A 28-year long wait for another ICC ODI World Cup trophy finally ended.
Apart from the title-winning hit by Dhoni, Ravi Shastri’s fervent commentary “Dhoni, finishes it off in a style, India lifts the World Cup after 28 years” still reverberates in every Indian fan’s ears.
As the country celebrates the anniversary of the 2011 World Cup triumph on April 2, Timesofindia.com caught up with the then strength and conditioning coach of the Dhoni-led team in 2011, Paddy Upton.
Upton, in an exclusive interview with Timesofindia.com, spoke about the historic and unforgettable night, the role of coach Gary Kirsten, Dhoni’s leadership, Sachin Tendulkar’s role and much more.
Can you take us down memory lane and recall that historic day on April 2, 2011?
I think the big thing about those moments was that they were three years in the planning. Our dream literally started three years earlier in 2008. One of them, when we started working with the Indian team, was to win the 2011 World Cup for the first time after 28 years. So, it had been a three-year plan and a plan that we really doubled down on about 10 months out from the World Cup final. We were busy preparing to play the Asia Cup final in Sri Lanka against Sri Lanka, interestingly enough.
I remember distinctly when that journey really gained momentum was a question that was asked between Gary Kirsten bowling coach Eric Simons, and myself on the morning of that Asia Cup final 10 months before the World Cup final. And the question was – ‘if this was the World Cup final, are we ready to win it?’ And the answer was ‘probably not’. And we spent maybe five hours sitting around that same table strategizing. ‘So, what are the things that we really need to do in the next 10 months to really set this team up for making the final and then knowing when they’ve gone to the field, we’ve got a very good chance of winning it?’.
So, for me that really was a pivotal moment. And then literally every single day for that next 10-month period working with the Indian team. It was about preparing them physically, strategically, and very much so the mindset, because at the time no team had ever won a World Cup at home. And one of the assumptions was that probably the home pressure or the pressure on the home team probably played a big part in that.
We knew there’s no greater pressure playing cricket than Indians playing cricket in India and playing in Mumbai, one of the noisiest stadiums in the world. And it was going to be Sachin Tendulkar’s final World Cup game for India in front of his home crowd in Mumbai. So, we just added all those pieces up when we knew the pressure is going to be immense, our preparation has to be that good that pressure doesn’t undermine a player’s ability to perform and win the World Cup. The moment when Dhoni hit the six really was the culmination of all of the day in day out work, planning, programming, strategizing, working to get to that point and making that an eventuality. So, it was like massive relief and celebration at the same time.
What was the conversation like between you, coach Gary Kirsten and the team ahead of the final?
If I go back to that 10 months out, and the planning process is the whole time I was thinking in my head. I would probably need to come up with amazing motivational, inspirational words for the team the night before the game and maybe even in the morning of the game or in the change room. And there are wonderful examples out there in Hollywood and Bollywood.
So, I was sort of dreaming – ‘what is this speech of mine going to be like?’. But as it came down to the night before the World Cup final, we had already done our work, the players were already so pre-programmed and so prepared to be able to go out to play our final on this massive stage, the biggest stage in their entire careers.
But the planning was so comprehensive and so thorough that it did not require me to do something to get players into some special mindset. They were already exactly where we needed to get them, which was actually the job that had been done over a course of 10 months. So, it didn’t need any big speech from me.
I still remember my speech or something to the tune of the fact that I was so confident in our players, in our plans, in our strategy, in ourselves, that I literally just reinforced what players already knew with a very common mind approach and a very deep belief. And I said to the players that this is like a Bollywood movie. Tomorrow, we know exactly what our script is, we know exactly what roles each of us as actors need to play. And all that’s required of us is us to go out tomorrow and perform the roles that we know so well, and we will most likely cross the line ahead of the opposition.
How would you describe MS Dhoni as a leader and the way he handled the team?
One of the major things about MS Dhoni’s leadership – he is just Mr. cool, he’s Mr. calm, he’s Mr. collected. And he was a massive asset in a game, in a World Cup, or in any big game. He’s always an asset because he is so calm and collected. That calmness gives other players permission to also be calm, and very often players look at their leaders to see ‘how is my leader behaving?’ and that gives them permission to behave in a similar way.
So, Dhoni’s calmness would have spilled over onto the players and there was a key piece particularly playing a World Cup at home in India. His calmness was great and the calmness enabled him to make smart decisions in key moments and high-pressure moments on the field. His mind wasn’t chaotic, so he was able to make good decisions. And of course, the decision that will be spoken about probably in the history of the game is that MS Dhoni, batting at number five, hadn’t made any noteworthy contribution with the bat until that point during the World Cup.
Yuvraj Singh was very clearly the man in form. He had already secured the man of the series through his performances. And yet Dhoni chose to go and bat ahead of Yuvraj Singh in the final. Obviously, that is going to be a much talked about decision, it has been and will continue to be much talked about. And that was really just, for me an unbelievable model of a leader knowing when to step up, when it’s his time to be counted, for him to take the horse by the reins, the bull by the horns. And we all knew the fact that Dhoni hadn’t scored runs and Yuvraj had scored runs. (But) that was just a period of six weeks.
Outside of that period of six weeks, we know that Dhoni is the man for the high-pressure moments. He has done it over and over in his career, gone out to bat, particularly batting second in the chase in a white ball format. And he is the person who is better than anyone in the world at seeing a team home and across the line and transferring pressure from himself and his team onto the bowling team, the opposition captain, and opposition fielders.
In the World Cup final, it was time for the best in the world to step up and go and do what the best in the world does. And that’s exactly what it took. He made the call. It was a massively brave call. Gary Kirsten, without even a second of thought, backed his call and confirmed that ‘Yes, you go in next’. And, history will tell us that it was a great decision.
If Dhoni happened to get a great delivery and he got out, we’ll be talking about it very differently. And particularly if Dhoni chewed up a whole lot of balls and caused things to go wrong. But that’s great leaders. They take the really difficult decisions for the sake of the team; they take the right decision. The right decision was the man for that moment needed to go out and do what he had done so often in his career before.
Your take on the way Dhoni gave up Test captaincy, then stepped down as limited overs captain and then finally his decision to quit international cricket rather suddenly. Do you think there was still some cricket left in him?
It seems, from the outside looking in, that it’s unpredictable. But without a doubt, it would be very thought through. Dhoni is not an overly impulsive person. He does think things through.
So, I trust those decisions that Dhoni made. I don’t think he’s finished yet, certainly not physically. One never knows mentally. We don’t see what’s going on for them mentally, emotionally very often. It’s the mental exhaustion, the mental tiredness that made them say – ‘I just can’t do this anymore, get up and get myself up to go and play a really high-pressure game.’
More often when we see a player retire we think why did he retire? He still had runs or wickets (in him), or his body was still okay. It’s normally the mental side and that’s something we don’t see and often players don’t really share. So, it would seem there is still cricket in Dhoni as long as he’s really enjoying himself. Number one that means he won’t be burdened by the mental pressures of the games, of captaincy, the win, the way he bats, he’s always taking away the mental pressure.
For every athlete the reality is they have a finite career, some hold on just way too long, and actually end up undermining their career by trying to hold on too long. So, rather get out when the going is good than undermine their career by holding on too long, even if it’s six months too long.
How important and impactful was Sachin Tendulkar’s presence in the 2011 Indian World Cup team?
Massive. Sachin’s presence is always massive for everyone around him. Particularly, the amount of experience he had, the fact that he played in five World Cups was really big. And we really drew on as much of that experience as we could from him. He’s particularly good with inspiring the youngsters. We had a conversation early on and we said to the players to find a greater reason, a greater cause beyond yourself why you would want to win the World Cup.
Because it’s really important in any pursuit we have, in a business or in life, is that we need to be doing things for a cause greater than ourselves. Because if we just do it for ourselves, and we want it to look good and want to be here, the pressure becomes too big. Quite a few of the players wanted to win the World Cup as a gift to Sachin, as a thank you to Sachin for everything he had done for them, everything he had done for Indian cricket. And the fact that the one trophy he didn’t have in his cabinet up until that time was a World Cup.
So, it gave so many players that additional reason to really put in for somebody other than themselves which would have given them inspiration and helped reduce some of the pressure on themselves. So, for so many reasons, Sachin really was an asset to have during that 2011 World Cup.
Will you be open to taking up a coaching staff role once again with the Indian team?
I have played the role of strength and conditioning coach in international cricket. I’ve also played the role of mental conditioning coach and I’ve also played the role of head coach. It’s given me a really all-around view of preparing cricketers for the highest level of performance. The answer is I’m not sure. Am I? It would be exciting to be involved in some way. I wouldn’t want to be the head coach anymore. I’ve done a lot of that recently. But let’s see. I’m not sure. I certainly have got a lot of experience.
I’ve been lucky enough to work with the Indian team, in the IPL, with the South African team, and in a number of businesses helping with performance and leadership, and teamwork. So, if there are the right teams and the right environments, and something that really excites me, it would be interesting to go and take those skills and apply them with that team in a big event.