What is the difference between going into a World Cup as a player and later as a captain?
Playing and captaining a side in the same tournament is a different ball game, especially something like the World Cup. In 1999, it was about playing my own game; I was trying to create an impression as a player and did very well. The 2003 World Cup, which is among the best memories of my life, was different even though I had been a captain for three years and was used to being in the leadership role.
Is captaining in a World Cup far more difficult because of the pressure of expectations?
Of course, it is difficult but not necessarily because of pressure. I believe pressure is what you bring on to yourself. I didn't bring any pressure on myself. I always thought of a playing as an opportunity... rather than something that brought on pressure. I have always looked at life and sports that way.
There was backlash at India's bad performance initially in the 2003 World Cup, so much so that you asked Sachin to hold a press conference to appeal to Indians not to react in that manner?
No, in fact Sachin wanted to do it himself. They were attacking players' houses and cars at home - like it happened with Kaif and Yuvraj - and the attacks were personal. We did decide in the team meeting that we should make some kind of a statement and Sachin volunteered to do so.
What kind of pressure does this sort of reaction create on the team?
It does create pressure. But with Indian cricket I have observed that we do well when faced with adversity.
I think even now the team does well under pressure. I am not sure but I think that sort of a reaction became a blessing in disguise for us as everyone looked to stand up and be counted and that did make a difference.
As a cricketer, do you think such extreme reactions should happen?
No, no I don't think so. Even in recent press conferences I have said that for someone who has been part of this team I can say with authority that this is the best team for India even if they don't win the Cup. I feel this is the right way and I wish them luck and since it is being played at home, I hope it is the best World Cup ever held.
Tell us about the 2003 final which the team lost badly?
We didn't lose badly. We managed to score 234 to Australia's 359. We felt bad that we allowed them to score so much.
In hindsight, what went wrong?
We could've bowled better. The pitch was assisting seamers.
There was a lot of controversy over your decision to ask Australia bat first.
I don't think asking them to bat first was wrong. In hindsight you can always say so, but it was a damp wicket and the match began late because there was seepage under the covers and there was movement early on. But, we bowled short on that pitch.
The decision, I feel, was the right one and I had to take it straightaway. It is always easier to look back and think of what could have been the right decision.
In the present WC team there are a lot of youngsters brimming with talent, how does it compare with the 2003 team?
We were young too. Sachin, Rahul and me were 29 and then there were players like Yuvraj and Zaheer who were 22-23. It's the same kind of age ratio in this team as well.
Dhoni started his career under you. Did you spot something in him that implied that one day he could become a special leader?
At that stage I didn't think of him as a leader. He had just come into international cricket and was making a mark for himself.
In 2004-2005, what I saw in him as a player was his match-winning ability. I had always believed in those sort of players and that is why I backed players like Sehwag and Yuvraj, Zaheer and Harbhajan.
They may fail at times but on their day, when they are in their element, they can script a win as well. Dhoni had that spark and he showed it in his fifth game where he scored 148 batting against Pakistan at Vizag. I decided on the morning of the game that he would bat at number 3.
You had not conveyed to him earlier that he would bat at No. 3?
No, no. I told him after winning the toss.
Wasn't he surprised?
I told him go out there, and since the wicket was good, I advised him to bat freely. His body language didn't show any surprise. In fact he appeared very pleased. I had seen him bat as an opener in the Challenger Trophy before in which he had played for my team and there he had opened against Zaheer and Nehra. He not only scored a century, but completely smashed them. So I knew he had the ability.
Let me take you back to the disastrous 2007 World Cup for India. What happened?
I think the team lacked confidence in 2007. There were a lot of things weighing heavy on their minds. Players were coming in and going out of the squad and that created uncertainty. That is why I believe India will do well in this World Cup as unlike then, we have a settled team, are in a good frame of mind and have performed consistently well.
Do you think 2007 with Greg Chappell as coach is a classic example of how not to handle a team?
I really don't want to go into that now. There were various issues; someone like me came into the team just a tournament before the WC. Sehwag was in and out of the side throughout the year. Same was the case with Zaheer. He just about managed to get selected at the last moment. In short there was a lot of insecurity within the team. Also, we were talking about the World Cup for almost one and half years in advance. We were deliberating too much on it. I think we should treat it like any other important tournament, otherwise it puts a lot of pressure on the players and that is not correct.
Do you think India, because it is playing at home, will be under severe pressure?
Yes there will be a lot of pressure - that is bound to happen. But you have to deal with it. There is no choice. The players should accept this fact and get on with it. Since we are playing at home, everyone right from housekeepers to the Prime Minister of the country would expect them to win. And they will not keep it a secret. The players should realise they all are doing it out of love and affection. My advise to them is to just accept it and go out there and give it their best possible shot.
If you were the captain going into this world Cup what will be your strategy?
I would tell the players to play freely. Bowling and fielding in these conditions will need to be good. India has a strong batting line-up and chasing 300 plus scores on these wickets would not be a problem as batting is our main strength. This will be the first World Cup for many players and the last for a few, so they should all go out and enjoy.
What worries you about this team?
I feel that the bowlers need to perform well, especially the fast bowlers. Zaheer will need to look after himself. The team will also have to look after him. The bowlers will come under severe pressure so they need to be not just physically but mentally also free from any strain.
What makes coach Gary Kirsten so important?
I think he is a good man manager and treats the players as friends and not like a coach. He understands the mindset of the players and over a period of time has gained their trust.
What qualities have made Dhoni click as a captain?
I think he backs his players and gives them opportunities consistently, which is very important. He takes risks, which is also crucial for a captain. As a skipper you cannot just do things in the typical stereotyped manner. And he also has got a very good team. There is no doubt about that, and that is the reason why India are favourites for this World Cup.
Since he is playing all forms of the game non-stop, shouldn't we worry about his fitness?
He is young and has been around for 4-5 years, so he should play everything. Things change very quickly in Indian cricket. I know it is hard but my advise to him would be keep going as the life-span of a sportsperson is short.
At the same time yes, we should keep our fingers crossed and hope he remains fit, especially as we have gone into the World Cup without a second keeper.