Indore was the seat of the Holkar dynasty under the Peshwa of the Maratha empire in the 18th century, at the height of the Maratha empire. The empire that was praised by its enemies; it had taken on the mighty Aurangzeb, the Mughal emperor head on and wore him down. It was in this eponymous Holkar stadium that the old warhorse M S Dhoni rallied his troops to inflict damages on the mighty South African side, reminiscent of the guerilla skirmish tactics of the figurehead of the Maratha dynasty. It is definitely difficult to surmise Dhoni’s mindset leading the team for the umpteenth time, weary of battle. After all, he was India’s winningest ODI captain in history and a superman in coloured clothing. South Africa had motored along to 131 for 2 at the end of the 23rd over and were only 117 adrift with the required run- rate a serene, non- violent Mahatma- Madiba like 4.33. India’s tormentor, J P Duminy was still batting, having creamed Yadav to 3 boundaries in the previous over, with the heavy artillery of A B de Villiers still holstered in the armoury. The gamble experiment with Suresh Raina had not worked in his two overs which costed 18 runs. The gambler, a moniker which was stuck to Dhoni ever since the T20 World Cup victory, would not have his way they said, even with a left hander at the crease. Almost on instinct, Dhoni tossed the ball to Axar Patel, of the pre- pubescent moustache and a lanky frame. On the last ball of the over, almost on cue, Duminy misses the line and gets struck in front. Vineet Kulkarni would not deny India this wicket (he would more than make up for his mistakes with Behardien’s wicket going India’s way later). Still, it would only delay the inevitable. How could India harbour thoughts of victory yet with the crowd favourite AB yet to come and his kryptonite injured in the previous match?
The South African visit was a hex on the Dhoni team so far. The India- A team had managed a comfortable victory in the warm up but this proved to be the false dawn with the senior team being duly thrashed in the T20 series that followed. The experts were vouching for the younger model, alluding to the law of nature. There was some evidence of subtle insubordination as well, and followed by a chafing contrarian counter that made for interesting viewing, coming from the older man. He is certainly not anchored in the same secure position of being the undisputed leader of all 3 formats ever since his retirement. His recent campaign in the rising Bangladesh has pockmarked his record and the difficulties of being jettisoned for a part of a bilateral series are all too well known. This, coupled with the new- fashioned ideas of the younger man which yielded good results in Sri Lanka, his ideas seem so…. 2012, when the end of the world was prophesized. The murmurs questioning his place in the team have only grown louder with time. His blockbuster party trick of the last over blitz had failed in the last ODI, that too against a greenhorn, with Dhoni having to explain himself excessively to a devouring pack of journalists cordoned off his mindspace ever since he became the captain.
Every person had become a critic, questioning his place in the side. Azhar, who had averaged 27 in his last 2 calendar years, a performance which resembled an average middle order bat. Aakash Chopra, of the 91 strike rate in T20s (with a solitary six) fame, even took a question on big hitting and Dhoni. This, of a person who averaged 59 @ 94 SR in the last two years and was the only Indian presence well above the world average of 34 in the same time period. Granted, before today’s match, he averaged 40 runs in 2015 but he’s not even in the reckoning to be the worst batsman in the Indian batting lineup this year but surely is a victim of his own high standards. After all, batsman who has averaged over 40 every calendar year since 2004 should be hailed as a panacea rather than subjected to a witch hunt. This is certainly not the first time a high profile performer (and certainly won’t be the last) has been targetted due to his visibility; the peerless Tendulkar has been targetted time and again for his hundreds in a losing cause, questioning his appetite to finish a match- a Rohit Sharma innings of a similar template does not elicit the same response from the intelligentsia. It is perhaps a sign of the standards expected from the ho- hum routine performers when their failures are highlighted in the same vein as the successes of the others.
Dhoni is not the same player of old- the buccaneering, swashbuckling dasher who set the stage alight a decade ago. The whispers of him losing his ability to hit big have pointed to the fable of the biblical Samson, the one who lost his strength with his mane. It must be remembered that Tendulkar too remodelled his game after umpteen injuries. Dhoni has every license of doing so with a brittle batting order around him, one which has been 4 down for less than 150 in 26 games and has lost 17 times in the two years leading till July 2015. The strange equation involving Rahane and Dhoni has been compounded by Kohli’s failure at no. 4 this year, having scored a wretched 39 runs in 5 outings. Dhoni takes his time to build an innings nowadays, a feature that he has himself confessed to, but his ODI cadence more than makes up for his initial settlement period thus resulting in his ~90 strike rate. The problem is further exacerbated by the absence of a nuclear warhead in the late middle order- one who can blast attacks at will and take first strike in a super over. Apart from Yusuf Pathan, only Raina performs this role sporadically and Dhoni has not played an innings of this nature since 2011. On this note, questioning Dhoni’s role in the ODI team is uncalled for whereas his place in the T20 team is certainly food for thought.
It was in this backdrop that Dhoni came to the crease with India smarting at 82/3 which escalated to 102/4, 104/5 and 124/6 with the threat of a curtailed innings looming large. In typical Dhoni fashion, he dug his heels, motoring along with the tail and doing what he does best- score runs in seemingly ugly fashion. At the death, he summoned the Dhoni of old, exploding and launching into a strong bowling attack to a scarcely believable 247. The naysayers would still point to the five dot balls in the final over in their first drafts of their articles in print & electronic media. The ones with longer memories would hint at another futile effort in the manner of the Tunbridge Wellseque Chennai knock against Pakistan. How could India win considering India’s last successful defence of a sub- 250 score in 50 overs came against a brittle Pakistan in 2013? How could India dream to defend 248 on a ground where the previous lowest score batting first was 288, that too with such a profligate bowling attack? How would India reconcile to losing further ground in the series and the Maratha bastion, of the two fiefdoms of the erstwhile confederacy to have witnessed ODI double hundreds? More importantly, how on earth would India stop AB de Villiers?
Unreal roars would welcome AB to the crease, with the familiar IPL hero having removed the last vestiges of partisanship from the crowd. Faf would depart soon after, having hit straight to cover. Surely David Miller was due for a big score? It was not to be. Two balls later, Yadav removes the tentative batsman poking through to Dhoni, one of the 4 dismissals he has a hand in. It was Miller time all right, but for India. Could India dare to dream with the last- lest we jinx it- recognized batting pair? Patel and Kumar go through 4 tight overs before Kumar is flayed by AB for a six- 11 for the over. Surely an ominous sign of the things to come? Harbhajan is thrown the ball and changing the angles gets South Africa closer by 4. Mohit Sharma charges in and the scenes are delirious after the first ball; AB has smashed one to his RCB teammate at cover, who takes a leaping catch. Many a headline has been hastily erased at this juncture, but only just. Everyone knows that Dhoni spins a good yarn and writes a good script but who knows what the post- script will be? It is not looking good with Dale Steyn taking a liking to Harbhajan, the target a comfortable 67 in 16 overs. Behardien had been an able foil to Duminy in the first T20– what if he spoiled the show? Some good slice of fortune follows the next two wickets and India is into the tail, a sensation that was last experienced in the final fling of the Australian summer in the World cup. Could Rabada become a hero with the bat? Jinxes and reverse jinxes follow as Rabada piles on a composed 19. The edges too are falling South Africa’s way. Will India (gulp!) choke on this match?
India has now run out of the overs of the full time spinners. Opting between the slog sweep, cow corner bait spin bowling and the outside edge, boundary seeking heat missile fast bowling has the makings of Sophie’s choice. More nails are chewed. Kumar is going to be taken to the cleaners at his pace. No way MS, you’ve written your own obituary. Pencils and swords sharpened. Visions of an adopted Pakistani, running amok around the ground, arms aloft come to mind. Tahir swishes hard outside off stump and Dhoni leaps upon pouching the ball. Did he edge it? Tell me, did he edge it? Yes he did! Up goes the finger! Oh wait, Ravi Shastri is not on air. Never mind. Dhoni is animated and celebrates having taken the catch, a reaction of self-congratulation that had previously made a cursory appearance in the 2010 IPL and the Champions trophy victory. It must get over now, please! Morkel has a high right elbow that Gavaskar would be proud of. Damn, four more runs. Morkel edges the next ball but wait, it goes out of frame towards a tumbling Raina who has the ball behind him. Just like his generation to drop it. Hang on, Dhoni is celebrating and players are running to the middle!! And just like that, catharsis. The Maratha bastion was not to be felled this time. Sure, there might be an Anglo- Maratha war the next time around. But until that, we can savour that we have our own Peshwa. At this rate, no other scriptwriter other than MS would be necessary for the movie.