The heart stills thumps with excitement and the mind lingers in magic. You continue to hear echoes of the roar that went up when S. Sreesanth made the final touch to the cricket ball, for the second time in two matches against Pakistan, in the ICC World Twenty20 tournament. In the earlier game he ran out Misbah-ul-Haq to help India tie the game, and win by 'bowl-out', a first in T20's short history. And in the final, he got under the lap shot that the plucky Misbah attempted and helped all the emotional floodgates come crumbling down.
The mind's eye replays some amazing pictures. Joginder Sharma lying prone, unable to resist the impact of the sudden pressure release at the fall of the last wicket. Others scrambling for souvenir stumps and bails before getting into a huddle. A distraught Misbah-ul-Haq going down on his haunches. Team India setting off on a victory lap of the majestic bull ring that is known as the Wanderers Cricket Stadium. Skipper Mahendra Singh Dhoni putting his shirt on a boy who had come all the way from Botswana and bought a 2000 rand (about Rs 14,000) ticket.
Khallas! A jubilant Indian team after the last Pakistan wicket falls
Champagne awaited the Men in Blue in the dressing room. Perched on a cupboard, Dhoni uncorked the first bottle amidst loud cheering. And when the Board of Control for Cricket in India president Sharad Pawar walked in and declared a $2 million bonus for the team, the cheers became louder. The team had just won the top prize of $490,000 and the BCCI had announced a bonus that was four times larger.
Shahrukh Khan, cheering the team all along, was at hand to greet the players for their fantastic showing. And, late at night, the BCCI bosses hosted a party for the team at the Jacaranda Hall in the Sandton Sun. Apparently, the partying went on till 3 am, leaving the players drained. A few of them woke up so late that they had no time to even shower before heading to the airport.
Long before all this, India had discovered a new set of young heroes with steely hearts and calm minds. The class of 1983—Kapil's Devils—now has young company in Dhoni's Dynamos. So long as they can keep their heads on their shoulders and feet on the ground, names like Rohit Sharma and Joginder Sharma can do the rounds in the ODIs for some time. And with the right breaks, Rohit may even graduate to being a fine Test player. His success has sparked debates on whether India should now invest in the young and let the likes of Sachin Tendulkar, Sourav Ganguly and Rahul Dravid fade away from the one-day international scene. It may be a bit premature for that, but this team, led by the calm, collected and quick-witted Dhoni dished out memorable fare in the shortest form of the game at the international level—cricket on cocaine, if you like.
Yuvraj and Dhoni doing a victory lap
The side came in unannounced, with no pressure of expectations weighing it down. But the power of self-belief and teamwork created a momentum all its own. Yuvraj Singh led the batsmen with two blazing knocks against England and Australia. "He is in a great mindset obviously, he is confident, he is seeing the ball well, and he is just trusting himself," said Australian skipper Adam Gilchrist. "He hits a short ball for six, then you pitch up and he hits that for six as well, he is just in a confident frame of mind." Gautam Gambhir's three half-centuries lent a solidity at the start of the innings and allowed the later order batsmen the freedom to go after the bowling in the death. Skipper Dhoni did not get to face too many deliveries but chipped in with those useful scores.
The 20-year-old Rohit Sharma personified the gung-ho attitude that the team wore, scripting two superb and creative finishes against South Africa and Pakistan in the final. "When you win a match for your team, the outlook of your team-mates toward you changes," he said. "They start looking at you differently. That performance against South Africa was very important because they had never seen me bat before. After that knock, all the players were backing me, very happy with my performance. They were supporting me also because I had not played any match in England."
A bit down under: That's the end of the Aussies, in the semi-finals
Even though bowlers like the comeback kid Irfan Pathan and Harbhajan Singh had played T20 cricket in England and brought their experience to bear, bowling coach Venkatesh Prasad's inputs to the bowlers were critical. Rudra Pratap Singh and Pathan were India's bowlers of the tournament, allowing themselves not more than one below-average game. As Pakistan captain Shoaib Malik said after the final, R.P. Singh has developed enormously as a new ball bowler from the time he made his Test debut in Faisalabad early last year. "He has added a couple of yards of pace and bowls a very good line and length," Malik said. As for Irfan, he has come back from a spell in the wilderness, his technical niggles sorted out, hungry and eager. Pathan found that magic at a critical moment in the final. S. Sreesanth was all pent-up aggression in the semi-final against Australia and made the difference between the two sides, while Harbhajan Singh gladly took charge of bowling some pressure overs. And, coming in for a lacklustre Ajit Agarkar in the last four games, Joginder Sharma made an impact too, handling the task of bowling the last over in the semi-final and final. "I always believe when players have been selected, they have to be given an opportunity," cricket manager Lalchand Rajput said. "It is easy to label someone that he is not good enough but unless you go and see, you will not be able to find out. Give them big games and see if they can handle the pressure. Joginder handled that very well when he bowled the last over in our last two games," he says.
One of the good things about this side is that Dhoni did not have to hide any of his fielders. "When a team fields like we did consistently throughout the tournament, we tend to add to our total. If we make 150, we are actually challenging the opposition to make 165 to win. We have had a runout in nearly every game and that helped us," says Dhoni. Yuvraj Singh produced a direct hit against Pakistan in Durban to see Kamran Akmal's back, Rohit Sharma sprinted from cover and broke the stumps when he was in mid-air to send South Africa's danger man Justin Kemp back to the dugout, while Robin Uthappa produced the magic from extra cover to cut short Imran Nazir's blitz in the final game. And who can forget the catch that Dinesh Kaarthick took at second slip to dismiss South African captain Graeme Smith. Fielding coach Robin Singh could break into a smile at the manner in which the young team rallied to his demands.
R.P. Singh gets Shaun Pollock, South Africa exits
Above all, the event discovered a new captain in Dhoni. He chose to downplay attempts to praise his leadership. "The captain hasn't done much," he said, with no false modesty. "The players who have been given responsibility have delivered. There was no [specialist] batsman who hasn't scored runs, the fielding had been very good overall. Yuvraj has been very good, while Harbhajan has made a very good comeback. This side is confident, enjoying one another's success and backing each other." Dhoni's brave captaincy came in for much praise. Former Australian captain Ian Chappell picked Dhoni's leadership as one of his favourite moments. Chappell referred to Dhoni's decision—prompted by Harbhajan Singh's suggestion—to bowl the off-spinner in the 18th over of the semi-final against Australia. In the final, he was brave enough to bring an extra man into the circle to save some singles and put that much more pressure on Pakistan.
Super Sixes: Yuvraj Singh at his mesmerising best
And he backed all of that with an unwilting, hard-as-nails attitude, as India played an intense brand of cricket that its teams have often been capable of—but have only shown sporadically. Dhoni's side tackled pressure like it did not exist. Take a look at the matches that India played after rains forced it to share points with Scotland in the opening game. First up, it took on Pakistan and made just 141 for nine but fought back gallantly to tie the match and win through the bowl-out to make it to the Super Eights.
The three teams it was grouped with—New Zealand, England and South Africa—had more experience of the T20 format and nobody gave much chance of India winning any of those games. The 10-run defeat by New Zealand seemed to set the tone but India surprised everyone with an amazing 18-run win against England and followed it up with a crushing 37-run conquest of South Africa. "Bring on Australia," screamed the fans. And India answered that with a 15-run victory in the semi-finals over the team that everyone is in awe of. And in the final, India made some 15-20 runs short of the average first innings score at the Wanderers and yet managed to eke out a five-run win against Pakistan.
Indeed, pressure was a constant companion but instead of letting it get to its nerves, the team fed off it and used it as an ally to turn on a show of high energy. "Take for example, the final. Misbah-ul-Haq was making that late charge and caused us some tension but we knew they were only a wicket away from wresting the initiative again. We knew they didn't have wickets in hand. Pressure becomes a very important aspect in big games. We always thought that as the game approached the final stages, our chances would increase," says Dhoni.
Flag march: The Indian team after winning the T20 World cup do a run of the Wanderers in Johannesburg
The other positive factor common to each of these games was the enormous self-belief that the Indian team exuded. That is a quality that the Australians have showcased when dominating world cricket. The defeat against New Zealand was a turning point. Cricket manager Lalchand Rajput drew upon his management background to make a presentation to the side before it met England in the first of the do-or-die games. "Coming together is the beginning, keeping together is progress and working is success," he told the team and it responded to that clarion call. Ask Australia's wicket-keeper and stand-in captain Adam Gilchrist if he is surprised by the energy levels of the Indian side and he gives the side a thumbs-up. "No, I am not surprised at all. They are a relatively young team, many fresh new faces. They are obviously trying to make a name for themselves and impose themselves on the opposition. That is what you expect from young cricketers coming in and being exposed to situations like that. All credit to them, they are enjoying their days out in the park and that's great."
So then, is this the new Team India? It would be tempting to see this squad take over and play the 50-over format as intensely but it would be foolish to write off the likes of Sachin Tendulkar, Sourav Ganguly and Rahul Dravid. For, they still bring much value to the table with their batsmanship. "This is the future and we have the bench strength," says Rajput. "If you have good bench strength, it means that the senior team remains strong, aware of the young guns breathing down their necks. There would be tough competition when the selectors sit down to pick 15. Of course, the big three have a long season ahead and I am sure they will all come back refreshed." The selectors have to empower the captain and the youngsters, back them to succeed in ODIs and eventually in Tests. Dhoni reiterated that the T20 squad and some players back home would form Indian cricket's bench strength. "Those playing in this tournament plus a few guys back home are our bench strength," Dhoni said.
But that is a pleasant headache that the national selectors will now face. The ODI series against Australia may have been scheduled to begin in Bangalore but it will take a bit of time for the euphoria caused by India's success in the form to evaporate. "Whatever match I play now will be challenging because everyone will be focusing on me, looking at my performance. I will enjoy that challenge," Rohit Sharma said. Of course, India will be watching, with bated breath.