Time and tide were running out for Mahendra Singh Dhoni. India's dreams, the dreams of more than a billion people, were being washed away by Sri Lanka. Dhoni sensed as much, and he acted. Barely two hours later he and his team were riding the crest of a wave that may never recede.
The country's first World Cup win for 28 years was hailed throughout the land and in many places beyond. In Mumbai, the scene of the triumph by six wickets, the party seemed as if it would never stop. It was commonplace to meet people who said simply, ecstatically: "This is the best day of my life."
But to ensure that destiny was fulfilled, it took an astonishing piece of chutzpah from Dhoni. Along with Sachin Tendulkar, the idol of India still, India's captain was the emblem of this tournament. Dhoni has been everywhere. His face looked down from gigantic advertising hoardings as if he was Big Brother's sidekick; his monopoly of television had become complete.
On the pitch, however, he was suffering. His captaincy retained its key component, an air of priceless tranquillity, but his batting was wretched, its primitive method exposed by diminishing returns. His wicketkeeping, similarly lacking in refinement, was hardly better.
So to the moment on Saturday night that defined the man. Sri Lanka had made 274 for 6, buttressed by a peerless century from Mahela Jayawardene. In response, India had fallen to 31 for 2, their biggest guns, Virender Sehwag and Tendulkar, both silenced, along with most of the nation. A recovery of sorts had been mounted between Gautam Gambhir, who could never be described as a musketeer, and the young Virad Kohli. But on 114, Kohli was wonderfully held by Tillekeratne Dilshan from his own bowling, swooping to his right.
To general astonishment then, Dhoni emerged. He had promoted himself in the order above not only Yuvraj Singh, a man who had scored five fifties in the competition, who had repeatedly bailed out India and who was to be formally declared the player of the tournament, but also Suresh Raina, a bristling, fearless dynamo, scorer of crucial runs in both the quarter- and semi-final.
Dhoni saw it through. From 79 balls he scored 91 not out. He repelled the menace of Muttiah Muralitharan, whose wiles he read easily, he rotated the strike relentlessly with Gambhir and he finished off the match in a blaze of glory with a clubbed short-arm six over long-on. The best World Cup final since the first in 1975 had gone to the only side to win it at home.
Later, chewing biscuits between answers in a perpetually excitable press conference, Dhoni said: "It was a big decision, I knew that if I promoted myself and didn't score runs I would be asked why I couldn't stay back? If I promoted myself there would be two left-handed batsmen after me and if I got out the side may have been in trouble."
But he did not get out, he never looked like getting out. The right hand-left hand combination, Dhoni and Gambhir, was wonderfully effective. Dhoni introduced new urgency, turning none into singles and singles into twos. He muzzled Murali in his last international match. "I have played a lot with Murali for the Chennai Super Kings in the IPL and I know his doosra quite well, and he knows that also. I was able to put a bit of pressure on him."
When Gambhir was bowled, trying to complete the second century of the match, it was Yuvraj who arrived and fittingly helped his captain to orchestrate the gallop to victory with 10 balls left. Eight years earlier when India had last reached the final, Dhoni was working as a railway ticket clerk close to his home town of Ranchi in the north-east, about 250 miles from Kolkata, a city of waterfalls and forests. He was a good if rudimentary cricketer, whose leadership potential was spotted by the national team's Australian coach, Greg Chappell.
India and Chappell did not turn out to be a comfortable fit for each other, but Dhoni is some legacy. He is a natural leader because it comes naturally to him. Nothing seems to change his outward facade and he makes Andrew Strauss of England, himself a placid captain, look like a king of melodrama.
But Dhoni, who tends to give nothing at all away, revealed the depth of the burden he and his team have been carrying for the past six weeks. "The pressure you go through is a lot," he said. "We felt it throughout the tournament. If you ask the players, they were not eating well because of anxiety. Not pressure, but anxiety. There would be food in front of you but you wouldn't feel like eating it."
Even a player as seemingly endowed with confidence as Yuvraj went through torture. He admitted that he had been physically sick several times during the competition as India stumbled, tying with England and losing to South Africa in the group stage. "Anxiety, anxiety," he said on television. "This was the World Cup and that anxiety can be really heavy."
