Of the numerous factors determining success in sport, the personality of the player is arguably the most significant. It was the sheer persona of Viswanathan Anand and MS Dhoni that stood out in the former’s World Championship defence and the latter’s knock in the 2011 World Cup final, separated by a year. The visceral fear of Anand’s rapid game and Dhoni’s finishing prowess twisted their opponents’ thinking.
Anand’s build-up was chequered in a bizarre way—as he was waiting in Frankfurt for the connecting flight to Sofia, a volcanic ash cloud over Iceland had all the flights cancelled. There was only one available flight via Serbia, but it was too late to procure a visa. His wife, Aruna, checked availability of trains, but there were none.
Taxi was another option, but no one was willing to drive him through five countries, stretching 2,000-odd kilometres. Finally, they managed a couple of cabbies from Amstelveen in the Netherlands and reached Sofia in a Mercedes Sprinter three days later than his original schedule. Anand requested for a postponement of the final, but it went unheeded, and even before he reached the hall, the odds against him had shot massively.
Exhausted, Anand lost the first game to home-boy Veselin Topalov, but stoically bounced back. Into the final game of a see-saw match, tied at 5.5, Topalov had a glorious chance to press for victory with white pieces. A draw, though, would have handed the advantage to Anand, as the tiebreak was a series of rapid games, which Anand had mastered.
So Topalov opened with the queen pawn before Anand surprised him by opting for the Queen’s Gambit Declined, Laskar Variation, in a bid to weaken his king. The move caught the Bulgarian off guard as it was contradictory to the theme of the match, as both had generally sought a safety-first approach. Anand, the analysts had thought, would espouse a safety-high game.
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As Topalov directed his pieces toward the queenside, Anand did not miss his chance and forced open the kingside with two rapid pawn advances. Finally, Topalov had to give up his queen to avoid mate. Anand’s queen and rooks were swooping down on Topalov’s king and snared his queen for a rook and knight. The resulting endgame was a stroll for Anand and Topalov eventually resigned. It was a classic instance of Anand’s ruthlessness.
Dhoni didn’t endure travel travails, but the pressure on him and his team was inhuman, as with the case of World Cups at home. He had the burden of history too — for memories of India’s nightmarish 2007 campaign were raked up in the build-up, as also the trivia that no team had ever won the World Cup on home soil.
Cut to the final. When Virat Kohli departed, India were relatively comfortable at 114/3 in 21 overs. Besides, there were plenty of in-form batsmen like Suresh Raina, the quarterfinal hero, and Yuvraj Singh, the man of the tournament. But Dhoni, not in his best form (150 runs in the previous seven outings), decided this was his moment and strode in. The genesis of the decision is part-myth-part-conjecture, but Dhoni’s logic was simple: “ (Muttiah) )Muralitharan was bowling, so I thought a right-hander would be better equipped to deal with him. I had played him freely in the past, so I had the confidence of taking him on.”
It was Dhoni at his shrewdest, for he knew that irrespective of the form Raina and Yuvraj were riding, both were vulnerable to quality off-spinners. And Muralitharan, having already announced his retirement from 50-over cricket, was bowling superbly, his first four overs conceding only 10 runs. Part-time off-spinner Tillakaratne Dilshan, too, was bowling smartly, flat and fastish. So two lefties — Gautam Gambhir was already there — would have furnished Sri Lanka with a chance to further dent India’s middle order.
Sri Lanka, expecting a crack at the lefties, were taken aback, confused whether to keep going with the offies or preserve them for later. Four overs later, they reintroduced pacers Lasith Malinga and then Thisara Perera, playing into India’s hands. The pressure released, they comfortably piled on a partnership that was to seal the World Cup for the co-hosts, which Dhoni did with the most famous six in the history of Indian cricket.