Virender Sehwag, the man who lets his bat do the talking, opens up on his views on the World Cups gone by and why he does not want India to be termed favourites in this edition. Excerpts from the interview:
What is your best memory of the World Cup?
The first memory I have of is that of 1983. If you talk about my career, I think 2003 is the one that stands out as not only was it my first World Cup, we did extremely well and reached the final.
Any childhood memories?
It's every cricketer's dream to take part in a World Cup and to represent the team. I was glad I got an opportunity to play. The entire world watches you perform, and that thought was running through my mind.
How is a World Cup different from other ODI tournaments?
There is a major difference - it is the hype that surrounds the event. There are expectations, especially because it comes once every four years. The entire country expects you to win.
Does the pressure also grow?
Players don't know about pressure except through news and other forms of media. Expectations are surely there and therefore the pressure. But we have played enough cricket now that we don't allow pressure to get to us.
Since this one is being played at home, are expectations and the feel different from the previous two World Cups that you played?
We were playing outside our country in the last two WCs. We were not aware of what was happening back home. Till we were actually there, there was not too much hype. Once we reached though, it felt like the WC was on us. This time though, everything is related to the World Cup. From commercials and advertisements to media shows, everything is related to the tournament. So it seems like the hype is far greater. But that does not mean pressure is far more, though the expectations of people are high.
What about expectations increasing the pressure?
Even in the 1996 World Cup, which was held in India, there was a lot of pressure. It is all right. We just want to play good cricket and give our 100 per cent on the field. The best way to handle pressure is to tell yourself that 'I will give my best'. The expectations that are there from me I need to fulfill them. I don't know if I can actually perform 100 per cent each time, but I just want to tell myself before I sleep each night that I will give my 100 per cent.
What was the mood in the team going into the 2003 WC, especially after India had done badly on the tour of New Zealand?
The expectations from the team were low. I personally think it is only when expectations are less that a team performs at its best. Even now, everyone is saying we are the favourites, but I don't think like that. In fact, every time a team is called a favourite in a World Cup it does not do well. I would say we have a very good combination in batting and bowling and I hope both click.
You mean to say that the favourites' tag does more harm than good?
Absolutely. It is perhaps superstition but look at the past. South Africa were favourites in 2003, in 1996 India and Pakistan were tipped to win. It has been difficult for a team whenever it has been called a favourite.
What were the other reasons for the outstanding 2003 performance?
We played collectively as a unit. Since expectations were not much, we wanted to prove our abilities. The same happened in the 2007 T20 WC. No one gave much chance to MS Dhoni as he was the new skipper but we won the final. We had one objective, that we are a good team and would perform to the best of our abilities.
What happened in the 2003 final?
Australia played better than us. Their batting was better and to chase a huge target is always difficult, especially in a final.
Was putting in Australia in the final a mistake?
I think the captain's decision to bowl was good as he must have had a plan after looking at the wicket. Any captain would have done that and Ricky Ponting also said he would have bowled first.
Did the bowlers let us down?
I think they bowled well throughout the series. There are two ways of looking at each aspect. One is that we didn't do well and the other is that we performed very well. I think in that match, we played well but Australia played better.
You must have been pleased at your performance in the match?
I was lucky to score in that match. But a target of 360 was a lot. We tried to score quickly as there was a possibility of rain as well. Overall, I think 2003 was alright for me but it was important for me to score in the final.
Your views on the 2007 debacle?
It happens as ups and downs are part of sport. We were ousted in the first round but so were Pakistan. A solid team can bow out but the tournament was a bad time for all of us. It would be better not to talk about it.
Was there insecurity amongst the players as no one was sure of his batting order and you too had been in and out of the team?
Not at all, we were well prepared. A lot depended on a player's form, and yes, I wasn't in great form in the run up to the event. It was a bad time for all of us.
Do you think your explosive batting in the Tests hasn't been replicated in ODIs?
I am happy with my ODI batting record though some people do question certain aspects of it. I do not know who sets the standards, but for me, as long as my skipper and team are happy with my ability, I am happy. To compare both forms of the game in terms of averages is not important. For me, it is important to give the team a good start, even if I score a 40 or a 50. If that happens in quick time and helps set up a good platform for others, I have done my job as an opener.
My style of play is one of my strengths. I play with a positive mind and play my strokes freely.
Sometimes I play too many shots which result in mistakes that I would otherwise not make. If I can control that, it should work for me. In the last few years I have taken lesser risks, but my strike rate still has been good.
As an aggressive batsman, how can you avoid taking risks? How do you strike a balance?
If shot selection improves, your game gets better automatically. I have tried to improve my shot selection, which means I need to take fewer risks. This is what I try consciously, and in the process contribute to the team as well.
Why is coach Gary Kirsten praised by all of you so much?
He backs the players and gives us the opportunity to play according to our strengths. The atmosphere in the dressing room is excellent and as a result even in tense situations we are not under pressure. He is a good man-manager as well and assures each player that he will get chances to prove himself. His talk is always encouraging. He talks a lot more to players who are struggling than the ones who are doing well.
How would you rate this India team?
As I said, we have a well-balanced team, though batting is definitely our main strength. But our bowling too has depth. We have the experience of Zaheer Khan and Harbhajan Singh, as well as Ashish Nehra. They are well supported by Munaf Patel and Praveen Kumar, not to forget the support that comes from the part-time bowlers.
What would you want to tell Indian fans, who always show extreme reaction, like during the 2003 World Cup when we started badly?
They should understand the spirit in which a game is played. In sport, winning or losing is given, but if fans support us and encourage us when we are down, we can give a better performance in the matches to come. If a player is playing badly, burning his effigy or condemning him will not improve his performance. In India, cricket is a religion and my request to the fans is to understand that cricket too is a sport, and a player will have good and bad days.