The agony before astigmatic Sreesanth gobbled up the World Cup-sealing catch, the bridling intensity of encountering Pakistan, the hand of "god" and the "gloves" of Dhoni in the tense bowl-out, the indescribable reception back home, a World Cup hero brushes up old but fresh memories
I remember running in from long-on with my heart in my mouth as the ball seemed to hang for an eternity before it dropped into Sreesanth’s palms. I knew that Sreesanth had astigmatism (imperfection in the eye’s curvature), and had issues with his eyesight. I was screaming internally, “oh god, please let him catch it, let him catch it” and I think I had almost reached mid-on when the ball settled safely into his hands.
We were the world champions!
It’s a feeling that no language can describe. Not English, not my mother tongue, nothing. At the moment it was like, ‘what have we done here!’ Even MS Dhoni was quite expressive as you would recall. He would soon settle down but I didn’t sleep for the next three nights. I was 21, living a dream, and knew I was part of something special but what it exactly was, I couldn’t tell. I remember Ajit Agarkar telling us repeatedly, “Do you guys know what we have done?! The enormity of it?” Nope, I didn’t then. But oh the memories.
Where do I even start? The Indian cricketing world would remember me for that bowl-out, I guess. One of the closest international T20 games. For all practical purposes it was my T20 debut. The real debut against Scotland had been a washout and so this big game was my first T20 game. And it was against Pakistan.
I had observed the hype as a kid and this was the time to experience it. I had played and done well against Pakistan in U-19 games and I had carried that with me. This was but the grown-ups’ world, but honestly there wasn’t much talk about playing Pakistan from the coach Lalchand Rajput or from the players. The seniors all kept it simple. Perhaps consciously so, and it worked. Only on the field, when I saw the intensity in the body language of Viru pa (Virender Sehwag), Yuvi pa (Yuvraj Singh), and Bhaji pa (Harbhajan Singh), did I sense that this was a big game. They had all played Pakistan many times and perhaps knew better than us what it meant.
I remember the ecstatic feeling during the regular game, before the bowl out, when we tied it. For that over, it was running in my head that we didn’t want to be the first Indian team to lose to Pakistan in a World Cup game. Who wants that record?! I was at mid-off when Sreesanth ran in to bowl to Misbah-ul-Haq.
They needed just one run from the final two balls but Sree kept him quiet on the first ball. And the last ball, ran off the edge off an attempted pull to Yuvi pa at covers who calmly under-armed the ball towards Sree, who was running back to the stumps. So was I. We both were on top of the stumps when Sree removed the bails and ecstasy flooded me as we all started to run towards the pavilion. On our way, we realised it was going to be a bowl-out. I remember more joy and excitement. Oh look, we can win this! The reason for that excitement wasn’t just a boyish exuberance but because we had actually trained for it. The bowl-out wasn’t foreign to us. We were ready.
Who should bowl was not a spontaneous decision. It was Venkatesh Prasad, our bowling coach and a smart cricketing brain, who first said that we should practice the bowl-outs. Not long after we had reached South Africa, Venky read out the playing conditions to us and said ‘if there was ever a game that would tie, it would practically be a shootout’, so let’s practice.”
After most practice sessions, we would train for this as well. They had us split into batsmen vs bowlers. More often than not, it was the batsmen who won it. Viru pa, me, and Rohit (Sharma) were the three batters who hit the stumps the most.
That night, once the bowl-out was going to be on, I ran to MS Dhoni and said, ‘I have to bowl, dude. You have to give me the ball’. Looking at my confidence and strong emotion, he said, ‘okay’. I was confident because I hit the stumps the most in the training.
Hand of “god”
And I had Sachin paaji with me. Let me explain! In my mind, I was copying his seam-up action. He would have that slight pause as he gathered himself at the popping crease before the release. I had been aping it since I was a kid. That action gave me utmost control, the most accuracy. I usually bowl with a more round-arm action. During the training sessions, I saw that paaji’s action gave me more hits. So, I decided, why not stick with it. It never hurts to have that ever-lasting hand of god, eh?
It was Viru pa who went first. I don’t remember whether it was consciously decided or simply because he picked the ball first and was all ready to bowl. He is like that. Always high on confidence. There is never a serious chat with him—he is either pulling your leg or doing something that chills down everybody. So he went first and hit the stumps; none of us were surprised. I remember a lot of laughter in our line. Pakistan missed their first. They seemed confused. I think Umar Gul had first stepped up to bowl before Yasir Arafat was given the ball. Neither Arafat nor Gul would bowl with their proper run-ups. I felt they looked more tense, visibly. You can watch the videos to confirm it.
When Bhaji pa hit the stumps, I went and bear-hugged him. I always did it with him, often. He was that kind of character. Gul missed.
