Editor’s note: This article was originally published in the build-up to 2019 World Cup as Moment No 1 in our countdown of the greatest moments in the tournament’s history. You can read the entire series here.
Moment No 1
Political ideologies, religions, languages, and a vibrant young population can form the spine of a well-run democracy. Independent India has had a few moments that brought about a collective euphoria across the length and breath of the country and one of them was MS Dhoni’s six over long-on.
From Mumbai to Kolkata, Delhi to Chennai, hordes of delirious fans were seen waving flags, painting their faces with the tri-colour, and serenading the team with chants. There were people dancing on top of cars. Grown men and women could be seen shedding tears of joy.
India had reached the promised land and the World Cup crown came back home after a gap of 28 years, in case you missed Ravi Shastri booming voice-over after the ball left Dhoni’s bat.
Before the tournament began, there were many sub-plots which were discussed among fans and pundits alike. India were playing the final on home soil, and had to achieve something that no team had managed till then in the tournament’s history – the country hosting the summit event had never reached there, leave alone win it.
Batting legend Sachin Tendulkar, despite coming agonisingly close on a couple of occasions, had not won it. Apart from Tendulkar, the team comprised of many a modern day Indian great in Virender Sehwag, Gautam Gambhir, Yuvraj Singh, Harbhajan Singh and Zaheer Khan. Under familiar conditions, the Men in Blue had the team to go all the way.
Moreover, after the ignominy of the 2007 World Cup, where the team crashed out of the group stages, there were scores to settle. Under Dhoni, India had already become a limited-overs side to reckon with. The starting point was the stunning World T20 win in 2007.
Change in mentality, change in guard
India were the nearly-men in the finals at the time, excluding the World T20 final. The then India coach Gary Kirsten, in a recent interview, said that he came into the setup with an eye on changing that infamous record. In 2003, a young Indian team wore the look of deer caught in headlights against a rampant Australia side in the final. Eight years on, the same core was older, and a lot more composed.
“It is dangerous to look at World Cups as fairytales,” Kirsten said. “The external environment [the Indian public] was all over it. Inside the dressing room, we played it down. It was a big dream for Sachin [Tendulkar]. I asked [Explorer and motivational speaker] Mike Horn to talk. We had a fantastic 40 minutes...never talked about the game; we had played Sri Lanka so many times.
“We had reached the final so many times before that but couldn’t go past the finish line.”
The former South African opener also shed light on the shuffle in the batting order during the final. After Virat Kohli was dismissed, Dhoni walked in at No 5 ahead of Yuvraj Singh. It has been well documented that the team management were looking for a left-right combination in the middle with Gambhir going strong at the other end.
“I always liked him [Dhoni] to finish games and he was the best in the world at it,” Kirsten said. “I could see it in his eyes. He wanted to go and finish games. I wanted a left-hand, right-hand combination against Sri Lanka spin legend [Muttiah] Muralitharan.
“We are not playing that well and winning. The final from a batting perspective was....we had too many good players.”
‘Ten months of ecstasy’
“When Dhoni hit that six, it was ten months of ecstasy packed into four minutes,” mental conditioning coach Paddy Upton told Scroll.in in a recent interview. Tendulkar didn’t even move from his seat and couldn’t bear to watch the final hour of the game.
The battle lines were drawn and it was Muralitharan and Lasith Malinga against Dhoni. The latter had taken Sri Lanka off to a dream start after picking up openers Tendulkar and Sehwag. The India captain drove and pulled with authority, punishing anything that was in his hitting arc. The power that Dhoni could generate with his bottom hand was peerless.
Sri Lanka comfortably came out second best towards the end. India were in World Cup mode for a while. There was stability across departments. Dhoni decorated the moment with another effortless big-hit.
And, of course, he finished it off in style.