Chase to chase-meister. It was to be the last act of a supremely low-key One-Day International series – how often do we use those words in that order when it is a series involving India? – that juddered to a halt at the iconic Sabina Park on Thursday.
The chase-meister needed this knock, as much for himself as the team. It wasn’t so much because the series had yet to be sealed as the fact that in his two previous digs, Virat Kohli had fallen prey to the short ball. Because of the sluggish nature of the track at the Sir Vivian Richards Stadium, the short ball that climbed ponderously, with tennis-ball bounce, posed more than the usual challenges, so not too much should be read into those two dismissals. But for a self-confessed cricketing perfectionist, how can that be an excuse?
So in his next outing, Kohli did what he does best, singing the most mellifluous redemption song in front of maybe a couple of thousand fans at Sabina Park and a slightly bigger television audience. ODI century No. 28 was almost a given – especially after Shikhar Dhawan fell early – even though the target was only 206. ODI century No. 28 duly arrived, unhurried yet majestic, the target still a few meaty blows away.
More by accident than design, one is almost certain, Kohli brought up the victory with a six over long-on, a gentle flick of those wondrous wrists sending Roston Chase’s offspin soaring deep into the stands. This wasn’t the final of the World Cup. Upwards of 35,000 fans weren’t cheering and screaming and going nuts. The atmosphere was almost somnambulistic. There was no famous twirl of the bat before it snuggled below the left armpit. And yet, you couldn’t help but hark back to that April 2 night of 2011, at the Wankhede Stadium, when the then Indian captain hammered the mother of all sixes, also over long-on, to send a nation into delirium.
Whatever else he might have achieved – and he has achieved almost everything there is to as an international cricketer – it is that attitude, followed by that innings in the World Cup final which will define Dhoni in my humble book. The easier, safe, unquestioned choice would have been to stick to the tried, tested and successful; in veering off track and taking what was by all accounts a dangerous course, he had emphatically but silently put team before himself, never mind what the rest of the world and its neighbour might think.
It is an image that is burned in the memory of every Indian cricket lover. Mahendra Singh Dhoni disdainfully clattering Nuwan Kulasekara over the straight field, watching the ball fly away into the darkness, then calmly celebrating the realisation of a dream, the scaling of the pinnacle.
That Wankhede innings, more than anything else, tells you everything there is to about Dhoni. Where most men would have seen a cloud, all he saw was a silver lining. For others, it could have been a challenge; for the simple Jharkhandi with the most astute of cricketing brains, it was an opportunity. The lesser mortals might have feared the worst. Dhoni took emotion out of the equation, tied up negativity and binned it, operating on cold logic and a self-belief that doesn’t come easily to even the most gifted.
The prudent course would have been to allow things to unravel the way they had all tournament long. Yuvraj Singh was in the middle of a fabulous run, while Dhoni himself had had a middling time with the bat. Common-sense would have dictated that when Kohli was third man dismissed with India’s reply to Sri Lanka’s 274 having reaching 114 in the 22nd over, it should be the left-handed talisman that should have walked out at his customary No. 5 position. Instead, to gasps of surprise soon replaced by squeals of delight, out came Dhoni – sure of step, cool as ice, oblivious to the excitement and the mayhem around him.
“What’s wrong with him? This is madness,” a seasoned scribe blurted out, his emotions getting the better of usual self-containment. Several others murmured in consent. What was Dhoni doing? Does he even know what he is doing?
Oh he knew all too well, didn’t he? He knew that he could play Muttiah Muralitharan, still the wily old fox even if it was his last international game, better than most people in the world, Yuvraj included. He knew, having watched him closely at Chennai Super Kings, which way the whirling dervish would turn the ball, how he would react when put under pressure, what variations he would bring into play when the going got tough. He knew that he was a better starter – then – against spin than Yuvraj ever has been. He knew that, despite only 150 runs from seven previous knocks in the World Cup, he stood a greater chance of driving the team forward in that situation than did the man who was to finish as the Player of the Tournament.
But Dhoni didn’t know that he would succeed. He didn’t know that, despite all the aforementioned reasons, he would get the job done. He didn’t know that no one would out him that day. He didn’t know that, a little over two hours after purposefully striding out, he would be twirling his bat in delight and triumph. He would have known certainly, however, that had the move backfired and India lost, he would have been pilloried. Taken apart. Ripped to shreds. He knew, but he couldn’t be bothered about uncontrollables. He felt he was the best man for the job at that point in time; as history will testify, he proved himself right.
But why would you do it? What strength of character do you possess that you are willing to put everything on the line, no matter how clearly you might have thought it through? How can you not be afflicted by the fear of failure, and of the unthinkable yet plainly obvious ramifications of not courting success? What are you made of, MS?
Whatever else he might have achieved – and he has achieved almost everything there is to as an international cricketer – it is that attitude, followed by that innings, in the World Cup final which will define Dhoni in my humble book. The easier, safe, unquestioned choice would have been to stick to the tried, tested and successful; in veering off track and taking what was by all accounts a dangerous course, he had emphatically but silently put team before himself, never mind what the rest of the world and its neighbour might think.
The Dhoni of today isn’t quite the same specimen, but then again, who does time stand still for? What hasn’t changed is his honest self-awareness and self-assessment. He is no longer the blazing hurricane that sweeps all before it; he is constantly in the process of reinventing his game in deference to his own advancing years and the plans that opponents have worked out. Occasionally, like in North Sound last Friday, he will roll the clock back and put on an exhibition; from time to time, like also in North Sound last Sunday, he will face the music for ‘taking it deep’ and not getting the job done. But will he ever overstay his welcome, the man who took the biggest risk of his career on his biggest night as captain?
Kohli’s six over long-on was an early birthday gift for his predecessor. While the clock had ticked past 2 am in India, it was still late afternoon in Kingston, a few hours before – in that time zone – Dhoni would turn 36. If it was a tribute, there couldn’t have been a better one. If it was just a coincidence, we will take that, too. And celebrate the extraordinary life and times of Mahendra Singh Dhoni, the one and only.