Dhoni, spinners lift India to 22-run win
India 247 for 9 (Dhoni 92*, Rahane 51, Steyn 3-49) beat South Africa 225 (du Plessis 51, Axar 3-39, Bhuvneshwar 3-41) by 22 runs
Scorecard and ball-by-ball details
South Africa's batsmen could not pull off a successful chase of what seemed to be a below-par target as India, led by their spinners and MS Dhoni's unbeaten 92, leveled the series with a 22-run win and maintained their 100% record at the Holkar Stadium in Indore. Axar Patel and Harbhajan Singh shared five wickets between them to defend India's total of 247, a score they reached only due to the impetus from Dhoni late in the innings.
Dhoni's knock was in part an answer to those who questioned both his form and his formula as a leader after India lost the T20 series and fell behind in this one. He played a steely innings to take India from a precarious 165 for 7 - founded on Ajinkya Rahane's 51- to a total they could work with, and then put on an animated display in the field to inspire his attack. India kept South Africa under pressure throughout the chase and then pushed them out of the game in the 44th over to secure a morale-boosting victory.
With 10 overs left in the India innings, after Dhoni had decided to bat first, the hosts' spirits would not have been too high. They had lost Rohit Sharma, their highest run-scorer against South Africa across all the matches so far, to a full, fast Kagiso Rabada delivery, which was only the 10th of the innings. Virat Kohli had been run out cheaply. Suresh Raina had not even scored a run, and Dhoni was batting with the tail.
Only Rahane had given India something to be proud of at that point, patiently seeing off the pressure period at the beginning, taking boundaries off Dale Steyn. who found some early swing, and selecting shots carefully against the rest of South Africa's seamers. His ramp shot off Morne Morkel, which brought up his fifty off 59 balls, was the pick of his placements. But Rahane did not last too long after that, and was bowled around his legs by Imran Tahir.
Dhoni batted briefly with Rahane - for 28 balls - but then quickly saw the team situation deteriorate swiftly. After the dismissals of both Rahane and Raina in quick succession, there were no more specialist batsmen to come, and there was still more than half an innings to play out. The stage was set for Dhoni to do what Dhoni does best.
However, Dhoni, the man dubbed "captain cool", seemed to be taking it a little too easy at the start. Dhoni took his time establishing himself, partly because he had to protect his line-up and partly because AB de Villiers had strategised carefully enough to stall India. De Villiers always had an attacking bowler in operation. When he took Morkel off, he brought Rabada on, and when he took Rabada off, he brought Steyn on. Even when de Villiers had JP Duminy operating at one end, there was always reason for Dhoni to be cautious. And So he was.
Dhoni's first real Dhoni-shot came only after Axar Patel had been dismissed and the end was nearing. He out-thought Duminy, who had been trying to lure him with deliveries outside off and then delivered one on leg, by pre-empting the line and smacking it over square leg. But Dhoni went quiet again.
It was only with 10 overs to go and three wickets in hand that Dhoni was cleared for take off. He took runs off Rabada, which few had dared to do until then. He laid into Duminy, who he brought up his fifty off. He showed both finesse and muscle against Imran Tahir. He even encouraged Harbhajan to go on the attack
Dhoni looked set for a century, but had to settle for eight less. More importantly, he ensured India were at the crease for the full 50 overs. South Africa did not last theirs.
At first, it seemed they would not need to. Hashim Amla and de Kock started solidly and scored 36 runs off the first six overs to ensure they were well on track. But the introduction of spin spelled early trouble; Amla walked out of his crease to heave Axar away, but missed and was stumped. India had an opening which became bigger when de Kock, who was gaining in confidence against the spinners, gained far too much and holed out to Harbhajan.
Still, India were far from being in the driving seat, especially with two of South Africa's most experienced players in the middle. Fad du Plessis was joined by JP Duminy, instead of AB de Villiers who tweaked his lower back. The pair persisted long enough to post the highest partnership of the match. Their 82-run stand started with seven boundaryless overs, but they rotated strike well and eventually found the lapses in India's game.
India finally made a breakthrough when Duminy missed a sweep off Axar to give the hosts a way back in. Two overs later, du Plessis' concentration cracked and he could not keep a drive off Axar down. Kohli had to jump to reach the ball, but held on well.
David Miller, the next man in, lasted only one ball, leaving de Villiers to win it on his own. De Villiers threatened to do it with some big shots off Bhuvneshwar, but flat-batted Mohit Sharma to cover where Kohli was the man to complete the catch again.
Farhaan Behardien has proved a handy finisher and even though South Africa still needed 81 runs when de Villiers was dismissed, he seemed up to the task. Behardien let Dale Steyn strike a few big hits, ushered Rabada through a small stand, but was then given a raw deal, out caught behind off Harbhajan to a ball replays showed he did not hit. South Africa's challenge ended there, as Bhuvneshwar soon cleaned up the tail to keep India on level terms in the series.
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent