Unspeakable horror (if you're Sri Lankan): Dhoni finishes the 2011 World Cup final

The six that launched a billion celebrations


I Was There

'I wanted to hug him and hit him at the same time till he confirmed we'd won the World Cup'

Ten years on from India's last World Cup win, the tournament's key players look back on that journey to the final

Interviews by Hemant Brar  |  

Ten years ago, on April 2, 2011, MS Dhoni's iconic six against Sri Lanka in Mumbai led to nation-wide celebrations as India lifted the ODI World Cup trophy 28 years after they won it first. Sachin Tendulkar, who was appearing in his sixth World Cup, finally fulfilled his ultimate dream. Yuvraj Singh battled cancer to be the Player of the Tournament. Virender Sehwag, Gautam Gambhir and Zaheer Khan all played key roles.

Up until then, no men's team had won the World Cup at home. The team management realised if India were to do so, the pressure of playing at home was one of the biggest obstacles they needed to overcome. So they started preparing the team mentally for what lay ahead.

Paddy Upton, India's mental conditioning and strategic leadership coach: Every single team meeting we had, literally for ten months in the lead up to the final, we would use the language when we play in the final. So in the players' mind, it wasn't if we play the final, it was when we play the final. So they were so conditioned to expect to play in the final.

To put that pressure into perspective, Upton arranged for Mike Horn, the high-altitude climber and Arctic explorer, to speak to the side before the tournament and during the knockout stages.

Upton: For the Indian players, playing international cricket was almost the most difficult thing they had ever done or could ever imagine. When they listened to Mike Horn speak, they realised their challenges were fairly small in comparison to what Mike had to face. It gave them the perspective that although their pressure to them was the maximum, they realised cricket is not maximum pressure; it's actually quite low pressure.

While the players were getting ready mentally, Upton was practising Al Pacino's speech to his team in Any Given Sunday to motivate the players before the final. But first, there was a more immediate issue to tackle.

Paddy Upton (first from left) gives the Indian team one of many pep talks in the lead-up to the World Cup

Paddy Upton (first from left) gives the Indian team one of many pep talks in the lead-up to the World Cup © AFP

Before the start of the World Cup, Singh was struggling with form and fitness, and despite working on them, something wasn't clicking. A word with Tendulkar helped him sort it out.

Yuvraj Singh, India allrounder: Before this most important event of my life he [Tendulkar] tried to get me to relax, to turn the World Cup into a simple mission: "Play the tournament for someone you love or respect, or for someone who is special and has played a huge role in your life. Play it for someone you think you owe something to. Make the World Cup part of that debt that you have to fulfil." As he was saying this, I told myself that I will play this World Cup for you, you who I spent my childhood watching, you who I've grown up watching.

I got hold of a picture of Sachin on-driving a ball from my one-day debut in 2000 in Nairobi and I pasted it on my coffin - we call our kit bags our coffins. Next to it I stuck a picture of me playing a similar shot. Every time I opened the bag to get my kit, I was reminded who I was playing this World Cup for.

India's first match was against Bangladesh, who had caused their early exit from the 2007 World Cup. Here, Sehwag smashed the first ball of the match for four and went on to score 175. The result was all but decided after India posted 370 for 4.

Upton: The team that had lost against Bangladesh was probably in that ten-year period the lowest the Indian team had ever been. [India coach] Gary Kirsten and I, by that stage, had three years to work on lifting that team, from 2008. And by 2011, it was probably the healthiest, the happiest and the strongest the Indian team had been for ten years. We knew we were a completely different team.

Andrew Strauss' highest ever ODI score almost took England all the way in their tied game against India

Andrew Strauss' highest ever ODI score almost took England all the way in their tied game against India © Getty Images

Next up were England. Tendulkar's 120 hauled India to 338, but the game was far from over. England needed 67 in the last ten overs, with Andrew Strauss and Ian Bell well set and the batting powerplay in hand.

Sachin Tendulkar, India opener: Andrew Strauss played one of his best ever one-day innings, making 158, and he almost took England to victory before Zaheer pulled it back for us with a superb second spell, taking three wickets for just 11. The match finally ended in a tie, and it was a terrific advertisement for the game.

