Dhoni won it on a leg, a prayer and a partner
Mahendra Singh Dhoni may just have played the innings of his career, on one leg and, given the way Yuvraj Singh, his runner, and the non-striker Dinesh Karthik coordinated, on a prayer. Yet together they summoned up enough grit to give India a much-needed win; Dhoni playing with cramps, Yuvraj risking his dodgy knee as he dived for the crease and Karthik adjusting his natural game to the needs of the situation.
When he hit the winning runs, appropriately enough, Dhoni had spent the entire day - barring the 26 minutes that Virender Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir batted together - on the field, in temperatures hovering around the 35 degrees Celsius mark and with matching humidity. By the end it was almost a case of 'last man standing' as he dealt with the cramps, somehow hit the balls into the gaps and hoped for the best amid the bad calls. "I had confidence in Yuvraj and Dinesh", he later said. "Normally you don't see runners; it happens once in a while. Confusion is bound to happen but I had confidence."
Sent in at No. 3, Dhoni called for a runner when he was on 39 and India at 126 for 4 after 25 overs. That was around two overs after he'd started cramping and every subsequent shot he played forced him to almost double up in agony. The Bangladeshi bowlers sought to capitalise on this, bowling slow and away from him, forcing him to reach out for the ball. On one occasion he had to pull out of a shot after stepping out to Abdur Razzak.
He couldn't play his trademark out-of-the-block-hole forehand shots; instead he played percentage cricket. Three of his later boundaries came through widish long-off and extra-cover, shots that were hit along the ground and only made it all the way because of Dhoni's extra power.
That he hit only seven boundaries, avoiding the temptation offered by the weather to play big and fast and end the match early, speaks a lot about the maturity of his innings. Rahul Dravid, his captain, later testified, "He does not play in just one fashion. He has got the ability to change gears, to change the tempo of the game, play according to the situation and that's a fantastic gift to have at such a young age."
The plan after Dravid was out at 112 couldn't have been much more than just taking the game to the end. The asking rate hadn't really climbed, thanks to the quick start from Sehwag and Gambhir, so Dhoni knew if he stayed till the end - even if on one leg - and someone else stood with him, India would end up close.
Dhoni knew if he stayed till the end - even if on one leg - and someone else stood with him, India would end up close. That someone else was Karthik
That someone else was Karthik, who would never win a synchronized swimming event with Yuvraj but who, running apart, did little wrong. He came up with couples and the odd boundary - though even he reined in his penchant for big hits - every time the run-rate as much as reached the finger-tips. Once competitors for the wicketkeeping slot, they combined well to put Bangladesh out of the game. This one would be especially fulfilling for them, considering they had almost won one for India against Sri Lanka at Rajkot this February.
That the two keepers are doing well with the bat, Dhoni said, with a hint of a smile, was a "worrying sign for batsmen in India". Dravid clarified that the two were no longer in competition. "Part of his [Karthik's] role is of a wicketkeeper but he is picked in this team as a batsman," Dravid said. "He has shown enough promise and ability with the bat."
Habibul Bashar, the Bangladesh captain, acknowledged the role played by the two. "250 was a good total on this wicket but Dhoni made all the difference and Karthik supported him really well," he said. "We were in the match for most of the time. We were waiting for one wicket when Dhoni and Karthik were batting and we felt that we had a chance right till the end if we got that wicket."
This was an escape act - similar to, though not quite matching, Inzamam-ul-Haq's century against Bangladesh at Multan in 2003-04 - by two players who chose to show some spunk even as their teammates went for the easier route. Only Gambhir could say at the end of the day that his wicket was earned; the others just gifted them away. Sehwag had just hit Syed Rasel for four fours in one over; it was sure the bowler would be taken off, but he lobbed the last one to extra cover. Yuvraj got one that stopped, but also managed to hit it straight to the short cover especially planned for him. Dravid cut straight to point, and Dinesh Mongia lobbed lamely to short midwicket.
Ravi Shastri, India's cricket manager, was emphatic at the post-match press conference; much of the win was owed to two men who 'guts'ed it out and an opposition that sort of let up pressure in the end. Dhoni and Karthik won't be able to do it every game, and others need to do a lot better than what they did today. If today's game and India's decision to not practice tomorrow is any indication, this series is going to be a good old-fashioned scrap. They need more than two people to stand up.
Sidharth Monga is a staff writer with Cricinfo Magazine