India might have wanted to win the World Cup for its biggest star, Sachin Tendulkar, but it was MS Dhoni who shined brightest Saturday night in Mumbai. The Indian captain cemented his status as one of the finest leaders of his generation in any sport by leading his country to its first World Cup title since 1983 with its gripping home victory over Sri Lanka.
Dhoni will never be known as a great batsman in the annals of the game, but the glory he has brought to India through his growing list of historic successes is turning him into an icon, leaving Kapil Dev and Sourav Ganguly in the dust as his country's greatest captain. It might not seem as though 28 years is a long drought when you compare it with the plight of the Chicago Cubs, but Dhoni has ended India's agonizing wait for a World Cup in the same manner that Mark Messier ended 54 years of longing by the New York Rangers for a Stanley Cup in 1994.
He might have been slightly irked at the start of the day after a Phil Luckett moment caused a bit of a stir at the coin toss. Dhoni flipped the coin, and Sri Lanka captain Kumar Sangakkara called heads as the coin landed on heads. Dhoni thought Sangakkara said tails and turned to say he was batting first. Sangakkara said that he had called heads. Match referee Jeff Crowe was caught snoozing, unable to determine whether Sangakkara had said heads or tails. An awkward moment followed before Crowe decided to redo the toss. Sangakkara called heads correctly the second time around, choosing to bat first. The significance was that teams batting first had won seven of the nine World Cup finals heading into this encounter.
Although all the headlines before the match belonged to Tendulkar and Muttiah Muralitharan, it was Mahela Jayawardene who threatened to steal Sunday's front page. By the halfway stage of the contest, he had placed Sri Lanka in position to win with a magnificent century. The former Sri Lankan captain flew under the radar for the first six weeks of the tournament, but provided the backbone for his team in the final with 2 hours and 39 minutes of elegant batting in stifling heat to boost Sri Lanka to a total of 274. Not only did history favor Sri Lanka for batting first but the previous five players who scored a century in a World Cup final all wound up on the winning side.
There was a bit of déjà vu at the start of India's chase as it lost an opener in the first over just as the Indians had done in the 2003 final. Eight years ago against Australia, it was Tendulkar who fell early. On Saturday night in Mumbai, Virender Sehwag lasted two balls before Lasith Malinga cast a cold chill over the warm night with a heat-seeking delivery to get rid of the dangerous opening batsman. Malinga's reign of terror continued when he removed Tendulkar with another gem.
However, Gautam Gambhir played a vital role in springing India back to life, along with Virat Kohli. Once Malinga was replaced, India steadied before taking control of the match. Sri Lanka's selection of spin bowler Suraj Randiv backfired, and, outside of Malinga and Tillakaratne Dilshan, none of the Sri Lankan bowlers challenged the Indian batsmen. Randiv had been brought into the squad only Thursday as an injury replacement for Angelo Mathews, but he curiously was preferred in the starting lineup to play his first match of the World Cup over Ajantha Mendis and Rangana Herath, two spinners who had played significant roles for Sri Lanka throughout the tournament. Murali's quiet day did not help Sri Lanka's cause, either.
Sri Lanka had renewed hope when Dilshan dismissed Kohli with a spectacular one-handed diving catch off his own bowling that would have made Larry Fitzgerald proud and that allowed Dhoni to take center stage. Watching Dhoni bat is never aesthetically pleasing. His bat functions more like an iron shovel than a slice of carved willow. However, the 91 runs he scored today in a Man of the Match performance will be remembered by Indian fans as if the performance had been sculpted by Michelangelo. When Gambhir got out with 52 runs still needed to win, it was left to Dhoni to finish the job. The six he launched to seal the match was the finishing touch on his work of art.
Tendulkar was carried around the field by his teammates for a victory lap, and just about all of them dedicated this win to him. But it was Dhoni's dedication as a leader that carried India to a World Cup final win in Mumbai.
Peter Della Penna is an American born and raised cricket journalist who writes for ESPNcricinfo.com and DreamCricket.com. His work has also appeared in "The Wisden Cricketer" and Wisden Cricketers Almanack.