India won their next two matches - against Ireland and Netherlands - although not in as dominant a fashion as they would have liked. Those games helped Singh figure out how he wanted to bat in the tournament.

Singh: That innings against Ireland [50 not out] probably was a highlight for me. It defined my World Cup performances as before and after. After this match, no matter how tough the situation was, I did not try to hit my way out of trouble. Instead I tried to fight it, play the game the way dad wanted me to play my cricket - along the ground, not in the air, carving an innings out of nothing with the mere threat that I could go big.

Upton: Yuvraj was a confidence player. The more he did well, the better he felt and the more it set him up to keep doing well. So from his good results from early on, he was able to just build on that confidence as the tournament went on.

India's only defeat in the tournament came against South Africa, whom Robin Petersen took home in the last over

India's only defeat in the tournament came against South Africa, whom Robin Petersen took home in the last over © Getty Images

Against South Africa, Tendulkar scored another magnificent hundred, but with the fall of his wicket, India went on to lose nine for 29 runs. Set 297 to win, South Africa needed 13 from the final over. Robin Peterson hit Ashish Nehra for 4, 6, 2 and 4 to take them home with two balls and three wickets to spare.

Upton: It was mixed emotions. One was obviously the disappointment of losing, but from a leadership perspective, we felt that it was probably a good thing that we lost, because losing always brings humility. It also forced us to look even more closely at all areas.

Since South Africa were a really strong team at that World Cup, we felt if we were to meet them in the knockouts, all the expectations would have been on them to beat us again. That would have played in our favour as South Africa have struggled with pressure [in the past]. It put India in a better position to beat them, which I have no doubt we would have done if we had met them again.

Batting first in Chennai, Singh made a century that ensured India managed a competitive 268 against West Indies in the last league match.

Singh: The match had to be stopped a few times because I was throwing up. My mates would look at me anxiously during the innings as I kept vomiting. Standing there at one point I felt a bit dizzy until umpire Simon Taufel, for whom I have a lot of respect, asked me, "Are you ok, mate? Do you want to go off?" His question made everything fall into place. Things became sharp and clear then: I knew I was in a happy batting place.

I told Simon, "No, boss, I ain't going out. I am nearing 100 after two years, so if I fall and collapse you can take me to the hospital. But until then, I'm not going out or going off. If I get out, I get out. Until then, I am staying."

Umpire Steve Davis checks on a dehydrated and heat-exhausted Yuvraj Singh during India's game against West Indies in Chennai

Umpire Steve Davis checks on a dehydrated and heat-exhausted Yuvraj Singh during India's game against West Indies in Chennai © Getty Images

In response, West Indies were cruising at 154 for 2 when Khan's new variation, the knuckleball, bowled Devon Smith and triggered a collapse. West Indies lost their last eight wickets for 34 runs to hand India an 80-run win.

That meant India were to meet Australia, the three-time defending champions, in the quarter-final. Australia were coming off a loss to Pakistan - their first in World Cups since 1999.

Gautam Gambhir, India batsman: I always believed that if you want to win big tournaments, you have to beat Australia, especially in the knockout stage. For me, Australia was the final. Somewhere deep inside I knew that if we could beat Australia, we would be able to beat Pakistan [in the semis].

Michael Hussey, Australia batsman: We were obviously disappointed to lose to Pakistan but the first goal was to get into the quarter-finals. We got over it pretty quickly and focused on playing India in that quarter-final. Looking back, our team wasn't as strong as it had been in the past. When you lose the likes of [Adam] Gilchrist, [Glenn] McGrath, obviously the new team isn't going to be as strong.

While this wasn't the all-conquering, invincible Australian side of the past, they were still formidable opponents. After winning the toss, Ricky Ponting led the charge with a 118-ball 104.

Hussey: I thought it was an outstanding innings because the conditions weren't perfect for batting. The pitch had deteriorated quite a bit as the innings wore on. Plus, it was a huge pressure situation. It was the World Cup quarter-final against India, he was the captain of the team, so it was a pretty amazing innings really. I think my brother [David] contributed a little bit at the end but there were not a lot of other big contributors throughout the innings.

Zaheer Khan deployed his lethal new weapon, the knuckleball, against a hapless Michael Hussey in the quarter-final

Zaheer Khan deployed his lethal new weapon, the knuckleball, against a hapless Michael Hussey in the quarter-final © Associated Press

Australia finished with 260 for 6. Hussey, meanwhile, became yet another victim of Khan's knuckleball.

Hussey: We had seen that ball before, but the one that got me out felt like an offcutter. It almost spun back in through the gate. It was a good ball, and unfortunately you get that sometimes. But we were pretty confident after our innings. I thought we had a pretty competitive score on the board because the pitch was slow and turning quite a lot.

Gary Kirsten, India coach: Our fielding against Australia was really surprising. We said to the guys in the team meeting afterwards that that was the best fielding performance I had seen in the three years I had been with them. I had never seen us field like that, and we took it through the games after that.

India started their chase positively, with Tendulkar and Gambhir scoring half-centuries.

Hussey: The pitch was deteriorating, but the way the Indians, and particularly Gambhir, played the spin was just outstanding.

Gambhir was run out after a misunderstanding with Singh. Dhoni too fell soon after, with India requiring 74 from 75 balls and five wickets down. Suresh Raina stepped up and put on an unbeaten stand of 74 with Singh.

Kirsten: From the strategy point of view we had made the decision to get Raina into the team. It was a masterstroke because he added so much value to the fielding. Then he was a front-line No. 7 batsman and proved crucial in the quarter-final and semi-final. He made big contributions in both games. We were absolutely non-negotiable on seven batsmen. And he did a remarkable job.

Hear me roar: Yuvraj Singh exults after hitting the winning runs against Australia

Hear me roar: Yuvraj Singh exults after hitting the winning runs against Australia © Getty Images

Hussey: Yuvraj was having a golden tournament. He finished it off in style and ended our campaign. Getting knocked out of the World Cup, particularly when we had won the last three World Cups, was really disappointing.

Singh: As I finished the innings with a boundary, I collapsed onto my haunches and held up the bat, waving it left and right. It was like something that had been building up in me burst through.

I have seen photos of that moment where I am roaring like a freed beast. At one of the World Cup parties, my friend Farhan Akhtar told me that my face reminded him of an image of Cassius Clay standing over Sonny Liston. I checked out the photograph and, of course I wouldn't want to compare myself to the great Ali, but I guess we're both looking angry and relieved at the same time.

In the semi-final, India were up against Pakistan. For fans from both sides, this was perhaps an even bigger game than the final. "No point saying it will be a normal match," Singh said on the eve of the game. The feeling in the Pakistan camp was no different.

Wahab Riaz, Pakistan seamer: All India-Pakistan matches are high-pressure matches. The main reason for that is, we meet only in the World Cups, and otherwise don't play any bilateral series. So when it's an India-Pakistan game, fans expect that you have to win, there is no other way. The pressure was immense, but I love playing in those high-pressure games. I love that challenge.

Upton: One nice thing about playing Pakistan is, you never need to give the players the pep talk. They know what to do, they are hungry to win as they are for every game, but particularly knowing the fans' response.

Everyone has a stake in an India-Pakistan World Cup match

Everyone has a stake in an India-Pakistan World Cup match © Getty Images

Riaz: I didn't sleep for three nights before the game. We were all confined to our hotel rooms, and whenever we used to switch on the TV, it was always Sehwag would do this, Tendulkar would do this, Yuvraj could do that. Bowling to somebody like Sachin or Sehwag, there was a lot of pressure. So at night, I used to make plans for how I would bowl to them, whom I would get out in what manner.

Batting first, Sehwag got India off to a flier. He was severe on Umar Gul, hitting him for five fours in one over and the fast bowler leaked 33 in his first three overs. But Riaz dismissed Sehwag, and then Singh for a first-ball duck, on his way to a five-for.

Riaz: When your strike bowler gets hit, you definitely feel the pressure. I still remember when he [Gul] was getting hit, I was thinking I don't know what will happen to me. Then I told myself, if Gully bhai is having such a bad day, mine cannot be worse. So I thought I would stick to my strength and give my best.

