Dhoni finally fails to land knockout punch
Just outside the Bullring mall in Birmingham there is a boxing equipment store called The Gloves. One of the most eye-catching items on sale is a T-shirt that says, "Don't box ugly people. They have nothing to lose." MS Dhoni has made a career being that ugly man. He takes hopeless situations, sometimes turning fair situations into hopeless ones, but somehow keeps answering those calls of 10, then reduces a game down to one man - him - against the bowler bowling the last over, and backs himself in that one-on-one contest. Rare are instances when he loses these one-on-ones.
Dhoni might still be the ugly boxer, but he no longer has nothing to lose. He is possibly the best finisher limited-overs cricket has ever seen. When he turns down three singles in the last seven balls and takes a suicidal second - he all but sacrificed Ambati Rayudu - to keep the strike, with a specialist batsman for company, and India lose by three runs, questions will be asked. He has in effect not trusted Rayudu, who scored two half-centuries in the ODIs, to turn over the strike with six and three balls to go. Any other batsman would have taken at least the first two of those singles, but we are talking about Dhoni here.
To debate whether it was selfish of Dhoni - wanting the spotlight of having won it himself - or too much self-belief, it is important to look at Dhoni's method once again. Dhoni is so confident of his six-hitting skills he doesn't mind chasing 15, 16, 17 in one over. In the final of a ODI triangular series in the West Indies last year, he turned 19 off 18 into 15 off 6 because he had Ishant Sharma for company, and then preyed on Shaminda Eranga. When you are batting out there, cricket is an 11-on-two game. Dhoni believes in reducing it to him against the bowler, as he likes to say, when the pressure on him and the bowler is the same. So here he was okay with not taking the single off the last ball of the 19th over, because he felt the pressure was the same on him and Chris Woakes.
Once that pressure is the same, Dhoni likes to hit one six in the first two balls of the over. Not just any six. A big six. A six that demoralises the bowler. A six that tells the bowler he is on a highway to hell. In Port of Spain last June, he hit Eranga for a six over the top of the roof second ball of the over. Here, Woakes is warming up. Dhoni eyes him up. Taps the middle of the pitch for a long time. A boxer's dance before the last round. The first ball is in Dhoni's arc, he mishits it a little, but still clears square leg comfortably.
Dhoni walks up to the middle of the pitch again. Keeps tapping the pitch. There is a swagger to his movement. Still it is not that big six that demoralises the bowler completely. We don't know yet, but Dhoni will tell us later, that he made up his mind even before the start of the over that he was going to do it all by himself. He will say Rayudu has just come in, he is 3 off 5, he is not middling the ball, I am going to do it all by myself.
At 11 off 5, the odds now look in Dhoni's favour, don't they, but still it was not the huge six to leave Woakes weak in the knees and sweaty in the palms. Woakes runs up, he bowls, Dhoni pulls, he has found the deep fielder, and this is going to be just a single. Wait a minute, though. Dhoni has started to hare back. Rayudu, poor Rayudu, doesn't know what to do. His captain, possibly the greatest finisher ever, is charging at him. Does Rayudu have it in him to say no? He says a half no, Dhoni half stops, but this is where Dhoni shows genius that is beyond other batsmen. When the ball leaves deep square leg's hand, Dhoni has almost stopped, is going to go back, but he looks at the throw and judges it is wayward, and knows there is no way it is going to catch him short. Dhoni is the quickest India cricketer over 20 metres. The stopwatch says so.
Dhoni makes, it, Rayudu stumbles in, it is nine off four now. It should be easy now. One hit from Dhoni, and it is over. Woakes bowls a slower ball - the back-of-the-hand variety that Dhoni didn't pick in Cardiff - and Dhoni bottom-edges it to midwicket. There is a split second for Dhoni to change his mind from his pre-over plan. Does he trust Rayudu to take a single fourth ball and make it seven off two? Does he not trust Rayudu to bat properly? Dhoni doesn't change his mind. He thinks that ball that will be lost in taking the single can be dealt with much more harshly if he himself faces it. So he sends Rayudu back.
Batsmen who have gone as deeply into the fabric of finishing, who back themselves as much as Dhoni does, can sometimes invite too much pressure. They trust they can push themselves. Possibly that is at play here. It is still just one shot off three balls. You'd expect Dhoni to do it. Dhoni expects Dhoni to do it. And he even gets a lucky break. He goes to pull, but somehow sends a short ball over mid-off for four.
Five off two is a walk for Dhoni usually, but today he hasn't looked at his best. He has been beaten by the slower short balls on numerous occasions, he has tried possibly only the third reverse sweep of his international career and nearly run himself out after playing the shot. He has seen Ravindra Jadeja get run out. And is there a reason somewhere why Dhoni hasn't finished as many Twenty20 internationals as he has done ODIs? He doesn't have a fifty in international T20s. Does he need to have spent some amount of time to get that swing right? Do tired brains and bowlers on the field help him?
At five off two Dhoni hits to deep square but sends Rayudu back. He will be owed a lot of explaining from Dhoni. He is playing as a specialist batsman. He must be feeling awful right now. This is a team sport. But this is Dhoni's backyard. The last over. And you have to give Dhoni elbow space when it comes to last over. He is prepared to take all the blame. Or all the credit. You have to trust that at the heart of it he wants to win this for India.
It is one on one again. Dhoni loves it. He lives by this sword. This time he fails to connect. He will have to die by the sword. At the press conference he doesn't make a big deal of not having taken those singles. It is a decision he made in the best interests of the team. He is more disappointed he has failed to connect three of those non-yorkers. If he had connected even one of them properly, the legend of Dhoni would have grown even further, and most of us - not all - would have forgotten the pain of Rayudu. Now we are questioning Dhoni. There is nothing wrong in questioning his tactics. It makes Dhoni the finisher a bit more human.
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo