Australians remember the World Cup triumph in 1987 as the starting point of their renaissance; a win that heralded a two-decade hegemony. The enduring image of a jubilant Allan Border, propped up by Dean Jones and Craig McDermott, during the victory lap at Eden Gardens, is etched in the memory.
It was nothing short of a fairytale and Border’s pivotal role cannot be over-stated – few will forget his crucial wickets of Imran Khan in Lahore and Mike Gatting in Calcutta but fewer still will forget his leadership. Two years earlier, Australian cricket had reached its nadir; Border dragged them out of the depths.
Every World Cup cements a captain’s legacy. Individual performances have often attained mythic proportions. Lloyd set the agenda with a power-packed hundred in the 1975 summit clash, Ponting did the same in 2003. Kapil smashed 175 to keep India alive and then clutched onto the miracle-catch in the 1983 final. Border hoodwinked Gatting into the reverse-paddle.
Imran galvanised what seemed like a rabble into an irresistible force, Steve Waugh famously inspired a shaky Australia in 1999 with ‘it’s simple now, we need to win seven in a row’. And Sri Lanka’s glorious journey in 1996 would have been impossible if not for Ranatunga’s inspiring presence. It was only fitting that he hit the winning runs on that unforgettable night in Lahore.
Even captains who haven’t won the World Cup are remembered fondly for their campaigns: Martin Crowe propelled New Zealand during their remarkable run in ’92; Sourav Ganguly guided India to the threshold in ’03.
On Saturday, either Sangakkara or Dhoni will be immortalised in cricketing legend. Sangakkara has been expert at the steering wheel with three fifties and a century – at a 100-plus average – during this tournament. Though he was appointed the captain only two years ago, he was the heir apparent for long. He’s the kind of captain who pulls the team from the front. His openers are riding a wave and his strike bowlers – Malinga and Murali – are both maverick and devastating.
Dhoni has largely been a captain who pushes from the rear. He’s been massively criticised through the campaign and it hasn’t helped that his batting form has deserted him.
He’s been pilloried for some of his team selections and appears to be in the midst of a long-running battle with the media. His decision to bowl Ashish Nehra in the final over against South Africa was long debated, as was his early preference for Piyush Chawla, which combined with what was seen as a lack of faith in R Ashwin.
He’s made news for changing the batting order – especially for floating Virat Kohli around – and for acknowledging his poor judgement of pitch in the semi-final.
As the tournament has worn on, his on-field captaincy has shone through: opening the bowling with Ashwin against Australia, using Zaheer in short bursts through the innings, setting canny fields for the spinners – occasionally giving Harbhajan a man at backward short leg – and backing Nehra in a crunch game. It’s impossible to quantify a captain’s contributions but Dhoni has played a big part. And, given his earlier record, he’s been lucky too: winning 5 tosses out of 8.
Back in August 2007, in his first press conference after being appointed captain for the T20 World Cup in South Africa, Dhoni was asked if captaincy was something he had always aspired to. Here was what he said: “Not really. I always wanted to play good aggressive cricket and do well for my country. I think it’s not about leading, it is about playing and doing well.”
I found the candid nature of this response stunning. It came with an unnerving certainty. A few years earlier, the thought of a cricketer from Jharkhand leading India would have been unimaginable and here he was sitting calmly at The Oval and saying he didn’t really aspire to captaining the country.
Over the last four years, there’s little he hasn’t won. He’s overseen India’s rise to the top of the Test pile and won three high-pressure T20 titles – including a momentous World Cup. One-dayers have been India’s weakest suit in this period but a World Cup triumph in Mumbai would well and truly make up for the lack of consistency before. Twenty years down the line, few will remember the poor ODI results from largely meaningless games in 2009 and 2010; they’ll remember him holding aloft the World Cup.
Dhoni has a great chance to become the first captain to lift a World Cup at home but there’s another, slightly more quirky, statistic which many may not be aware of: Dhoni may become the first World Cup winning captain to go through a whole campaign without a single half-century.
But it won’t matter. One of the most forgotten stats from 1987 is that Border made 183 runs in 8 World Cup games, with just one fifty, at an average of 22.87. His only half-century was against Zimbabwe.
Yet, the 1987 triumph is not Boon’s World Cup or Marsh’s World Cup or McDermott’s World Cup. It’s Border’s World Cup. And ultimately that is the bottom line.
Related: Dear MS Dhoni …