“My God, that man is dangling off a building!!”
“Calm down, it’s an act.”
“But he might die!”
“He’s the great Houdini. He doesn’t die. He’s escaping from a straight jacket. And he’ll do it in under three minutes! Just watch.”
What do you call the man who makes the seemingly impossible a reality? What do you call a man whose powers of escape are unrivalled? What do you call a man who can cheat certain defeat?
In the early 1900s, you would call him Harry Houdini. Now, you call him Mahendra Singh Dhoni.
There was a strong breeze blowing across the ground for the Rising Pune Supergiant’s game against the Sunrisers Hyderabad. It meant that increased match awareness would be the order of the day: Hitting to one side of the fence would be easier, hitting to the other side though, into the wind, would be harder. On a scale of one to ten, match awareness had to be set at Shaolin Soccer.
MS Dhoni is a master of match awareness. This is the guy who won’t cross over as most batters do when they sky a ball, if it’s the last ball of the over. This is the guy who ran to the stumps to deny Bangladesh a win against India in the WT20. You cannot be a finisher without match awareness. And Dhoni had dethroned Michael Bevan as the world’s best finisher long ago.
But he had not been himself lately. A player who was defined by his captaincy was no longer captain. His batting was looking less finisher and more finished. Before Saturday’s game, his strike rate in the IPL was 87.14. The man who averages almost 40 runs per game in IPL history, had gone five games with just 61 runs this season. There were calls for him to be replaced at the international level by the up and comers. Even his usually impeccable keeping had been slightly untidy.
So it was that MS Dhoni walked out to bat in a breezy evening at the MCA international stadium on Saturday. His reputation walked with him, but without the runs that usually weight it down, the breeze threatened to blow it away.
Dhoni scrapped, scraped, and scooted between creases to begin with. He scored just 9 off his first 13 balls. The required run rate had been an even 10 when he came in, now it was 12.6. His partner, and the set batter Rahul Tripathi had just brought up his maiden fifty, but was not as fluent as he was at the start of the innings. And then he was out -run out to a poorly judged run- there was more pressure on the man who they said did not feel it.
On social media, on BBB commentary, at every dinner table, the chatter was all about how slow MS Dhoni was batting. About how he should not be batting at four at all. Manoj Tiwary deserved the spot, given the form he is in. Ben Stokes, even Dan Christian, both could probably bat faster than Dhoni. He had batted almost four overs, and had gone at just over a run a ball, whereas the asking rate had crossed 15. Stokes had come and gone. There were 47 runs required off 18 balls. He had left it too late. He would not make it.
He would not escape the straight jacket. He would not get out of the water tank in time. He would not survive being buried alive. It seemed there would be no great escape.
“Every magic trick has three parts”, wrote British novelist Christopher Priest. “Making something disappear isn't enough; you have to bring it back. That's why every magic trick has a third act, the hardest part, the part we call "The Prestige".”
With 18 balls to go in a game that looked like it had slipped away, MS Dhoni’s prepared for the hardest part of his act. Tiwary set the stage for him, (like a lovely assistant) with a boundary off the second ball. Then from Dhoni’s blade, a six and a four, and suddenly, 30 to win in two overs.
The penultimate over is considered by most captains as the one that decides the game. And so it was entrusted by the Sunrisers to Bhuvaneshwar Kumar, the best death bowler in the tournament. He held the purple cap, and the most consistent yorker of the season, and the key to the match.
A loss here would have put immense pressure on Dhoni; his slow-off-the-blocks approach would have been seen as the reason the chase fell apart. But Dhoni, unfazed, squeezed the first ball between both his legs for four to square leg. The next one reached the boundary on the opposite side. As if to make sure the straight boundary does not feel left out, the next ball went for six over long on.
The over which could have made Dhoni a marked man, marked the turnaround in his tournament instead. 19 runs came off the 19th over, and Dhoni completed his great escape by hitting a four on the last ball to silence all his doubters.
“The easiest way to attract a crowd is to let it be known, that at any given time and any given place, someone is going to attempt something, that in the event of failure will mean sudden death” Harry Houdini is reported to have said.
While not quite life and death, MS Dhoni was walking on thin ice when he came out to bat on Saturday. Among the eyes that watched him were both sadists and well wishers. Just as the risk of losing his life made Houdini’s acts spellbinding, Dhoni’s last ball escape, with the stakes as high as they were, held the nation’s gaze. This is the man whose name was chanted in Bengaluru in the last game, despite being from the opposition. Fans across team lines celebrated the return to form of India’s favourite captain.
There was a strong breeze blowing across the ground, but it did not touch Dhoni’s reputation. Once again, like so many times before, he had conjured a chase that was nothing short of magic. And with it, found that third act he had been looking for. The return to form. The prestige.
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Updated Date: Apr 23, 2017 14:18:24 IST