Just before the Indians left their Ahmedabad hotel for their first knock-out match of the 2011 World Cup, six men spoke to the team. They were players from the Class of 2003. Each of them told their team-mates his own story about what had happened at the Wanderers that day, about the mistakes of eight years ago that should not be repeated. They had tried too hard, they had been too eager, they had allowed the situation to overwhelm them. It was a cautionary tale. Their words were few, short, and plain and they gave the younger, newer, less-scarred group in front of them a simple instruction: not again.
It is how India have performed at the tail end of the World Cup, looking at how their group stage had gone and saying "never again". So that in the last fortnight of this World Cup, they could find a way to ensure that their early mistakes would not be repeated.
It is often believed that finals somehow never turn out to be the events that are expected because the high stakes make athletes go cold and freeze up. Much is also said about what captain MS Dhoni called "peaking" in an event, which works more smoothly with individuals than it does with teams.
On both counts the Indians came off at the Wankhede Stadium, like the fireworks that lit up the Mumbai night seconds after Dhoni's bold signature six sealed their triumph. The final was the time when all the incomplete notes of India's World Cup performance fell into sync.
Gautam Gambhir, who had three fifties in the Cup but had not seized a game by its throat, produced his most convincing performance to lift India from the shock of losing their openers. He was central to two partnerships that took India from 31 for 2 to a six-wicket victory.
Dhoni, whose top World Cup score up until the final had been 34, strode out and did not leave the field until victory had been achieved. Of course Yuvraj Singh, the Player of the Tournament and the Indian team's totem through the early rough stages of the tournament, had to be with him at the other end. After defeat to South Africa in the group stages in Nagpur, India's biggest stumble in the World Cup, Yuvraj had told a friend, "I have to take us to the World Cup final. Just you watch. I'm going to take them there."
There they were. Not a familiar India, dependent on their batting, but a more secure, self-assured India, batting as if chases in finals were like having a net, except with a crowd cheering them on. This was India in their most accomplished situational batting performance of the event, chasing down 274 with 99 singles, 24 twos and even a three. In every knock-out game, India have, through sheer consistency of method, exposed the weakness of their opposition. They made the most of Australia's uneven bowling attack, defended against Pakistan by pressing hard in the field and forcing their batsmen to fumble, and stunned Sri Lanka by letting the weight and experience of their batting bear down, by taking the barest minimum of risks but making sure to always keep the score moving.
India's danger signs for the opposition in this World Cup lay not in their attacking openers or any flood of fours but in what their weakest links were able to do. When Indian fielders start diving, their batsmen start taking threes or sprinting surprising singles, or their most medium of pacers begin to repeatedly beat the edges and hurry batsmen, it is time for the opposition to worry. Or as the old says goes, to be afraid. In a World Cup knockout, that should have read be very afraid.
After the game at the Wankhede, Dhoni said that the World Cup win had ended a chapter in Indian cricket that had opened with the World Twenty20 win of 2007. "Right now we can close the chapter. We need to build a team again. Because of the amount of cricket we play, we need quite a few reserve players to come in and bowl. We need spinners and batsmen to be at their best because if we want to do well at the international level, we will have to try out quite a few players and not think about the result."
Two weeks ago the audience would have guffawed. Now it must nod in agreement. Today it is perhaps wiser to give Dhoni and India's theories the time to be tried out. After all, over the course of six weeks, with their victory, they have busted a few old ones and proved several of their own right.
- That home teams are jinxed in the World Cup and chasing in finals is only a prelude to a meltdown. The Indians managed both at the Wankhede, setting the benchmark for World Cup final chases. If playing at home meant enduring the growing weight of public hope, it was also about enjoying the familiarity of conditions.
- That options exercised, whether in matches or training, can work if planned smartly. Dhoni said the Indians had known the group stages were going to contain "weak games" and they would need to keep their most seasoned players in prime condition going into the knockouts. "It was a big challenge, series by series we gave rest, or players opted for rest. And to be in a position where we were able to give 100% on the field, each individual throwing themselves around. They had a bit of reserve battery, which they applied throughout the tournament."
- That in a major event, covering the most trying of yards and being pushed to the edge is always more useful than coasting through to the final hurdle. In the final, Sri Lanka faced the heat for the first time in their World Cup and could not fall back into producing what their opponents know as their trademark move when defending a score: the mid-innings garotte. It begins with a few tight overs, the tap of runs suddenly shrinking to a trickle, moves onto a field closing in on the batsmen, and finally ends with one wicket and then another. On the contrary, the Indians had earlier survived several 31 for 2-like scenarios before. Had they lost Dhoni soon, the batsmen who followed - Yuvraj Singh and Suresh Raina knew how to resuscitate an innings because they had been there, done that. Yuvraj with Raina versus Australia, and Raina with the lower order against Pakistan.
- That fielding can be lifted, no matter what vintage the players may belong to. All through the tournament Dhoni had constantly reminded outsiders that the Indians were not really good fielders, yet in the knockouts they stepped up a level with every game. No matter how clumsy or unpolished their techniques, the oldest and creakiest of the Indians were diving to stop boundaries.
Had the India of the World Cup group stages, the India seen in Bangalore or Nagpur, been fielding at the Wankhede, the target could have touched 300, because the wicket had smoothed out towards the end of Sri Lanka's innings. The dazzle of India's batting is well known; the bowling, led by Zaheer Khan all through the tournament, had fought back to win territory in the early rounds, like they did against England.
Where India were most astonishingly impressive during the knockouts was in cricket's most "unselfish" art - in the field. All through the tournament Dhoni, who specialises in automobile analogies, had compared the Indian fielding to an old car engine trying to adjust to working with hybrid fuel. After the semi-final, he said that all he hoped for now was one more game. "After that, even if some of the cars fall down, it is okay."
Then there is this last theory: about India not really hacking it in recent ICC tournaments. Partly true. Not in the World Twenty20 after 2007, not in the Champions Trophy either. But in this one, the ICC's biggest tournament, the Indians more than hacked it. When it came down to the rounds where both ability and nerve came into play, India became the team that refused to be beaten.