Dhoni chases at his own pace
It was clear MS Dhoni would have to inspire the team off his bat. If there was ever going to be a turnaround in his captaincy, it would have to begin with his bat. There are times when captains have to do that, times when nothing else works. And Dhoni's captaincy hasn't been working. His selection moves and press conferences, ditto. His wicketkeeping hasn't been flash either. Dhoni was in a corner. The only way out was going to come off his bat. And how teasingly it came.
The critics have been after Dhoni, and justifiably so. In such times everything he does can seem wrong. Had India lost today, his team-mates might have been after him too. Gautam Gambhir said at the press conference that the match should have been won by the 48th over. Imagine what the scenes in the dressing room would have been like had India not won even in the 50th.
Dhoni may not be the smartest tactician on the field, he may not have been a proactive leader on this tour, he may have struggled as a Test batsman, but you can't take his ODI batting away from him. When nothing else works, expect it to. He pays his bills through his one-day batting. Even though India didn't win a game in the ODIs in England, Dhoni was Man of the Series for his batting. He dug a small hole for himself tonight, but he was adept at springing out of it.
Dhoni would have seen India lose their way in the previous game, when all the middle-order batsmen played rash shots, and Ravindra Jadeja and R Ashwin had to bail the team out. That was perhaps why he was a little over-cautious at the start of his innings. India had just lost two set batsmen within 12 runs when Dhoni came in to bat, and too often have India collapsed on this tour without making the partnership count. Despite it being a Powerplay, Dhoni scored just two off his first 16 balls.
Soon the engine warmed up, the calculator in his head started working, the compass directed him to gaps, and his strong legs started charging for couples to complement the odd boundary hit by Suresh Raina. Seamlessly Dhoni scored 25 off his next 30 balls without a boundary. He was not going to take risks. He wanted to see this through even if it meant leaving it very late.
Dhoni wasn't going to have it easy, though. Raina, who had played his best innings of the tour, premeditated a charge and a bunt for a single into the leg side, and was bowled, leaving India 31 to get off 23 balls. Ravindra Jadeja's limitation as a No. 7 batsman soon made itself apparent. There is much to like about Jadeja, but he cannot hit the ball out of the ground. A No. 7 has to do that. India now needed 13 off eight, but Dhoni was on strike.
Dhoni stayed cool. He wanted to bat the last over. However, he couldn't find the gap to take a single. Fifth ball of the 49th over, he would have wanted a single to allow Ashwin a free hit off the sixth. Pushed straight to cover. Now he needed a single just to retain the strike. Pushed not far enough to the left of the bowler, Xavier Doherty.
Knives begin to sharpen. Walls begin coming closer. Sensible people do unreasonable things. Ashwin did, walking right across the stumps to try and flick Clint McKay behind. Another miss. Now 13 off five. Finally Ashwin took a single, leaving Dhoni 12 to get off four.
Dhoni remained emotionless, a man who knew the target could be achieved in two hits, that he was capable of hitting those two hits, that he had done it before, and that he had done it so well it seemed planned. Then boom. Dhoni got a length ball and he lofted it for a six, far enough to clear any ground in the world. He did not move. He looked at the bowler. The bowler now knew this could get over in one ball. No, he feared it could get over in one ball.
It did get over in one legitimate delivery. Dhoni, unaccustomed to showing emotion, completed the third and final run, and quietly plucked out a stump as a souvenir. He even compared the six to the World Cup final six. That one wasn't necessary, he said. They could have won that game in singles. This one was essential. He knew this was not a mere game he won. He needed this six to hope of turning things around as captain.
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo