Captain Dhoni arrives
Ladies and gentlemen, the captain has landed. India's tour of England is the series where for the first time, MS Dhoni, the Captain Kirk of Indian cricket, has been severely stretched and microscopically scrutinised. It is when, for the first time in his career, a shiny, spotless captaincy record of never having lost a series is in danger of being dented. When, with scores of 28, 16, 5 and 0 in the first two Tests, his presence as India's all-round keeper-batsman has been more of an absence. That this should happen a mere four months after India won the World Cup under his command is one of those classic cruelties that pop up in cricket when least expected.
On Wednesday, yet another gloomy day on India's so-far extremely gloomy tour of England, Dhoni the batsman popped up as a reminder, a surprise, welcome diversion even, from the mournful opera of India's collective batting performance.
England's relentlessly disciplined bowling has continued to push the Indian batsmen over, sticking them into strait-jackets with length and swing. Until Wednesday, Dhoni was caught there too, trying too hard and too consciously to fall into line. On Wednesday his best innings of the tour so far was simpler, more instinctively yet astutely approached and its payoff was a lower-order resistance and an unlocking perhaps of this mystery cabinet called form.
None of this may have any bearing on what is to happen over the next two weeks, but it is what Dhoni needed. In every innings played in England before, with every dismissal, he had kept living up to the suspicion that his Test batsmanship could be taken apart in conditions outside his familiar favourites. In away Tests, his average drops by nearly nine points, and before Edgbaston, Dhoni averaged less than 25 in the previous 12 months with only two scores over 35. When he shouldered arms off the first ball he faced in the Trent Bridge second innings, it was if the Indian captain had put the state of his mind out there for all to see. The phlegmatic Kirk would have completely disapproved.
At Edgbaston, with his expressionless game face on, Dhoni arrived at 92 for 5, and focussed on two things: staying at the crease and scoring the runs. Even though the shine of the new ball had gone and the wicket was easing considerably, with less demands than Trent Bridge, his team was in one of its monumental tangles, and slipped quickly to 111 for 7. It looked irretrievable, yet Dhoni retrieved something from it. He did it by steering a run a ball 84-run partnership with the unquenchable Praveen Kumar, whose lithe skill and bristly personality make the perfect combination for competitive cricket, entertaining television and lively dressing rooms.
Dhoni set the tone of India's brief, two-pronged counter-attack: he took the short balls on the body when necessary and alternatively went - eyes, hands and shoulders - after anything that fell into what he considers his personal "good areas." It was a selectively seasoned innings, Dhoni was judicious in the leaving, but also did not waste chances to latch on either. He struck sixes that at first glance belonged to the 50-over game rather than the tense Test match situation he found himself trapped in, playing shots of courage and creativity. Tim Bresnan said later it had all been expected. "We were not naive enough to think that there is not going to be a partnership. You're never going to really blitz out a tail." Bresnan bowled mean, searching spells all day and it is still being debated whether Bradman would have survived the ball that got Dravid. For all that, he certainly wouldn't have expected Dhoni to walk down the wicket and produce a massive smite to midwicket for six. Nor would Anderson have liked seeing Dhoni step out and hit him straight over his head for four. Or Broad imagined the muscley hook into the stands. With Praveen Kumar matching him in tempo, England's bowlers for the first time frayed; the length shortened, the lines went off kilter. Graeme Swann was quickly hit out of the attack.
What England did anticipate correctly though was that the onslaught could not last long enough because a single wicket would ensure that India ran out of gas; once Praveen had departed, trying to hook Bresnan, Dhoni had no choice but to get most of his runs in boundaries or scampered twos with the tail, though he could have shown greater faith in Ishant Sharma's ability to get behind the line of the ball. Dhoni fell as he had played in his innings of 77, attacking the bowling, slashing at Broad and finding the lone slip.
The impact of Dhoni's innings at Edgbaston will however, remain a reflection of what is left of the Indian batting on this tour. It has been about individual passages of play which, though memorable, do not add up to enough sessions over the course of a game. India's problems are by no means lesser than what they were before Dhoni's innings. They have still failed to cross 300, they have still not batted for 100 overs, they are still not giving their beleaguered and leaderless bowlers enough to bowl with. The captain has landed, his arrival delayed but memorable. The spaceship, though, is still falling apart.
Sharda Ugra is senior editor at ESPNcricinfo