Remaining emotionless is Dhoni's virtue
Two nights in a row, MS Dhoni has played with fire. Twice he has come out unscathed. Tonight, though, was too close for comfort. Not only because he was up against a better death bowler, but also because along the way he had run out Gautam Gambhir, who fell excruciatingly short of a century yet again. Strikingly, it happened two nights after Gambhir had said that the previous match should not have gone to the 50th over. When Gambhir and Dhoni were batting tonight, this one seemed like an easier finish, but it ended up being a tighter squeeze than the one against Australia - it ended in a tie thanks only to a last-ball three from Dhoni off the bowling of Lasith Malinga.
It is tempting to blame Dhoni for not finishing this game off earlier, but look at the support he had from the other end. Rohit Sharma and Suresh Raina, for whose sake the experienced openers are being rotated, have been failures so far, leaving a big hole in the middle order. Ravindra Jadeja is not who you ideally want coming in at No. 7, because he cannot hit big sixes. That leaves Dhoni with a lot to do after the top three are gone. India were lucky R Ashwin and Jadeja didn't have a high asking-rate to tackle in Perth, when they escaped with a win after the specialist batsmen had batted irresponsibly.
Fault Dhoni all you want for the Gambhir run-out, but you cannot fault his inclination to take on all the pressure and takes games deep. He backs himself in those situations. Not because he thinks he is the cleanest striker around, but because he backs his nerve in those situations when others around him are losing theirs. When it's one-on-one between him and the bowler, when you know the cooler head will survive, Dhoni knows he has more than an even chance. Some people can't handle the pressure for too long and go for their finishing move early, some can delay that assault. Dhoni belongs to the latter group. If he played tennis, he would surely be a Rafael Nadal-type player who you would back more and more as rallies and matches go longer.
It is fascinating to find out what Dhoni thinks at such times, though. He doesn't articulate it as well as he executes it. He was asked about his mindset before the final delivery. Four runs required, Malinga the master of yorkers bowling. Does he premeditate? Does he pick an area? Does he have shots in mind for different lengths? Does he remain blank? Does he back himself, first of all?
"Basically it is blank," Dhoni said. "As to the area where I am looking to play a shot, with Malinga it's very difficult to pick. He is someone who is really consistent with the line. He bowls yorkers at will. And nowadays you have variation: they bowl yorkers at your toes, stumps and then outside off also. If you get set for a ball that is supposed to be right on the stumps, and if he bowls a yorker outside off, it is a very difficult ball to hit.
"That's a ball that most of the batsman who slog really well find difficult to hit. So look to be blank and you back yourself. If you are not backing yourself to get those four runs, it will be tougher to get those four runs. In Adelaide, it is difficult to get a nick that goes in between the keeper and third man. The outfield is difficult, so you have to back yourself."
When asked to break that final ball down - from the point he saw it come out of the hand, when he picked the length, when he picked the shot he ended up playing - Dhoni couldn't come up with an explanation. "You don't get that much time," Dhoni said. "People always say, 'See the short ball, come into the line, open your body and play it towards square leg'. I never get so much time irrespective of whether it is Shoaib Akhtar bowling or Gautam Gambhir bowling medium-pace at me. I always find it difficult. You see the ball, hit it, look to get the runs, and feel happy."
Why does he take it so deep? Why does he wait till the end before going all out? "When you are chasing, you chase according to the amount of runs that's on the scorecard," Dhoni said. "You don't look to score 250-odd runs if 236 is the target, so what you look to do is to get it in 48th or 49th over.
"Once the wicket gets slower and lower, the ball doesn't come on to the bat [like in Adelaide], it becomes difficult to rotate strike consistently. You have to play big shots, but with big shots there is risk of the batsman getting out. It's a mix and match. In this game we were set up really nicely, but unfortunately Gautam got out and it was difficult for the lower order to come in and straightaway rotate strike."
Dhoni said he doesn't follow any routine in such tight situations or talk to himself and tell himself he has done it before and he can do it again. Remaining emotionless at such times is his virtue. What of the high after pulling wins off? "Seeing the dressing-room happy is what really gives me a nice feeling," Dhoni said. "Whatever is said and done, as long as you are winning games you are happier. You can say you played well, the opposition out-played you, but at the end of the day you feel bad if you have not won a game. It's important to win games. I always say it's not the only thing that matters, but it does affect you a bit."
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo