Dhoni decides, Ishant provides
It is just before 1pm. The ghosts of Johannesburg and Wellington are warming up. There has not been a wicket the whole session. Joe Root and Moeen Ali have added 84. The pitch is not green anymore. It is not Bhuvneshwar Kumar's pitch anymore. Mohammed Shami has wobbled the ball a bit, but the two young England batsmen have been resolute. Ravindra Jadeja has kept the batsmen honest - they dare not play an adventurous shot with the balls landing in the rough one after the other - but where is the wicket? When nothing else works, MS Dhoni goes to Ishant Sharma. They need someone who can hit that pitch hard now to exploit the uneven bounce. It is time for Ishant then, the man with the worst record for anyone who has played 50 Tests or more, the man who never shies away from the dirty work. Lucky Ishant. Unlucky Ishant. The only Ishant.
England see an opportunity here. Root gets stuck into Ishant. The first ball is a loosener. A long half-volley. Four. Shane Warne doing commentary wonders why the fast bowlers do not bowl the bouncer as a loosener if they need a loosener. Dhoni has started wondering why not bowl bouncers here. Later in the over Root drives loosely, but through the gap. Four more. Then Ishant bowls short and wide, and Root guides him through gully for four. Root's fifty has come up. The target is now under 150. Hello Wanderers. Hello Basin.
Dhoni bowls Jadeja. Gets a quiet over in. Ishant is persisted with for the last over before lunch. He is asked to bowl bouncers. He does not really feel comfortable doing it. This is England, isn't it, where you are supposed to bowl full. Dhoni tells him, don't worry, even a top edge caught in the deep is a wicket. As good as caught in the slips. We need wickets...
Just to make sure he gives Ishant a field where he cannot bowl full. Leg gully, short leg, short midwicket, two men deep on the hook. Dhoni has stepped in. This is the Dhoni we do not know well. This is the Dhoni who has possibly been passive twice. He does not want to be now.
Ishant digs one in. Root ducks it. He has to bowl one more now. Will he? Will he ever? This is right at Root's throat. Root fends at it. What a welcome sight for anyone willing to bowl short and fast on the final day. The next one is into the ribs. Root wears it. Gets off the strike with the leg-bye, which should not really be, because he has let it hit him as opposed to taking evasive action.
Ishant has Moeen on strike now. The next two short deliveries are down the leg side. One so far down he has to pull out from the pull shot. The last ball of the session. If England survive this ball, no matter what how ungainly they look doing it, they go to lunch with a huge psychological boost. India can start questioning themselves. Can we really ever win a Test away from home? Ishant needs to get this one absolutely right. No easy leave here. He bowls one at the throat. With a plan telegraphed to him, it should be easy for Moeen to get under this. He does not. He cannot sway out of the way either. This is a poor way of playing at this. He gloves it. Moeen's mind has switched off. India have turned the session around.
Forty minutes later. India want to bounce England some more. Matt Prior has shown this summer that he does not like it up there. There's only 146 to get, though. This can unravel fast if the bowlers get it wrong. How often have they got it wrong in the past? And if they get it wrong, how long before Dhoni feels the need to defend? The good thing is, there are only four overs to go to the new ball. Dhoni has a definite target in sight.
Shami, though, bowls soft bouncers. He is pulled away for 10 runs in the first over after lunch. Surely this is not working? Only 136 to get now. Dhoni hates to concede runs. Surely this cannot go on for too long? Think of the time when he sent back a deep point when an injured Jacques Kallis reverse-swept Harbhajan Singh in Cape Town in 2010-11. That game was headed only one way after that: away from India.
Ishant is allowed to do it for another over, though. The first ball is short and wide. Easy four. Ishant still does not seem convinced about it, but he is the man who can actually bowl the short ball well. He is quick, he is tall. Dhoni leaves him no choice. Two men on the hook, just one slip for the new batsman, a short leg and a short midwicket. Ishant goes for another four as Prior drags a pull from wide outside off and hits the last ball of the over through deep midwicket. The target is now only 126. Only twenty-five per remaining wicket. They are knocking them off by the 10s.
The old Dhoni would have spread the field all over by now. He is not doing it now. He is, as Warne says, prepared to lose in order to win. He knows only too well, thanks to his own batsmen, that you cannot continue hooking with total control of it. He has now put one more man in the deep. A deep fine leg, a deep square leg and a deep midwicket. He is not worried about the runs. He just wants Ishant to eliminate every other shot. And this is no mickey-mouse boundary where you can feel confident of hooking for a six in such a tense situation.
Eightieth over then. Possibly the last before India attack with the new ball. First ball. Pulled down. Single. Second ball. No-ball. Pulled down. Single. Two more similar singles. The target is now 121. Ishant tries the bluff. Bowls full. Prior is equal to it. Two more balls, and India might go back to bowling length with the new ball. Root and Prior have gained some sort of momentum and confidence. If they attack the new ball and it flies away, this game could be over quickly.
Down to two more balls from Ishant. Dhoni goes up to him. Asks him to go round the stumps. Ishant does not like it. Dhoni insists. Ishant goes for it. And he gets this one right. Over the shoulder and across Prior's body. This is not easy to control. And M Vijay judges a catch nicely at deep midwicket. In a workhorsely manner, Ishant has kept India in it again. And look at Dhoni leap for joy while running towards his team-mates. His plan has come off. He hardly ever does this. Give away runs to buy wickets, or show such emotion. If Johannesburg and Wellington are giant blimps hanging over wherever India play, they have been pricked. It is only a matter of time now.
And now that Dhoni is in control, he begins to do his funky thing. He refuses the new ball. Because Jadeja provides him control with the old ball. Ishant is hurting, but he can go on. He can smell the win, how can you take the ball out of his hand? It would be unfair too. Ben Stokes comes, Ben Stokes pulls, Ben Stokes goes out. Root pulls. Root finds deep backward square. There is no "c Dhoni b Ishant" on the scoreboard but these wickets are all conceived by Dhoni and taken by Ishant.
In his last 18 legal deliveries, Ishant has taken four wickets for 17 runs. He is in pain. He is on his haunches. He is also on the honours board. And two wickets from a win at Lord's. Dhoni tells him there are three more Tests to go. He does not want him injured. If there is the slightest bit of niggle anywhere, he need not bowl another over. Ishant is having none of it. He bowls another over. Then another. Finally the literal c Dhoni b Ishant makes its poetic appearance as Stuart Broad edges a short delivery down leg. At 23-6-74-7, Ishant's job is over. Now, he walks off the field.
Jadeja finishes the match with bête noir James Anderson's run-out. Ishant is not on the field. Players have had their huddle. They have taken stumps as souvenirs. Jadeja has even shaken Anderson's hand and tapped his shoulder. Only when the players make it to just outside the pavilion does Ishant step out. Shami holds the match ball in his palm as if in a cup. Smiling that toothy smile that he has never let go of, Ishant accepts it gleefully. Anyone who does not feel happy for this much-maligned cricketer has a rock for a heart.
Dhoni has taken the back seat somewhere. He has been positive from the moment he has landed in England. Batting himself at six, persisting with attacking fields even when runs are flowing, getting into the bowlers' ears, getting them to do things he wants as opposed to letting matches drift. Long may he remain.
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo