When India plays Pakistan, tensions are always rife and the pressure is always high. But the 2011 Cricket World Cup semi-final, played at the Punjab Cricket Association Stadium in Mohali, remains etched in cricket history for more reasons than one.
First, it was a tight win for India, which prevailed by 29 runs. The match was also a diplomatic effort at a time when relations between India and Pakistan were slightly on the mend, and had political big-wigs including the then-Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and then-Pakistani PM Raza Gilani in attendance. Lastly, it was also Sachin Tendulkar’s last match against Pakistan, as he retired from international cricket after the final that year.
“An Indo-Pak match does not necessarily conform to what you see on paper…it is about handling the pressure,” said veteran cricket journalist Ayaz Memon, who was there at the ground in Mohali in 2011, and remembers the atmosphere being “surcharged with tension”.
In a match such as this, the team that can handle the pressure better ends up performing better, Memon explained. “And this was actually most aptly expressed in this game because [though] India won this match, they had to fight hard to win it. It seemed that the victory came India's way because Pakistan were just not able to cope with the demands and the pressures of the situation better than India,” he said.
What perhaps helped India was the fact that they had just defeated reigning champions Australia in the quarter finals. “I think it helped India prepare better for this high tension, taut match against Pakistan,” said Memon. India’s bowlers, backed up by smart catching and fielding, also made all the difference.
Tendulkar became man of the match with 85 runs, but they didn’t come to him easily, Memon recalls. “The lesson here from Sachin’s batting is that you may be struggling, but you have to stick it out. This was not one of his best knocks, this was a fairly laborious knock, but it showed the value of diligence, hard labour, sticking it out, holding your nerves, calming your nerves,” he said.
In Episode 9 of Frontfoot, Memon spoke to The Core’s Executive Producer (Podcasts) Joshua Thomas about the tense semi-final and how India managed to secure a win.
Here are edited excerpts from the interview:
Today we are talking about the 2011 World Cup, and specifically we are going to be talking about the India versus Pakistan match in the semifinal. Now, going into the match, the Indian team must have felt the pressure mounting, since not only was this on home ground, but it was against one of our biggest rivals and obviously to enter the semifinal. So, what can you tell me about the Pakistan team at the time?
Well, it was a good Pakistan team, very good. But as we have talked about it earlier, an Indo-Pak match does not necessarily conform to what you see on paper, the players that are on one side or the other. It is about handling the pressure. Whichever team handles the pressure better, actually performs better, and therefore ends up winning the match. And this was actually most aptly expressed in this game because India won this match, but they had to fight hard to win it.
It just seemed that the victory came India's way because Pakistan were just not able to cope with the demands of the situation and the pressure of the situation better than India, though they had India on the back foot, so to speak, a fair number of times in this match. But finally, India prevailed by 29 runs, which is a fairly big margin in one day cricket. And especially when India had made 260, it was not a score of 360 or something.
And remember, India played the quarter final against Australia. At that point in time, Australia were the reigning champions. They had won in 2007 and 2011, the quarterfinal at Ahmedabad, India beat Australia. So, I think in a sense, it helped India prepare better for this high tension, taut match against Pakistan, because the pressures are entirely different when India is playing Pakistan or any other team, including Australia. But I think it just seemed like just that slightly better preparation for a needle finish, if I might put it like that.
While the scores may not reflect that, it was a very tense match and I was there at the ground at Mohali, India versus Pakistan, the political bigwigs from both countries coming there, the atmosphere was surcharged with tension. And, yeah, it was quite an experience just to be at that ground and watch this match. Just to fill you in—India's 260 for nine, highest score, 85, but 85 Sachin Tendulkar, which became obviously the match winning knock, but not runs that came to him easily. Sachin otherwise was a free flowing batsman, but in this match, with the pitch giving some help to the bowlers, and especially Saeed Ajmal.
He was a terrific off spinner and the battle between him and Sachin was obviously touted as the big event of that match. And so it turned out to be. But Tendulkar got many lives which showed Pakistan putting down catches and stuff like that. And it just showed that the pressure told on them far more than it told on the Indian players. Somehow the Indian players found a way out of high pressure situations, especially Tendulkar. And then there were runs down the order from Sehwag who made 38 at the start.
Then there was Guatam Gambhir with 27, Dhoni 25, Suresh Raina 36—these were all invaluable runs because had India finished with a score of about, say, 225, 230, even 240, then it would have been easy for Pakistan, I think, to win this match. But 260 gave them that little, that buffer on a pitch like this where there was help for the bowlers.
And then, of course, India's bowlers came into the act. Zaheer Khan, who had been the bowler, who was actually the bowler of the World Cup for India. Ashish Nehra, Munaf Patel, Harbhajan Singh, Yuvraj Singh—all the bowlers doing extremely well, backed up by some smart catching and smart fielding by India. And that turned out to be the difference. As I mentioned, that Pakistan gave Tendulkar so many lives and in a way, allowed that game to kind of escape their grasp or their class. They just could not hold the catches.