I remember telling Abdur Rehman that if Yuvi is facing me and it's his first ball, I am going to bowl a yorker. You make plans all the time, but this one worked out exactly how I had imagined. Getting five wickets against India in India and that too in a World Cup semi-final was special, and the credit for that goes to Shoaib Akhtar. I was playing in his place and he backed me on the eve of the match and gave me the confidence that I could do it. As a senior player, the role he played was absolutely unforgettable for me.

Tendulkar, taking advantage of a controversial DRS reprieve and four dropped catches, scored 85 and took India to 260, the score Australia had posted against India in the quarter-final. Kamran Akmal and Mohammad Hafeez started the chase by adding 44 in nine overs but that turned out to be Pakistan's biggest stand of the match.

Wahab Riaz performs the sajda after picking up a five-for in the semi-final

Wahab Riaz performs the sajda after picking up a five-for in the semi-final © AFP

Riaz: When our openers were batting, we thought we had got off to a good start. Then we lost a couple of wickets, but we had another partnership and thought, "Now we will catch them." Unfortunately we couldn't do that. Someone needed to occupy one end. Misbah [-ul-Haq] tried his level best but unfortunately the result was not in Pakistan's favour.

India maintained their perfect record against Pakistan in World Cups. Meanwhile, Sri Lanka had already qualified for the final after beating New Zealand in the first semi-final. On the eve of the final, Upton was ready for his Al Pacino moment. But…

Upton: I never gave that speech. I knew the team was ready, so all I said to them was, "This final is like a Bollywood movie. We know exactly what our scripts are. We have the best actors. We are completely prepared for our roles. Tomorrow we only need to go out and perform those roles, to do what we know to do. And we will cross the line." So it was just a confirmation of what we already knew.

For the fans who packed the Wankhede, the final was no battle of mere mortals

For the fans who packed the Wankhede, the final was no battle of mere mortals © AFP

MS Dhoni, India captain: I still remember playing the Australia quarter-final. People thought that was the biggest game when it came to the World Cup. Then it was Pakistan in the semi-final. I remember travelling and people were like, "Win this game and we don't care about the final." As soon as we won the semi-final, it was like, "You have to win [the final] because it doesn't matter what you've done. If you don't win the final it won't be really nice." So I think there was pressure, which was the ultimate thing.

In the final, the toss happened twice. The Wankhede Stadium was so noisy that neither Dhoni nor match referee Jeff Crowe could hear Sri Lanka captain Kumar Sangakkara's call the first time. Sri Lanka won the second toss and opted to bat.

Khan started with three maidens - a stark contrast to the 2003 World Cup final, where he had gone for 15 in his opening over - and finished his first spell with figures of 5-3-6-1.

Upul Tharanga, Sri Lanka opener: Zaheer was always good against left-handers because he swung the ball both ways. There was a bit of help from the wicket but his line and length was exceptional. We had to assess the conditions because we hadn't played much at Wankhede Stadium. In the beginning, the wicket was a bit damp and the ball was not coming on to the bat. As a result, we struggled to play our shots.

Once the pitch eased out a bit, Mahela Jayawardene scored a sublime hundred as Sri Lanka put up a challenging 274.

Tharanga: Mahela was a big-match player. Even in the 2007 semi-final against New Zealand, he had got a big hundred. He had played a lot of cricket by then and knew what needed to be done in the middle. He could read the game very well, but the main thing was his mental strength. He really focused on the game and what the team needed from him.

Lasith Malinga silenced the 43,000-strong crowd at the Wankede by removing Virender Sehwag and Sachin Tendulkar in quick succession

Lasith Malinga silenced the 43,000-strong crowd at the Wankede by removing Virender Sehwag and Sachin Tendulkar in quick succession © AFP

Lasith Malinga then removed Sehwag and Tendulkar early to put India on the back foot.

Tharanga: During the World Cup, Sachin and Sehwag had scored really well. You know how the Indian crowds are, they were shouting "Sachin, Sachin" and "Sehwag, Sehwag". When we got those two out, the whole ground went silent. There was nothing at all. The momentum was on our side.

Gambhir: It didn't bother me one bit that we were two down for 20-odd [31]. Obviously it was a tough situation, but I wasn't thinking that we had lost two openers. I was pretty confident that we were going to win the World Cup if I stayed till the end.

