MS Dhoni had just sent the Wankhede Stadium into delirium by upper-cutting Thisara Perera for a six over point. That made it 37 required off 41, with six wickets in hand and the World Cup in sight. He dabbed the next ball towards point, took a couple of steps and stopped, and then hared across, realising Yuvraj Singh had come too far down. The single was completed, everything seemed alright, but Dhoni smashed his pad with his bat. The thud was so loud it could be heard from near the sightscreen, despite all the noise from the stands, where the crowd was going crazy.
It is rare that Dhoni makes such shows of emotion. Strangely, the other time he did so was during an IPL game in Dharamsala when he upper-cut his own helmeted face like a boxer after he had just hit the winning six. He had felt under pressure then. The pressure he would have been under coming into this final is quite perceivable. Before Saturday, he had managed just 150 runs in seven innings. He had also made a few unpopular calls as the captain during the course of the tournament. And after a poor finish to their bowling effort and an ordinary start, India's World Cup dream was coming apart.
When Virat Kohli fell to a fabulous return catch by Tillakaratne Dilshan, the seemingly out-of-form captain promoted himself ahead of the eventual Man of the Tournament. It was a sensible move. As Dhoni himself said later, he wanted to split the cluster of left-hand batsmen in India's middle order, but he also thinks he reads Muttiah Muralitharan's doosra better than the others in that middle order.
Sense or no sense, it was a risky move. "It was a big decision," Dhoni said later. "I knew that if I promoted myself and didn't score runs I would be asked why I couldn't stay back." Even though Dhoni has become a much safer captain than he was at the start of his captaincy, he still has it in him to come up with inspired moves in big games.
Just making the move was not enough this time, though. He had to go out himself and make the move work. Dhoni certainly can't be blamed for not having a sense of occasion or timing. On the big final's night, out came the calculative Dhoni, the perfect mix of caution and aggression, strong as an ox, fast as a hare, the same batsman that not long ago was quite deservingly the No. 1 in ODIs.
During that golden period that took him to the top of the rankings, Dhoni instinctively knew how he'd have to react in any situation. He could absorb pressure, he could accumulate, he could explode. The last year hasn't been that good, but a World Cup final is not a bad time at all for a reprise.
On the eve of the final, all Dhoni practised in the nets was hitting big sixes. He batted on the pitch adjacent to the one used for the match, and kept smashing bowlers towards Marine Drive. That was not what was required in the actual match, and Dhoni knew that. When he came in to bat, the required run-rate was headed towards six, but it also needed to be maintained for 28.2 overs. It would require a lot of ones and twos, and the loose balls would need to be punished wholesomely.
No loose ball went unpunished once Dhoni got set. He did take his time getting set, and relied on Gambhir to maintain the momentum. He was itching to charge down to the part-time offspin of Dilshan, but didn't want to take that risk. In his head the rate was worked out. For the first 10 overs of his stay Dhoni didn't hit a single boundary. Then Muttiah Muralitharan pitched short, and in his own special way Dhoni managed to punch it powerfully enough to beat the sweeper cover. That shot alone kept the rate in check, accounting for all of Dhoni's first four boundaries.
It takes more than just timing to beat the sweeper cover with shots along the ground in the middle overs. That seems like a safe route to go to, but it generally only provides singles or twos. Dhoni, though, gives those punches a solid whack; the power is generated as his massive legs rock back. In between, he and his India A partner from the start of their respective careers, Gambhir, ran well, ever alert to overthrows and misfields.
Once Gambhir became tired Dhoni took over the responsibility of scoring. In the time that Gambhir moved from 87 to 97, Dhoni went from 29 to 60. A perfect transition was taking place when Gambhir got out. Dhoni took some more responsibility then, waiting for the batting Powerplay, but not risking taking it earlier. He knows better by now. It began with India needing 30 off 30, and a good over from Lasith Malinga made it 27 from 24.
Now another Dhoni special surfaced: the drag-flick-like shot that he plays with a much-defined bottom hand and an extravagant flick of his wrists, keeping the shot along the ground, but imparting immense power. Three bottom-hand blows, and the game was over. The stylist in Dhoni, though, remains. With five required, he almost pulled Yuvraj out of his crease to get on strike.
And then Dhoni put his pre-match practice to use, lofting Nuwan Kulasekara for the match-winning, hell-raising six. India's World Cup began on Dhoni's terms, how could the end be different?
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