You mentioned that we got 260 runs, which just put us in the kind of green for Pakistan to chase. But Pakistan's top order were doing pretty well trying to catch up to that score. How did Dhoni sort of manage the bowling lineup in trying to get the better of Pakistan? I had read somewhere that R Ashwin had been dropped for the match, for Ashish Nehra to be on the spot. Is that true?
Yes, it's true. And I think that was a smart decision, as it turned out. Because there was something in this pitch not just for spinners like Saeed Ajmal, but even for Pakistan...Wahab Riaz got five wickets. He was a left arm fast bowler. And even somebody like Abdul Razzaq, Umar Gul, they did not get many wickets, but they were a threat. So there was something in it for the fast bowlers as well as the spinners. I think the call for India to make was whether they should include a spinner. And remember, in 2011, Ashwin was not the maestro he is today. He was very impressive, but he did not have as much depth of experience and wealth of experience as he has now. So then they plumped for somebody like Ashish Nehra.
So they had Zaheer Khan, Ashish Nehra, Munaf Patel, all of them in the fast bowling department, all doing extremely well throughout the tournament. They had Harbhajan Singh, who was at that point in time, India's main spinner. And then there was Yuvraj Singh, who in this tournament had emerged as India's best all rounder. So he was picking up wickets regularly. It was, I think, a smart call by the team management to pick Ashish Nehra, ahead of R Ashwin.
The Pakistan batting, much as I might say that 260 was not such a big score to chase, but they made a fist of it on a pitch like this. And especially guys like Mohammad Hafeez, particularly Misbah-ul-Haq, Umar Akmal —t hese are guys who were…. Misbah-ul-Haq making a half century, and he made a fine half century. He held the innings together, battled for a long time…I think the crucial wickets were Younis Khan, who was, in my opinion, at that point of time, Pakistan's best batsman. Misbah-ul-Haq not too far behind.
And then there was Shahid Afridi. I think his was a vital figure because he was a big striker of the ball. He could win a match of his own, bat or ball with the ball because he was a leg spinner, hard hitting all rounder. He got out for 19. And I think that's when India realised that victory was more or less confirmed for India because Shahid Afridi fell at 184 – the score. And at that point in time, actually, the tail was exposed. So there was only Misbah-ul-Haq with the tail enders and it could not last long. So, all in all, as I mentioned, some very good fielding bowling tactics. Of course, Mahendra Singh Dhoni used his bowlers very smartly, changing them around, using his pace bowlers with his spinners.
But it must go back ultimately to the team which handled pressure better. And I think this is where Pakistan floundered. Just the fact of playing India, and in India, and the surcharge atmosphere just got to them. And that is where they struggled in the first innings. They could have possibly got India bowled out for far less had they got Tendulkar early. It didn't happen. India posted 260 and then went on to win the match.
You had mentioned that there were some politicians in the stadium. Is that a usual occurrence, that politicians come to attend these matches or the India-Pak matches?
It depends on the circumstances. So relations between India and Pakistan, political relations, were little on the mend. So while there was tension, obviously India versus Pakistan is always a very tense match. Getting people from across the border to come and see the match was a diplomatic effort. It was not something to do with the cricket board. The then-Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was there.
And some political leading politicians from across the border. So it is not that it always happens, it can happen. At times it has happened, sometimes it does not happen. It really depends on how the political climate is at that particular point in time. And when this match was played in the 2011 tournament, things seemed to be far more cordial than they had been earlier, or they have been later on several occasions.
This was Tendulkar's last match against Pakistan in the World Cup, right?
It turned out to be, yes, because after the final he retired from international cricket. But that was his last, you know, he did not lay any other World Cup after that… though India and Pakistan have played each other. By that time, Tendulkar's one day career had ended.
He was man of the match for this, scoring 85 runs in the game. What was his feeling after the match? Because he must have known that he was going to be gone, post him, like he wouldn't be able to play Pakistan after his World Cup.
I don't think that was top of mind for him… because top of mind worry would have been not worry, or even his desire would have been to prepare himself for the final. Having got the better of Pakistan in the semi finals, now you have only the final and at that point in time, finalists would have Sri Lanka, as it turned out. So his sights were set on playing the final, winning the tournament for India.
Remember, this was his 6th World Cup and he had never won a World Cup or been part of a World Cup winning team. So obviously beating Pakistan was a major obstacle overcome. But I don't think you have been thinking, oh, now when am I going to play Pakistan next? Oh, if I don't play again, is it a major loss? No.
And I think the lesson here from Sachin's batting is that you may be struggling, but you have to stick it out. This was not one of his best knocks, this was a fairly laborious knock, but it showed the value of diligence, hard labour, sticking it out, holding your nerves, calming your nerves. You make a mistake, you are given a life…If you are dropped, you take a fresh guard and you start again and frustrate the opposition. When the pitch is not conducive to free stroke play, then what do you do? This is what you do — you gather your wits about you, you stick it out, you put mind over matter. And that is what Sachin did. And that's why he was successful and man of the match and because of him, his effort, India got into the final.