Bengaluru, April 2: Mahendra Singh Dhoni. Gautam Gambhir. You will not see two more contradicting characters on and off the field. Dhoni is calm and hardly let the world know of his emotions. Gambhir wears heart on his sleeve and does not mind engaging with his opponents on the field and these days on Twitter. Check with Shahid Afridi, his old foe.
But nine years ago, on a sultry Mumbai night they joined forces to take India to triumph in the ICC 50-over World Cup after 28 years. When India won the World Cup in 1983 under Kapil Dev, it was the bull run of the underdogs against the then mighty West Indies. A sporting miracle in the proportions of Miracle of Belo Horizante.
But the 2011 World Cup was different. It was staged in the sub-continent, and India played their all but one match at home. And by then, India had long established themselves as one of the leading cricketing nations on the field, and off the field a financial superpower. So, the fans wished for nothing less than a title.
The heightened expectations and the tag of favourites can sometimes derail a team. But India benefitted immensely from having a cool-headed Dhoni at the helm. Coach Gary Kirsten worked tirelessly with his support staff, ensuring the team stayed together and in top shape. The tag of favourites for once was not seen as a burden but as a motivation.
The steely determination of the Indian team came to the fore in the quarterfinal against then defending champions Australia. The Aussies under Ricky Ponting was undefeated across three World Cups - 1999, 2003 and 2007 and the most dominant cricketing force the world has seen. Ricky Ponting made a hundred as Australia notched up a challenging 260 but with Sachin Tendulkar, Gautam Gambhir and Yuvraj Singh making fifties and Suresh Raina made a quick unbeaten 34 as India raced past them at Ahmedabad.
India tamed Pakistan in a high-voltage semi-final at Mohali to set up the final with Sri Lanka at the Wankehde. Mahela Jayawardene unfurled a sublime hundred to power the Lankans, the finalists of the 2007 edition, to 274/6. Now that total is quite massive in a final. India were definitely on the backfoot when they began the chase.
In Lasith Malinga, Muttiah Muralitharan, Thissara Perera and Nuwan Kulasekara, Lankans had a set of bowlers who can contain any opposition. Malinga fired an early warning when he trapped Virender Sehwag leg before in the first over itself. Tendulkar too did not make a significant contribution.
But Dhoni and Gambhir decided to plough a road ahead together. Unlike their personality, the essence of their batting is quite similar - take singles and twos and punish the freebies when they come their way. The approach may look quite ugly but vastly effective as it allowed them to collect runs devoid of risk and India always stayed within the vicinity of the asking rate.
It was the second time Gambhir played a pivotal innings in a World Cup final after his fifty against Pakistan in the ICC World T20 title clash against Pakistan in 2007. A hundred there was for his taking at the Wankhede but a rather causal shot against Perera ended his vigil at 97.
India needed a further 54 runs at that stage but Dhoni, who promoted himself to No 5, despite being in considerable physical discomfort guided India past the target in the company of Yuvraj Singh. It was quite apt that Dhoni hammered the winning six off Kulasekara deep into the long-on stand and Yuvraj witnessed it from the other end.
The final, in fact, was the coming together of three most important players India had in that World Cup - Dhoni, Yuvraj, later adjudged player of the tournament, and Gambhir. The cricketing action ended with that immense shot but the night did not.
Team members partied hard, the Mumbai crowd never slept as they turned Marine Drive into a big party place. It was a night unlike any other. Magical. And the memories are still magical.