Had the BCCI had their way, India would have given the inaugural T20 World Cup in 2007, then called the World T20, the miss altogether.
It needed subtle arm-twisting from the ICC for India to agree, with massive reservations, to send a squad to South Africa.
How things have changed in the last 16 years! India had played just one Twenty20 International before the first T20 World Cup, against South Africa in Johannesburg in December 2006, which they won by 6 wickets.
It was Sachin Tendulkar’s only T20I appearance. Before the squad for the World Cup was announced, he and fellow senior batters Rahul Dravid, the then Test and ODI skipper, and his predecessor Sourav Ganguly pulled out of the event.
Dilip Vengsarkar’s selection panel had a tricky captaincy call to make.
There was Virender Sehwag, Dravid’s deputy, who had led whenever the designated captain was unavailable.
There was also Yuvraj Singh, with nearly seven years of international experience behind him. And Gautam Gambhir, with the reputation of being a serious student of the game. The obvious choice would have been one of these.
But in a move that was to inexorably alter the landscape of Indian cricket, Vengsarkar’s committee made a left-field choice, entrusting the reins to Mahendra Singh Dhoni.
The Jharkhandi represented new-age India—confident, bold and fearless, unwilling to compromise on competitiveness, comfortable in their own skin.
Dhoni also brought old-world values with him—calmness under pressure, great dignity and poise, and an endearing propensity to veer from the beaten path and back his instincts, which were to serve him outstandingly well.
As the bulk of the team travelled directly from England at the conclusion of the ODI series, there was no burden of expectations. Few believed the team was capable of mounting even a token challenge.
While India had steadfastly chosen to ignore the T20 game—the inter-state tournament for the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy was only one edition old—the format had taken deep root not just in England and Australia, but also in New Zealand and, to a lesser extent, South Africa.
In the inaugural World Cup, West Indies, with their penchant for big hitting, were among the favourites as were Pakistan.
India? Well, they were there just for the ride, weren’t they?
Dhoni the Messiah?
The impact of the surprise triumph was gigantic and manifold. Following Dravid’s resignation, Dhoni’s coronation as white-ball skipper was a mere formality. Within 15 months, he would become captain across all formats.
That the World Cup triumph came a little over six months before the inaugural IPL meant the tournament received the most organic endorsement imaginable.
Dhoni’s triumphant band of brothers landed in Mumbai from Johannesburg, the World Cup in their kitty, to a raucous reception. An open-top bus parade from the airport to the Wankhede Stadium lasted more than five times its normal duration, as thousands braved the rain and lined the streets to welcome the champions back home.
It was a stark reminder of not just how much India loved success, but also how scarred psyches had been since the West Indian misadventure that same year. Dhoni became an instant hit with his rustic charm, flowing locks, his naturalness.
He had already stormed into the hearts of the fans with his muscular batting in different parts of the world, but now, he was being viewed through the prism of his leadership credentials, and the picture looked colourfully rosy.
Even at that early stage, his calmness and stoicism were on full view; his connect with people was evidenced by his running the length of the ground after the final was sealed, seeking out a young fan and gifting him the match jersey he had promised.
Dhoni wasn’t the suave, sophisticated, clean-cut leader Indian cricket was used to, but he didn’t care. More importantly, the decision makers in Indian cricket didn’t care either that he didn’t conform to the norm.
(This excerpt has been taken with permission from the book ‘The Lords of Wankhede: Tales Between Two Titles’, written by W.V. Raman and R. Kaushik and published by Rupa Publications.)
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