Crowd clamours for Dhoni at captaincy swansong
"We are told that Mumbai is a city which is always on the move. See, me and my boys have brought the entire city to a standstill today." - MS Dhoni at a parade following the World T20 win in 2007
Mumbai is many things. It is glitzy with its share of grime. It is larger than life and yet charmingly accessible. Mumbai is also Bollywood - the home of the Hindi movie industry. The latest blockbuster from the dream factory is released at the Brabourne Stadium on Tuesday. That it isn't a holiday release doesn't make a difference to the fans. This is limited-edition gold to be lived and breathed in the here and now, Tuesday or whatever day.
There is more than half an hour left for the show to begin, but the thousands inside the stadium have already begun chanting the protagonist's name. The few hundreds on the outside, who are anxious to make it on time, lend their vocals hoping the strength of their incantation would somehow make the queue move faster. As the time for the toss nears, their hero, MS Dhoni, enters the frame with that characteristic brisk, broad-shouldered walk. The crowd is going bonkers with the emotion of seeing Dhoni lead an Indian side possibly one last time.
The protagonist, though, isn't nearly as emotional. He has made a career out of being unsentimental. He delivers a sobering speech that suggests it is not a big deal. That he will continue captaining in the IPL, and maybe even lead Jharkhand in domestic limited-overs cricket. Having said as much, he walks back to the dressing room, suggesting it will be no different to any other game. The fans at the stadium can't hear this, but it doesn't matter. All they want is for their hero to bat in every position from one to 11 over the next seven hours.
But Dhoni has never been a camera-hugging showman. In his brooding, detached assurance, he is closer to his favourite actor Amitabh Bachchan. Or, even Clint Eastwood in the homespun, cigar-chomping swag. But, Dhoni isn't going to hog screen-time here. A clinical cameo is more up his alley.
India A are into their last ten overs. The fans are growing restless. They cheer the fall of each wicket, hoping and praying it will force Dhoni out of the dressing room. They look expectantly towards the pavilion at the fall of Mandeep Singh in the eighth over and Shikhar Dhawan in the 29th, but there is no sign of him. Is it possible Dhoni may not bat at all? They cheer Yuvraj Singh's fifty, and even chant Ambati Rayudu's name after he completes his hundred, almost as if to tell him he has done enough and let Dhoni take his place. Two balls later, at the end of the 41st over, that is exactly what happens.
The fans aren't jumping the gun, lest it be some other batsman. But this time Dhoni shows up for good. He acknowledges Rayudu's knock first with a nod and then a handshake before turning around to look to the skies. There is a comforting familiarity to the ritual, especially in Mumbai. The high-decibel intonation of the ensuing "Dhoni" chants mirrors the best-known one in the country - "Sachin…Sachin". The magnitude of the occasion doesn't escape Yuvraj, who claps his bat to salute Dhoni. It is also a reunion of sorts for the duo after not having played a 50-over game together in more than three years.
Dhoni begins like he normally does - scrappy and sloppy before screaming into action. He defends his first ball to the leg side, is hit on the thigh pad off the next and tries to pull the third one which nearly lobs up off his body on to the stumps. Dhoni is on 1 off 5 balls, and then on 5 off 10. But all he needs is one over to get to 15 off 15, and from there it is take-off time. There are wickets falling around him, but the uppish cuts and the muscular thunks down the ground are only rising in frequency.
After the last-minute hand-wringing over security arrangements, all that is left is for a fan to troll the authorities by running on to the field. The invader in question has a free run until he is within a few feet of Dhoni. Upon nearing his idol, the fan, warned by the umpire to not run on the pitch, nearly loses his balance. Sensing his nervousness, Dhoni calmly offers his hand following which the fan falls at his feet. Once play has resumed, the torrent of whirly whips and crunching drives is unabated. Dhoni has found a fan at the non-striker's end with Hardik Pandya shadow-practising his shots.
A few hours earlier, Rishabh Pant, Dhoni's would-be understudy in the England T20Is, smashed 84* off 34 balls in a local T20 tournament. By the time the innings comes to a close, Dhoni finishes with 68* off 40 balls himself. He's still got it. He knows it, and the fans know it too. Many of them are leaving the stadium with visuals of his batting etched in their minds. But Dhoni knows it isn't over yet. As Shah Rukh Khan, one of the biggest stars in Bollywood, will say: "Abhi picture baaki hai mere dost" (there is more to come, my friend).
"At the moment, we are not even using one, where will we bowl two?" - Dhoni after the two-bouncer-per-over rule was introduced in ODIs
Venture to read Dhoni's mind at your own risk, but it isn't hard to imagine him wondering where the bouncers have disappeared. When Ashish Nehra and Mohit Sharma are being creamed by England's openers, Dhoni's gloves instinctively seal his lips. Delivery after full delivery is driven in the arc between cover and midwicket. The results are worse when they attempt to bang it in - the ball doesn't climb above waist height and the batsmen are happy to pull. Hardik Pandya is the only one who bowls a pacy bouncer, but it goes too far over the batsmen's head to pose any meaningful trouble.
In many ways, this is a throwback to his troubles with errant seam bowlers, but Dhoni appears more relaxed, possibly in the knowledge that it isn't his headache any longer. He constantly chats with Nehra, who typically makes exaggerated gesticulations, and is more than happy to share a laugh or two.
"Till the full stop doesn't come, the sentence is not complete." - Dhoni ahead of the World Cup final in 2011
The quirks you associate with Dhoni are firmly in place. There are the traffic-cop's hand signals, albeit with the rationed intensity you expect in a warm-up game, the presence of a leg slip and the deployment of spinners in the middle overs to acquire control. There is one for the crowd as well, when he unleashes a backhanded flick with his left hand.
But the unmistakable change is his remarkably chilled reaction to fielding lapses. While Dhoni is usually impassive when it comes to dropped catches - there are three - an overthrow or a slow approach to the ball invariably provokes a reaction. However, after Mandeep Singh fires an overthrow, there is no thumping of the gloves against each other. Even when Mohit Sharma, running from mid-on to midwicket to track down a ball, allows two runs, there is appreciation for the effort instead of annoyance.
Towards the end, he even gets them to play his way. When England need 15 off 30, he brings the fielders in, hustles the batsmen and drags the game till the penultimate over. When it is all over, he gives his players a round of applause. This has been a more forgiving Dhoni at work. This isn't to say the hard-nosed competitor is missing in action - you can count on him for plainspeak - but in the final stage of his career he has possibly metamorphosed into a statesman looking out for his charges with avuncular affection.
Arun Venugopal is a correspondent at ESPNcricinfo. @scarletrun