys who could turn the match around. The team for the World Cup selected automatically.
“We had 14 in place. Yashpal and I were in South Africa (India toured South Africa in 2010-11) when the World Cup team was selected. And, Cheeka (Srikkanth), Suri (Bhave) and Hiru (Hirwani) were in Chennai. The first 14 went in smoothly. When the 15th name came up, Cheeka went in with Rohit Sharma’s name. Gary (Kirsten) immediately said, ‘Rohit, yes I agree with you’. MS said, ‘I would want Piyush Chawla’. Immediately Gary said, ‘yeah, good choice’. That was only thing that came as a surprise."
Bhave added: “The run up to the World Cup showed us the way. We knew what we needed in a big tournament. Leading up to the World Cup three to five months before, one or two players dropped here and they were all exercises of finding out what the best 15 would be.
“We all knew we had a plan. Honestly, Looking ahead by two-three years does not serve the purpose. It only confuses the playing group. You are experimenting in, say 2021 for a 2024 event. The cycle becomes so big, that it becomes cross-wired, entangled and people don’t know their roles. Someone tries to outperform someone else. I remember we were at Sector 16 stadium in Chandigarh for a match well may be 4-5 months before the World Cup. Gary (Kirsten) was around. The Board was aware the WC had to be planned. A little bit of jigsaw puzzle and piece settings will happen all the time at that level.
“Personally, if you ask me, planning too far ahead does not work. Some of your best players might lose form. There is a fine balance between maintaining the in-form players and keeping them in form, and also trying to use set pieces and trying new faces to see if they set the bill. At every juncture, you make sure the team is winning, because with experimenting, the team starts losing, they get into a losing habit."
Yuvraj was battling some sort of illness and often feeling tired but did not complain or let that affect his performance. In fact, Yuvraj was dropped from the ODI team for the 2010 Asia Cup for form. But the way he bounced back to reach the peak during the World Cup was remarkable. He played a key role with both the bat and the ball, scoring 352 runs at 90.50 and picking up 15 wickets at 25.13 to be the man of the tournament. Yuvraj later revealed that he played the World Cup with pain that was later diagnosed as Seminoma Lung Cancer. It was only fitting that he was at the crease when the winning moment came at the Wankhede Stadium on April 2, 2011 night, watching from the non-striker’s end his skipper Dhoni hit Nuwan Kulasekara for a six over long-on and later falling into his arms, crying in joy.
Bhave remembered: “Everybody unanimously felt that the kind of player Yuvraj was, he was needed for the ICC World Cup. We all agreed that he was a player who wanted the big stage, enjoyed the big stage and so he did. Nobody including Yuvraj himself knew he was medically unfit. He overcame all the physical hindrances and troubles he was going through to put up sterling performances and bag four man of the match awards. He also bowled beautifully throughout the World Cup, his kind of bowling suited the pitches we had at that point. In the end, all of it worked at Wankhede. You had to win the big moments and big games. There was nothing bigger since the 1983 World Cup win. India managed that. Am extremely proud."
The five selectors watched all the matches in that World Cup at the venues except the semifinal in Mohali against Pakistan. They did not have confirmed room bookings and decided to return home to watch India win the much-anticipated clash on television.
Venkat recalled: “We saw all the matches except the semifinal from the venues. What had happened was that while we were in Ahmedabad for the Australia quarterfinal match, we requested that we also be put up at the same hotel as the Indian team in Chandigarh. The hotel staff said they were facing shortage of rooms. I was the first to reach the hotel in Chandigarh on the eve of the match. Then Cheeka came in, and one by one, Suri, Yashpal and Hiru came. We had no rooms despite checking with the BCCI. The BCCI sent in confirmation of room bookings but they did not have any. Cheeka even said we would share the rooms if there was a shortage. We waited until 8pm and decided it was pointless. So, we called up BCCI and asked to arrange a car to go back to Delhi and from there to our respective homes."
For whatever happened in Chandigarh, Srikkanth decided not to watch the final at the Wankhede, but the other four were at the venue to see history repeat itself.
Venkat said: “We were put up at a hotel in Lower Parel, Mumbai. There were a host of other BCCI officials in the same hotel. Usually, the BCCI arranges cars for us to commute between hotel and stadium. Once the match ended, we went to the dressing room, congratulated the boys on the win and decided to take a taxi back to the hotel. As we came out, the roads were packed with people and there was not a single taxi. We four walked along Marine Drive to Charni Road before hiring a taxi to our hotel. It was good fun, the public enjoying India’s win and celebrating on the roads. We enjoyed it, we felt so proud of the team."
Talk of the 2011 World Cup and the leadership of Dhoni comes first to mind for Bhave. “Of course the manner in which Yuvraj played was remarkable. When it came to the team, Dhoni was acknowledged by all the seniors as a very good captain. Also the way in which the players wanted to make the World Cup count because Sachin may not play another World Cup was fantastic. If I have to be the fly in that dressing room I would sense that everybody wanted to that extra bit for Sachin and you could see that at the Wankhede when Dhoni took the back stage and let Sachin be lifted by the players. What bigger award than winning the World Cup at home! That was really astonishing.
“In true sense of sportsmanship, Dhoni did what he did best. The field sets, bowling changes, choices of playing 11 but still the main motivator of the team was Sachin Tendulkar. It is a great sporting story – How you can achieve as a team and still allow people to have their own freedom to create this magic. It was not all about positions, captaincy, vice-captaincy, what number I one bats. It was about the team."
Talking about positions, Dhoni promoted himself to No. 4 when all along, he was batting lower in the tournament, in the final when India were chasing 275 to lift the trophy.
Bhave was initially surprised by the move but saw the cricketing reason behind it. “I thought this guy could bat Murali out of the game. We knew how he could bat against Murali and he can take Murali apart. The Murali versus Yuvi would have been a different fight. Right-arm off-spinner versus left-handed batsman. But Dhoni was very confident that the guy he wanted to take out of the contest was Murali. He did so clinically well and the Sri Lankans had no answer to him. Dhoni hit to different parts of the hitting zones than any other in the team. His square cuts seldom went to point or deep point. His square cuts were like a slap that went to extra-cover. They could not believe how this guy was cutting. He particularly played those shots very well. There was a cricketing angle why he decided to go at No. 4, and he did it well."
And, Dhoni stayed till the end to see India home. But, earlier in the run chase, Gautam Gambhir played a majestic 97. Bhave recollected: “Chasing 275 was not easy. We all forget how brilliant Mahela Jayawardene was (103) was. But we outplayed them. Gambhir was outstanding in the final. You hardly realised when he crossed his fifty. He was such a deceptive player when he batted. Beautifully, he kept the tempo of the innings that allowed big players to explode anytime. He played with such angles that he always got four. Gambhir was a very astute cricketer, great timer of the ball, good thinker of the game. You win World Cups when you have many good thinkers of the game, and that team had so many of them."