It was the biggest night of Indian cricket - the World Cup at home, the team playing the final in front of a packed Wankhede Stadium in Mumbai. Chasing 275 to win, the pressure was on India. Sri Lanka had the perfect start by getting Sachin Tendulkar and Virender Sehwag early. It was time for someone to raise his hand and take charge.
Gautam Gambhir rose to the challenge, soaking in all the early pressure and set India on to the victory path with a priceless 97. He stitched together a 109-run stand with skipper MS Dhoni for the fourth wicket that helped India win their second World Cup.
Four years on, the left-handed batsman is not part of the squad anymore. But overriding Gambhir's personal disappointment, there is a strong sense of optimism that the Delhi and KKR skipper has around this young squad to defend the title.
Excerpts:World Cup time again, should bring pleasant memories of 2011...
What made it possible?
No journey can begin minus selfbelief. I think this attribute was in abundance in that dressing room. We knew we could do it. People would say that we were the favourites playing in India but being the host country the pressure was on. After self-belief came the importance of the team fabric. The core group of that team like Viru (Sehwag), Sachin paaji (Tendulkar), Yuvi (Singh), (MS) Dhoni, Zaheer (Khan), Harbhajan (Singh) and myself were playing with each other for quite some time. Consistency in personnel always helps any team's atmosphere. The glue of that team was coach Gary Kirsten. He managed personalities, mood swings, egos, stubbornness and a lot more. His role was extremely important. Apart from him we had excellent support staff, specialised coaches to masseurs; from yoga instructors to logistics people. In all, it was a happy dressing room.
How did the team cope with the pressure of playing at home?
Yes, the pressure was on but it's about perception. It is about how you internalise the expectations of fans, media, families and then take the hype in your stride. Personally, I absorbed all of it and made it a point to enjoy every moment of what was happening off the field. I remember for our first game we were in Bangladesh. On the match eve, it took us close to two hours to reach the team hotel from the stadium in Dhaka. On a normal day it takes 20 minutes, but there were so many people on the streets just to catch a glimpse of the cricketers, that our bus could hardly move. Now, either you get intimated by seeing thousands of people around your bus or feel like a responsible superstar. I think our team chose the latter and enjoyed every moment of it.
No home team had won it...
Yeah, that is true but that was only a statistic, something that never bothered us.
Your innings in the final set up India's chase. How do you look back at the knock?
I try not to look back as it's a job done and I moved on from that the very next day. As a sportsperson there are very limited opportunities when your performance can touch the heart of each and every Indian. Around that time I did well in New Zealand, South Africa…was voted the ICC Test player of the year, but I think those 97 runs in the World Cup final went past all of that and affected each and every Indian.
I am waiting for the day when my daughter Aazeen, who is only 8 months now, grows up and watches the highlights of the final. I am waiting for her reaction. I hope she feels Papa did her proud too!
You must have heard about 1983 Lord's, what was different about Wankhede 2011?
I think 1983 triumph was like Mr Dilip Kumar or Mr Amitabh Bachchan setting the acting template. Our win in 2011 was akin to present day actors following that path and somewhat raising the bar. To me 1983 gave India as a nation an identity. It happened 36 years after independence and on English soil. I was only two years old then but my father and uncles tell me that it gave immense satisfaction to people of their generation.
Wankhede came at a different time. I think it told the world that India was not only about scams, atrocities on women or farmer suicides but the young India is restless… restless to do well… like our team did that night.
1983 changed the entire dynamics of Indian cricket, what is the impact of 2011?
Like I said, it told the world that we are a proud sporting nation. Besides, I think that win and playing in the IPL has made the young Indian cricketer a fearless lot. You look at the way Virat Kohli approached the first Test match in Australia. He single-handedly almost won India that game. It is hard to imagine any young, inexperienced team even contemplating chasing 364 runs to win a Test but they were doing it. It is wins at big stages like World Cup that gave confidence to players like Virat that they can achieve bigger goals.
Will playing in Australia be a bigger challenge?
I don't think so. I think except when you are playing in England or New Zealand where the ball swings and seams, everywhere else Indian cricketers feel at ease. Even during the Test series we saw the wickets were extremely flat. So I am expecting nothing different during the World Cup. Besides, conditions become irrelevant beyond a point in a big tournament like the World Cup.
Compared to 2011, we have a less experienced team and bowling is a worry?
Yes, the team is light on international experience but the temperament of these boys has been tested in pressure situations in the months leading into the World Cup. Look at someone like Ajinkya Rahane. He has scored everywhere be it England or Australia. This might be his first World Cup but all these details are for the outside world. A player only looks at it as another game. Apart from that, I am sure the experience of handling pressure situations in IPL will also help the youngsters. Look, I am an eternal optimist and I think when the tournament begins, it will be about who does well on the day.
Apart from conditions, what will be the challenge for India?
Australia is a great place to play cricket. Good wickets, fast outfields, people may seem to hate you but they appreciate a good competitor. We have all grown up listening to stories of how Sachin paaji won the hearts of Aussie public through his batting and approach. These boys individually and collectively know that a good outing in Australia is a huge feather in the cap.
Handling the expectations of defending champions is not easy?
...no this doesn't apply here as it is a new-look team. Only Dhoni, Virat, R Ashwin and Suresh Raina are there from 2011. I don't think today's youngsters fear anything. This generation is extremely confident. They know that they have it in them to take on the world. I like the approach of the young Indian society where they want to take things head on.
They will be on the road for four months now, what do teams do to stay fresh?
A happy dressing room is essential. It's all about managing the human resources, keeping them focused. Gary Kirsten did that really well during the 2011 World Cup. It is now up to Duncan Fletcher and his team of support staff to do that. Apart from that, it is up to the individual. Some players like me like to stay competitive while some of the others may just need to do things off field to stay fresh.
What are the strong areas?
The biggest factor is that this team is without any baggage. They are not carrying any scars of previous poor outings of Australia. Yes, they lost the Test series but all that won't matter in the World Cup. I think it is the ability to stay in the present. The confidence of young players is the strengths of this team.