Another thing we did, even in training, was how Mahi stood behind the stumps. The smart cookie that he is, he had decided the best position for him was to stand right behind the stumps. Not around off, but right behind it. “You guys sort of aim for me when you bowl’ he would say. In the training sessions, he wouldn’t normally stay there even. He would be in the batters’ team, bowling with us. I guess to make us get used to bowling at the stumps. In my view, the reason for batsmen hitting the stumps more was that we had simplified the process.
For us, objective kya hai? To hit the stumps, na. Okay, here goes, fling the ball at it. The bowlers were faced with far more difficulties. The run-up, the release, the jump, and the urge to do something with the fingers at the release. They have to tinker with all that. So, in training, the batsmen did well. I am not sure whether Pakistan practised or not, but they went with the bowlers but also had their pacers bowling suddenly with a reduced run-up. Maybe, it was the pressure. Whatever the reason was, they didn’t hit and it came to me to bowl the third ball.
I just went with the Sachin paaji action and boom, bull’s eye! Then I doffed my cap first towards Mahi. Then it struck me, ‘why just stop there? Why not doff and bowl in all directions to the crowd, to my team behind me. I was a fan of Shaun Pollock’s celebration. I had seen him take a catch and doff to the crowd. It brought them into the action, almost. I liked it and I would do it whenever I caught a catch. This was the perfect time to do it. Who knew it would be for posterity? I hugged Viru pa first. I don’t remember any words, if any, with my teammates. What have we done here? That unreal feeling kicked in.
“Tension lene ka nahi, tension dene ka’ was our mantra. It had started as a joke between players and it grew into a lovely culture. Lalu ji, our coach, would tell it to the players.
I fondly remember the non-match evenings we spent together. We would go to local Nandos and I would always order half chicken and peri-peri fries. Most nights, six-seven of us would gather in a room—it could be Mahi’s room one night, Yuvi pa’s or mine or that of Piyush (Chawla) or RP Singh the other night. Players would keep dropping in and out.
There was a nice Indian restaurant in Durban and most nights our food was the bread basket—roti, naan etc— and dal makhani, aloo jeera and butter chicken. It was pre-social media time. Heck, pre-WhatsApp time. The times of BBM messenger and the old Nokia 6110. No Playstations either. Chatting with other human beings was still in vogue! We did plenty of that. They had told us not to wander to the beaches after 6 pm and we didn’t have to as we had great fun being together at the hotel.
It was always about taking just one game at a time until we reached the semifinals. Then we knew we were just two games away from winning this. It was then, at least to me, that it sank in us that we could win this. I was happy that I could contribute properly in many matches.
There was a fifty against Pakistan in that bowl-out game, the 80+ partnership  with Yuvi pa in the semifinal against Australia, and an important run out of Imran Nazir, who was threatening to run away with the game, in the final.
Blessing in disguise
I can’t even say I was worried about the final or playing Pakistan as I was really worried whether I would be fit to play that game. I had sprained my left leg in the semifinal and if it were not for the hard work of our physio John Gloster, I wouldn’t have made it even though I wanted to play with one leg if they would allow me. That injury would play its part in that run-out. Chasing 158, Pakistan had rushed past fifty in just over five overs when Younis Khan drove the ball to me at mid-off.
I knew I couldn’t put my weight on the left foot as well as I would have done with a fit leg and that I had to drive the power from my upper body. Funny, what thoughts run through the mind in a split-second of frenetic action. Luckily, I did that and fired a direct hit at the striker’s end to catch Nazir just short of the crease. The match turned our way but Misbah, just as he did in the first game, would turn it again from the 15th over onwards. It wasn’t a surprise that Mahi gave Joginder Sharma the last over as Misbah had got some runs in Bhaji pa’s final over. I was praying through the tournament and offered a little prayer before that final over. Jogi bowled the greatest over of his life.
Other memories prop up. A funny one involved Yuvi pa and Lalit Modi. Yuvraj had been telling Modi that he would hit six sixes and Modi said that if he pulled it off, he would gift him a fancy car, BMW or something. And Modi would humorously tease Yuvraj about that six sixes thing for a few days. Yuvi pa told him, ‘you just wait and watch, I will hit six sixes.’ When he mind-bogglingly pulled it off against England, I was like ‘whoa what a player’. And I remember Modi screaming in joy and hugging him.
One final memory, and this would stay with me forever. The celebrations on the open-top bus ride in Mumbai. It was surreal. I was singing, dancing, and blowing kisses to the crowd. There were 150,000 people inside and outside the stadium that night. And so many lined up all along the way—it took us five-and-half hours to reach the stadium. We got wet in the rain, we sweated as the sun came out, it was crazy. People kept throwing food at us—apples, sandwiches, soft drinks. “Khao khao, kitna time ho gaya, you guys must be hungry!” And we ate it. There was a Cadbury factory between Worli and Peddar Road and they threw Cadbury at us. It was so cool.
I will never forget the night. Only a handful in the world get to experience that indescribable feeling of being loved by millions. I feel blessed that I got to taste that. It was a beautiful moment that I would always remember. Tension lene ka nahi, tension dena ka and love paane ka!
(As told to Sriram Veera)
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