Gambhir and Virat Kohli stabilised the innings by adding 83 for the third wicket before Kohli fell for 35. Dhoni walked in, ahead of the in-form Singh.

Gambhir: When you are in the middle and batting, you are only thinking about how to play till the end and chase down the total. So it really doesn't matter who is walking in. But yes, MS did and he did the job.

Gambhir and Dhoni took the game away from Sri Lanka with their stand of 109 in 118 balls.

Tharanga: We were playing two spinners [Muttiah Muralitharan and Suraj Randiv]. But Gambhir and Dhoni kept chipping away. During their partnership, they kept scoring boundaries every other over. The dew also came in after ten to 15 overs, so the spinners had the disadvantage as they couldn't hold the ball properly.

Gautam Gambhir:

Gautam Gambhir: "Scoring 97 and being on the winning side is always better than a hundred" © AFP

Upton: Gambhir and Dhoni were probably the best high-pressure players in the team, so it played out perfectly. Gambhir was always a great team man and always a great contributor when the pressure was on. He was batting after Sehwag, who was one of the most exciting batsmen in the world, and Tendulkar, who was one of the most loved batsmen in the world. Gambhir was not a pretty batsman, but he was gritty. His contributions really helped to get us to the final and win it.

We knew when it really counted, Dhoni was going to be the best person to deliver the result, and he did exactly that.

Tharanga: During that World Cup, we were depending on our spinners to take wickets in the middle period. But in the final, they couldn't do it. Murali, I think, didn't take any wickets. The Indians, especially Gambhir and Dhoni, batted really well against our spinners.

Gambhir fell for 97 but his knock had put India ahead.

Gambhir: One good thing was that in a country that is obsessed with hundreds, people [do] remember [that] 97 as well. I personally feel that hundreds really don't matter. If someone would have asked me a night before if I would rather be in Mahela's position [with a hundred], I would have hands down taken the position I was in, because Mahela got a hundred and no one ever spoke about it. So 97 and being on the winning side is always better than a hundred.

Dhoni and Singh took India home. In the 49th over, with four needed to win, Dhoni hit Nuwan Kulasekara for a six down the ground and a nation rejoiced.

Singh: I thought I would just explode. I went mad and I wanted to hug him and hit him at the same time and keep doing so till he confirmed to me that this was it. That we had won the World Cup.

For Gary Kirsten, the World Cup win was three years in the making

For Gary Kirsten, the World Cup win was three years in the making © Getty Images

Upton: It was euphoria. Complete euphoria. Gary and I had written that goal down in March 2008, that we wanted to be part of the 2011 World Cup-winning team. For three years we worked towards that goal every single day, thinking about it and planning how to get there.

Dhoni: Most of the people [in the] side wanted to win the World Cup, and as soon as we got into a position where we saw the World Cup coming into our dressing room, emotions started to flow. If you look, before the post-match presentation, almost every player cried…

I was controlling [myself]. I wanted to quickly go up to the dressing room, and I saw two of my players crying and running to me. All of a sudden, I started crying, and I looked up and there was a huddle around me. It just so happened that you don't have footage of it - you just see me coming up and doing that (wipes his eye). And each and every one cried.

Tendulkar: At first it was difficult to take in that we had won the World Cup. It was almost as if there was still a match left in the tournament. But when I ran onto the ground and embraced an emotional Yuvi, it was impossible to control my emotions. It was one of those life-changing moments and we wanted to live each and every second of it.

Life, to be honest, seemed complete. It was the greatest moment of my cricketing journey. It felt astonishing. It was a kind of satisfaction I had never experienced before. Cricket's greatest prize was finally ours.

Yuvraj Singh's quotes are from The Test of My Life: From Cricket to Cancer and Back (Ebury Press, 2013); Sachin Tendulkar's from Playing It My Way (Hachette India, 2014); Gautam Gambhir's from an interview with the Quint (2017); Dhoni's from an interview with CNN-IBN in 2011; and Gary Kirsten's from an interview with ESPNcricinfo immediately after the 2011 World Cup. Some quotes have been edited for brevity and clarity

Hemant Brar is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo