India are inching towards a comfortable series win. Rohit Sharma and MS Dhoni are cruising towards the target with ease. It's all too smooth and easy in Pallekele but then, suddenly, everything goes wild. The fans go berserk. Bottles are flung onto the field. Play is temporarily suspended. No one heeds the warnings on the PA system — they have had enough. The policemen try to appease the crowd but to no avail.
The Sri Lankan players shift to the centre of the field to protect themselves. There is utter chaos. The umpires are continuously monitoring the situation. The Sri Lankan players, some worried faces, are standing helplessly near the 22-yard strip. Rohit is having a chat with the 12th man and amidst all this, Dhoni does the unthinkable. He puts down his bat, removes his helmet and gloves and goes for a power nap in the middle of the field.
Dhoni not just has this knack of playing defining innings, he has the knack of providing defining pictures and moments as well. There was the iconic twirl of the bat after hitting the winning six in the 2011 World Cup final at the Wankhede. At the M Chinnaswamy Stadium, he just stood and smiled as the other beside him went wild in celebrations after Dhoni's Usain Bolt-esque run out of Mustafizur Rahman which kept India in the hunt in 2016 World T20. As Dhoni went off to sleep at the Pallekele international stadium, social media erupted. Even the commentators and experts were amused.
"I think only Dhoni can do this," Harsha Bhogle said in the studio. "Catch a nap in the middle of the ground saying when you guys are done with with your stupidity, just tell me, I will pick up my bat and start playing again."
Sunil Gavaskar went one step ahead. "MSD is an ice cube, he is a refrigerator, he is a fridge, He should be a citizen of Iceland."
That moment encapsulated Dhoni the person and cricketer. He just shut him off from all the nonsense and then when finally, the riot task force emptied around 40 percent of the jampacked Pallekele international stadium, he got up and hit the winning runs and walked off. It was simple. It was easy.
Over the years, Dhoni has found himself amidst a variety of chaotic scenes. Chaos on the field with wickets tumbling at the other end and chaos off it with the ever-increasing scrutiny.
Questions such as 'should Dhoni be a part of the World Cup?' 'Will he play the World Cup?' 'Dhoni is ageing, he is already 36, why can't we look forward to the youngsters?' have been asked more times than the number of bottles flung inside the ground by the unruly crowd at Pallekele that night.
Before the Sri Lanka ODI series, out of nowhere, chief selector MSK Prasad raised an alarm saying Dhoni could no longer take his place for granted. "If he is delivering, why not? If he is not, we will have to look at alternatives," Prasad had said.
Amidst all the questions and criticism that his finishing powers are waning, Dhoni has remained calm. His ability to shut off the outside world is probably his biggest asset. An uncluttered mind makes the decision making easy.
Dhoni was amidst a huge mayhem just four days ago when Akila Dananjaya ran riot to bamboozle the top and middle order. He walked in at 118/4 with India chasing 231 from 47 overs and saw Dananjaya devour three more Indian batsmen at the other end. He remained unflustered, steadied the ship with Bhuvneshwar Kumar and dragged India past the finish line. He wasn't just handling one end, he was continuously guiding Bhuvneshwar at the other as well.
"When I went in to bat, MS told me to play my natural game like I play in Test cricket and don't take any pressure as we had a lot of overs at that time. We knew if we played them out we would chase easily," Bhuvneshwar said at the post match press conference.
"MS said play as you want to play. So at one particular stage I felt that I could play some attacking but risk free shots on which I had full confidence. So it's not like that he gave me any responsibility or asked me to play any big shots. It's just that the stage was such that I had confidence on myself that if I get such a ball I can hit it," Bhuvneshwar added.
— Rohan Zemse (@rohanzemse) August 27, 2017
In the third ODI, India were reeling at 61/4, chasing a tricky target of 218, when Dhoni strode out to the middle. He stabilised (67 not out) the proceedings along with Rohit Sharma (124 not out) and the duo stitched an unbeaten 157-run stand, third-highest for the fifth wicket for India against Sri Lanka, to clinch the series 3-0. In process, Dhoni equalled the record for most not-outs with Shaun Pollock and Chaminda Vaas in ODIs — 72.
Here too, Dhoni's experience was the key as Rohit explained to Bumrah after the match.
“Obviously it is not a good feeling when you see wickets falling at the other end. But we always knew that one big partnership was required at that point. We saw it even in the last game that one big partnership and we won the game. That was the talk and that was the idea to try and create a partnership and yes MS Dhoni has been such an experienced player in that situation. He has batted in that situation so many times and bailed the team out. So all we were trying to do was take it over by over and just take the game till the end. We knew that if we bat till the 45th or 46th over, we would win the game. That was the idea and that was the talk in the middle,” Rohit said.
Two crucial innings in two matches underlined the worth of Dhoni. Not just while batting, Dhoni is continuously giving his inputs on the field with field settings and bowling changes. He is still one of the best runners between the wickets in international cricket. He is still one of the fittest cricketers in India. He's lightening fast behind the stumps. He's got that guiding power along with ample experience.
"MS deserves to go out on his own terms," former Australia batsman Michael Hussey told Cricbuzz. "If he believes he can play the next World Cup, who is to doubt him? He is a very modest and honest man. If he thinks he cannot contribute to India's cause in the World Cup, I don't think he will be there. At 36, he is still one of the fittest players. He knows his game and he looks after his body well. So he knows when to call it quits."
Dhoni's metamorphosis from a flamboyant youngster to a matured mastermind has been fascinating. In the last few years, Cricket has increasingly become a mental game. There will be times when even the fittest of the players won't click. There will be times when Virat Kohli's aggression won't materialise. There will be times when the team will be in utter disarray, just like the 3rd ODI in Pallekele. There will be times when the others might just go to sleep and this is when Dhoni will wake up from his power nap and bring calm amidst chaos.