2 July, 2017. Mahendra Singh Dhoni sat stone-faced at the balcony of the dressing room in North Sound, Antigua, as Jason Holder and Co broke into a celebration on the ground. India had just made a hash of what was supposed to be walk in the park against the West Indies, failing to chase down as low a target as 190. Dhoni knew that much of the failure would be attributed to him. The man who was the toast of the entire nation only a match before had just recorded the second slowest half-century in India's One-Day International (ODI) history, and he knew that the knives would already have started to be sharpened back home. His knock, he knew, would be blamed for derailing India's chase. His look was one of emptiness, and there could well have been a drop of tear in his eye. He tried to muster a smile as a teammate offered him a consoling hand.
10 December, 2017. It has been just under six months, but Dhoni's life seems to have already travelled a full circle. The Indian batsmen were being roasted by the Sri Lankan pacers on a lively pitch on a cold morning in Dharamsala. India were four down for 16, when Dhoni was called into action. Soon India plummeted to 29/7 in the 17th over. Wickets were tumbling, runs were coming at a drip. Dhoni could well have been a cipher. In a collective debacle, he could well have escaped 'inquisition' had he been dismissed for a low score as well. But Dhoni is different. He may have relinquished captaincy of the Indian side, but leadership runs through his veins. And Sunday was an occasion when he had to bring it to bear to the fullest effect.
He could well have thrown in the towel, saying it was beyond one man to remedy a hopeless situation. He instead chose to take a path less trodden. He chose to turn Superman. He farmed the strike, relinquishing runs to shield the tailenders, goaded them to stick with him, imbuing them with confidence, defending resolutely, and playing some audacious shots in between. Yes, he got lucky at times, with a few inside edges to the fence, but then there were the customary dancing down the track with authority and the characteristic axe-blows.
He scored more than half the runs that the entire team managed. And in whichever way you look at it, with 65 off 87 balls — a knock studded with ten fours and two sixes — Dhoni seemed to be playing a different match, a different opposition and on a different pitch. Yes, he could not take India to a 'respectable' total, let alone a challenging one, but at 29/7, it could have been a lot more embarrassing had it not been for Dhoni. Suddenly, there was a scramble to know what the lowest ODI score for India had been. For a moment, nightmares of 54 all-out would have come rushing back. That day in 2000 in Sharjah, India were ripped apart by Chaminda Vaas and Muttiah Muralitharan. In the end, the proposition became too tough for Dhoni as well.
During the middle overs, Dhoni was forced to look at big currency, when normally small changes are the order of the day. Singles were out of the question, at least at the start of an over, for that would have meant throwing the Jasprit Bumrahs and Kuldeep Yadavs in the line of fire. Dhoni, therefore, had to often manufacture big shots in the first four to five balls and then look for singles in the last part of the over, so that he retained strike in the next over as well. The Lankans tried to make it tough for him by pushing the field back for the first part of the over, and bringing it in for the final two balls.
Under these circumstances, and fast running out of partners, Dhoni couldn't have sustained his plan for long. He eventually fell as many as 11.4 overs earlier than the scheduled close of India's innings, trying to force the pace in the first part of the over. Symbolically, he was the last man to fall. It was he who had been keeping the wolves at bay, his exit signalled curtains for the Indian innings.
This was Dhoni's first ODI fifty in a losing cause since that crawl in North Sound back in July, which had impelled many people to draw parallels with Manoj Prabhakar and Nayan Mongia's infamous blockathon against the Windies in an ODI at Kanpur, back in 1994. The pair had given up the chase with 63 needed off 54 balls, with five wickets in hand, and instead, ended up scoring just 16. Prabhakar and Mongia were dropped for the following game, as match-fixing allegations started to gain traction.
It was a massive insult to Dhoni to have had his innings in North Sound compared to the 1994 Kanpur fiasco. Thankfully, not many read too much into those comparisons and Dhoni was soon to produce an absolute gem in the second ODI of the series against Sri Lanka in Pallekele, even as Akila Dhananjaya was running rings round the vaunted Indian batting line-up. Dhoni came to the crease at the dismissal of Virat Kohli with the score reading 118/4. Soon it was 131/7, with Dhananjaya already having taken six wickets and looking good for more. India were still 100 runs adrift and it was looking an Everest to climb.
But till Dhoni was there, India could not lose hope. And he was soon to prove why. Dhoni added 38 priceless more runs off 55 balls since the seventh wicket went down. He got a staunch ally in Bhuvneshwar Kumar, who put together a handsome 53 off 80 balls, and India were through. That was a slap on the face of the Dhoni-baiters. He rubbed it in with two more superlative performances in that series. In fact, whenever there have been doubts over his abilities, Dhoni has hit back hard. One remembers his feisty 92 not-out off 86 balls against South Africa in Indore a bit over two years back. At that time too, he was facing bitter criticism over his captaincy and batting.
Yes, he is no longer the marauder that he used to be, and will never be again, but he is still a master finisher, and an iron pillar in the Indian batting line-up filled with mighty stroke-makers. He has proved his credentials time and again, but is on perpetual trial these days. And that is as unjust as it can possibly be.
Recently, his efforts in the second T20I of the series against New Zealand were questioned. Chasing a mammoth 197, India were reduced to 67/4 when Dhoni joined the free-flowing Kohli at the centre. However, Dhoni took a bit too long to get started, scoring his first 16 runs at less than a-run-a-ball, when the need to the hour was for runs scored to far overshoot balls faced. He scored 49 off 37 balls, hastening up only in the last two overs of the innings, but it was not good enough in the face of the mountain that India had to climb. Dhoni's innings decelerated India's chase and out came the daggers. And this time, there were some big names joining in.
"... when Virat Kohli was batting, Dhoni had to give strike to Kohli. Kohli's strike rate was 160, MS Dhoni's strike rate was 80. That's not good enough when India were chasing a mammoth total. I still feel it's time for MS Dhoni to give youngsters a chance in T20 format," said the legendary VVS Laxman.
Former India pacer Ajit Agarkar was more scathing. "I think India must now look at other options, at least in T20Is... just as a batsman, will India miss him, I don't think so. In T20 cricket, it is lot easier to make that transition as there is lot of experience in that team apart from MS Dhoni now," Agarkar said.
"You had a chance (in the second T20 against New Zealand) if he had got going immediately, but that has been his problem for a while now. It's not tonight or over the last few games. He takes a little bit of time to settle down and in twenty 20 cricket, there is no time... he came into bat in the 10th over in this match. How many times you get to bat 10 overs in T20 cricket and in my opinion, there was enough time" Agarkar added.
India coach Ravi Shastri came out in Dhoni's support, saying "People should look back at their career before commenting on Dhoni."
The selectors had turned the heat on him. Chief selector MSK Prasad said in August that if Dhoni didn't perform, they would look for alternatives. But Dhoni has proven that there are still no alternatives for him.
That has been the story of Dhoni, especially in the latter part of his career really. For the legion of his fans all around the world, there have been those who have made it a habit to pounce on him at his slightest slip-up. But then, the champion that he is, Dhoni always finds a way to silence them with his performance. And there lies the significance of his knock in Dharamsala on Sunday.
Memory jogs back to a very similar innings he played eight years back against the Windies in Jamaica. He came to the crease with India's score reading 7/3 and saw wickets fall like ninepins around him. India fell to 82/8, and then Dhoni got together with RP Singh to thwart the Caribbean team for nearly 27 more overs, adding a bit over a hundred runs to the total. India did lose that match in the end, but Dhoni stood out with his show of sheer character, as he has every time he has been pushed against the wall. His innings in Dharamsala should now silence his detractors once and for all.