Dhoni, already rich beyond most of his countrymen's dreams, can name his price from now on. He will be feted for the rest of his life. India have waited 28 years for this. When Kapil Dev led them to their unexpected first title in 1983 it transformed cricket in India and round the globe. The 50-over game took off as never before.
This victory may save 50-over cricket. Under pressure from its brasher cousin, Twenty20, it has struggled to find friends. But India, the game's commercial powerhouse, can dictate its fate in the next few years. Correspondingly, of course, their victory is only good news for the next edition of the Twenty20 Indian Premier League which starts next weekend. All the triumphant team will feature in it and they will be treated regally.
Under their departing South African coach, the scrupulous Gary Kirsten, the Indians planned well for this. Dhoni said they had set their eyes on it some 18 months ago and players were deliberately rested and rotated. Dhoni himself missed two series, Tendulkar did not play for 11 months.
In the broader view this final was the culmination of a long and magnificent winter of cricket, a watershed before the next batch of matches and series start. It began with epic Test series between England and Australia, and India and South Africa, officially the No 1 and No 2 teams in the world.
When the World Cup began it had obvious defects. It was too long, it had too many matches, it had too many awful matches. But the sight of India's population being transfixed was a wonderful redeeming feature. With England playing their part with six quite gripping group games, the tournament always stayed afloat.
Sri Lanka deserve much more than an honourable mention. It was their second successive defeat in a World Cup final (six of the players had been in the team that lost to Australia in 2007) and for long enough the men from the teardrop island looked as if they would break a billion hearts.
If their team selection, with four changes from the semi-final win against New Zealand, seemed odd it also seemed like working. Jayawardene's innings of 103 not out will endure in the memory. There had been five previous hundreds in finals and it lost nothing by comparison, ruthlessly elegant and artistic, a concert pianist caressing the keys.
When Lasith Malinga tore in and dispatched Sehwag, second ball, and the menacing Tendulkar before the seventh over was done, it really looked as though it would be Sri Lanka's night. But MS Dhoni, apart from all else, is a man who recognises destiny when he sees it.
Mumbai (One day): India beat Sri Lanka by six wickets
Sri Lanka won toss
Runs 6s 4s Bls Min
W U Tharanga c Sehwag b Khan 2 0 0 20 29
T M Dilshan b Harbhajan Singh 33 0 3 49 86
*†K C Sangakkara c Dhoni b Y Singh 48 0 5 67 100
D P M D Jayawardene not out 103 0 13 88 156
T T Samaraweera lbw b Yuvraj Singh 21 0 2 34 51
C K Kapugedera c Raina b Khan 1 0 0 5 5
K M D N Kulasekara run out 32 1 1 30 38
N L T C Perera not out 22 1 3 9 9
Extras (b1 lb3 w6 nb2) 12
Total (for 6, 50 overs) 274
Fall: 1-17, 2-60, 3-122, 4-179, 5-182, 6-248.
Did not bat: S L Malinga, S Randiv, M Muralitharan.
Bowling: Z Khan 10-3-60-2, S Sreesanth 8-0-52-0, M M Patel 10-0-48-0, Harbhajan Singh 9-0-43-1, Yuvraj Singh 10-0-49-2, S R Tendulkar 2-0-12-0, V Kohli 1-0-6-0.
Runs 6s 4s Bls Min
V Sehwag lbw b Malinga 0 0 0 2 3
S R Tendulkar c Sangakkara b Malinga 18 0 2 14 31
G Gambhir b Perera 97 0 9 122 185
V Kohli c & b Dilshan 35 0 4 49 67
*†M S Dhoni not out 91 2 8 79 126
Yuvraj Singh not out 21 0 2 24 37
Extras (b1 lb6 w8) 15
Total (for 4, 48.2 overs) 277
Fall: 1-0, 2-31, 3-114, 4-223.
Did not bat: S K Raina, Harbhajan Singh, Z Khan, S Sreesanth, M M Patel.
Bowling: S L Malinga 9-0-42-2, K M D N Kulasekara 8.2-0-64-0, N L T C Perera 9-0-55-1, S Randiv 9-0-43-0, T M Dilshan 5-0-27-1, M Muralitharan 8-0-39-0.
Umpires: Aleem Dar and S J A Taufel.Reuse content