Feet heavy as if strapped with iron. Clammy, sweaty palms. Palpitations courtesy a racing heart. Hands unwilling to do the bidding of the mind. Which itself is cluttered, a million thoughts flitting through in the bat of an eyelid. Mental and physical paralysis. Welcome to the world of pressure.
Fortunately, nobody has managed to get that message across to Mahendra Singh Dhoni. Pressure? Er, what's that? Nerves? Only of steel, thank you very much. Paralysis? Not me, but you can check with the opposition please. What makes Mahendra Singh Dhoni tick, I honestly don't know. Nor, I suspect, does most of the rest of the world - expert, layman, anyone. Except, of course, Mahendra Singh Dhoni himself.
"I think I am blessed with a bit of good cricketing sense," he said, matter-of-factly, after his last-over heroics against Shamind Eranga at Port of Spain in the final of the tri-series against Sri Lanka. Masterclass in understatement? You bet. A bit of good cricketing sense? Really?
The club over long-off off Eranga, confused, uncertain, clearly intimidated and slightly reluctant to run in and deliver the ball, wasn't by any stretch Dhoni's most famous winning six against Sri Lanka. The pride of place will always be occupied by that nonchalant swat over long-on off Nuwan Kulasekara at the Wankhede, in the final of the World Cup. But long before that spectacular finish, the result of the World Cup final had been decided, largely on the back of Dhoni's enterprise and courage. At Port of Spain, the stage wasn't as big, the stakes nowhere near as high, but this final was tantalisingly poised in a yo-yoing match of mistakes galore which made for gripping viewing.
While each ball in that fateful final over was an event by itself, it was the goings-on between deliveries that was even more fascinating. Before the final over, Dhoni requisitioned a heavy stick - 'The weight was perfect for slogging' - but nary a line of worry creased his forehead as he swung at, and missed, the first ball of the 50th over, not even when it came down to 15 off five deliveries. Dhoni knew he needed just three balls to finish things off. And he did.
As the first of those three deliveries soared over Eranga's head and clattered into the roof of the Queen's Park Oval, there was a sense of the inevitable. It wasn't just another stroke, it wasn't just another, however crucial, six. It was a dare. Without opening his mouth, without eyeballing the bowler, the Dhoni message was loud and clear: "I am here." More experienced campaigners than Eranga would have baulked; the young man simply had no chance.
The Sri Lankan think-tank huddled around Eranga, quick with advice, a little admonition, a lot of encouragement. Dhoni stood still, poised, unfussed, fidgeting with his gloves but far from nervous. He knew the dare had been thrown. He knew what was coming. He didn't expect, he didn't hope. He knew.
Pressure can do different things to different people. A majority, a vast majority, just seizes up and freezes. Most individuals lose sight of the necessity to stay in the present, caught up in the emotion of it all and focussed more on the final result. Dhoni, like a true champion, somehow manages to steer clear of all that. He is blessed alright, but not with just 'a bit' of cricketing sense.
Twice in the last fortnight, in two successive Cup finals, it has come down to performances under pressure, to mind over matter, to resolve as much as skill. On both occasions, it is India who have come out on top. Against two different oppositions, in two different continents, in two completely contrasting situations.
England had the Champions Trophy all but sewn up, blasting their way towards the finish line through Eoin Morgan and Ravi Bopara when, out of nowhere, the misfiring Ishant Sharma dramatically sprang to life. Morgan and Bopara fell in successive deliveries, having taken their team to within 20 runs of the title with 16 deliveries and seven wickets in the bag; England never recovered from those twin blows, succumbing to the relentless pressure applied by Dhoni's India and to their own mental frailties. To reach out and embrace victory wasn't just a sweeter option, it was also the easier one. Somehow, England managed the more difficult, heart-breaking choice, their mental faculties letting them down as they allowed the weight of the world to descend on their shoulders. If ever there was an escape from jail so far as India was concerned, this was it.
Or so one thought, until Port of Spain. This tri-series final was scrappy, the pendulous swing of fortunes brought about not so much by cricketing brilliance as a collective brain-freeze that encompassed batsmen from both units. Sri Lanka found ways to self-destruct, only managing 201 despite having made their way to 171 for 2. India threatened to match their rivals, going from 139 for 3 to 182 for 9 in a trice. Difficult pitch, yes, but hardly the minefield to justify such collapses.
One man, though, refused to tread the beaten path. Dhoni, limping badly from the lingering ill-effects of a hamstring tear, kept his wits about him as he often does. When R Vinay Kumar, in his first match of the twin tours of England and the West Indies, played an extraordinarily poor shot to be ninth man dismissed with 20 needed, Dhoni didn't flinch. His body language didn't suggest a lost cause, his face showed neither disappointment nor anger. He was in a zen-like state; there was a job to be done, and if he had to do it himself, so be it.
And so it was. Some seven years back, midway through Greg Chappell's most tumultuous stint as India coach, the most ridiculed words in Indian cricket were process and outcome. There were sniggers at press conferences every time Chappell, or Rahul Dravid the captain, spoke of the need to focus on the processes. "Once you do the processes right, the outcome will take care of itself," or variations of that pronouncement, were met with a knowing smile, a guffaw, a sarcastic 'Oh yes'. In private, various members of the team would ape the Australian accent and wonder if they were in a cricket team or a psychology class. Very few bought into the 'process-outcome' concept. But post 2007, post the Chappell era, every single individual that has represented the Indian team - every rookie, every veteran, every super senior - has repeatedly harped on the same process-outcome theme. To suggest that the seeds of the successes of today were sown during that period will be taking things too far, but who is to say how well India might have done in the Chappell-Dravid period had process and outcome not been looked at as two disparaging, ill-meaning, inappropriate words.
"Who writes your bloody script then?" Graham Gooch had once famously asked Ian Botham in the summer of 1986. Botham had been slapped with a three-month drugs ban and on his return, dismissed Bruce Edgar with his first ball to equal the then world record of 355 Test wickets. That was in keeping with Botham's larger-than-life persona, just as Shane Warne's ball of the century to Mike Gatting more than half a decade later was. In his own way, Dhoni has the sense of the theatre too, but supremely underplayed and without the attendant theatrics. He wasn't even supposed to play the final, but ended up walking away with all the accolades and the glory. Who writes your bloody script then, MS?