A man possessed
When Mahendra Singh Dhoni left the field today after having lashed 148 in only his fifth innings in international cricket, he had imprinted such an array of astounding strokes on the memory of those watching that a dozen knowledgeable observers could have each picked a personal favourite and no two choices need have been the same.
A purist might have gone for the off-drive for four with which Dhoni got off the mark, or the lofted extra-cover drive that took him to 99; lovers of big hitting could have taken their pick from his four sixes, two over long-off and two over midwicket; and those impressed by audacious improvisation might speak reverently of his little tip shot over the wicketkeeper's head for two, or the lap sweep he brought off to a full delivery from Abdul Razzaq, skipping swiftly across his stumps and, bending low, sending the ball very fine for four with a cross-batted stroke.
Others might choose to dwell upon general features of Dhoni's batting as marks of his special ability and self-belief: the manner in which he smites short-of-length balls over point like Virender Sehwag, the confidence with which he plays balls coming into him inside-out through point and cover, his forays down the pitch or across his stumps to unsettle the quick bowlers, and his willingness to hit the ball in the air even with the field set back. It was fitting that when he came out, batting at No.3 for India for the first time, it was to join the rapacious Sehwag. Their partnership of 96 for the second wicket in a little more than ten overs was a glimpse into the future of Indian batting.
Dhoni had been knocking on the doors of the national team for quite a while - at least since the time he took two cracking hundreds off Pakistan A in a tournament in Nairobi last August. But one of the curses afflicting wicketkeepers who show talent with the bat is that they nevertheless continue to compete only with the wicketkeeper who is the current incumbent, and not the six batsmen in front of that keeper. On the evidence of this performance Dhoni should have been pipping one of VVS Laxman, Yuvraj Singh, and Mohammad Kaif much before this.
Dhoni's pent-up ambition - he hardly did anything of note with the bat on his debut tour of Bangladesh last year - and desire to come good was evident even from the more peripheral aspects of his game today. For all of the two-and-a-half hours he spent at the crease he sprinted between the wickets like a man possessed, his long mane of hair bobbing below his helmet, and Rahul Dravid had to calm him down and tell him to take it easy after one particularly frantic series of twos when he was in the nineties. And once he had got to his hundred his command over the bowling was total. It is not everyday that Shahid Afridi, who is devilishly difficult to collar because of his variations and changes of pace, goes for more than 80 in nine overs.
In his few games Dhoni's wicketkeeping has gone largely unremarked - and this is one sign of how sound his glovework has been thus far. Of course there will be more said about his keeping as more is seen of him, but the question now before India is whether - despite the good form displayed recently by Dinesh Karthik - there is any way in which Dhoni can be kept out of the Test team. Although there are still a couple of rough edges to his batting, like a tendency to play uppishly through gully, few captains would want to ignore the allure of a wicketkeeper-batsman who can turn a Test on its head in the space of an hour from No. 7.
It seems hard to believe now that only last March Rahul Dravid was keeping wicket in Pakistan for want of a wicketkeeper who could bat adequately. Indeed, Dravid himself may have been thinking of the piquant reversal of this situation during the partnership of 149 he shared with Dhoni today, in which he played the supporting role while his younger partner took centrestage.
When Dhoni finally skied a ball to midwicket and was caught, he departed to a standing ovation, with his everpresent swagger and with the red tints in his hair glinting in the sun. It felt as if something had changed violently within the long-settled and familiar order that is the Indian batting line-up, as if an explosion had gone off whose echo would ring in the ears for very long.
Chandrahas Choudhury is a staff writer with Wisden Asia Cricket magazine.