Calm Dhoni towers above the chaos
Indore was in pandemonium. At least a kilometer around the Holkar stadium was cordoned off. The four-way junction at Janjeerwala Square - the final turn before reaching the media persons'entrance - was teeming with people, not traffic. India were playing here after four years, and every bird in the know has been tweeting about a possible run-fest. Finally, the curtain lifted, but India were in pandemonium. At the centre, however and absolutely unaffected, was MS Dhoni. Hopeful. Skilful. Defiant. Tall.
"A lot of people wait with open swords and want you to make mistakes," he said at the presentation ceremony. That number would have grown and their restraint would have waned quickly with India at 124 for 6 and 20 overs left to play. Dhoni is the India captain, and India has a demanding press corps. He has to answer for everything - his poor form, the team's poor form, death-bowling complaints, and possibly even why the chicken crossed the road. Clearly a lot to handle, and he was frank about it in the post-match press conference.
"Even when you score hundreds, the expectation level keeps going up," Dhoni said. "So we only move one way. The expectation level keeps going up and it definitely puts a lot of pressure on the individual. You can't really get away from it. I played a lot of international cricket, a lot of different opposition, but I have never played a game where we were not under pressure.
"Even if we are playing teams ranked below us, then also we are under pressure. And if we have not done well the media put a lot of pressure on us."
The scrutiny has gotten far more profound in the last few years, and peaked during this series with questions raised over his place in the side, let alone his captaincy. That he could not win a last-over showdown with a 20-year old novice - Kagiso Rabada is clearly talented but he has played only a handful of international games - in Kanpur sharpened the spotlight. Indore could have been the scene of a meltdown. Almost half the innings to play and only Nos. 8, 9, 10 and 11 for company.
But Dhoni was hopeful. He couldn't not be. From 18 off 20 balls in the 31st over, he dabbed and dinked and sliced and glanced to get some runs on the board amid the chaos. Some kind of a launchpad. Then he needed to light the fuse himself because India had no one else. Nine, 10 and Jack can not belt the ball around against Dale Steyn, Morne Morkel and Rabada.
Now for Dhoni's skill. It seemed like he was barely on strike from the time he got to the crease till the end overs. But then on, Dhoni was everywhere. He would deny singles, hurtle up and down for twos, and pull the leather off the ball for boundaries. South Africa did not get any shot at the tailender. He usually calls finishing a gamble, and this time he did everything in his power to make sure it paid off. Dhoni had come in during the 19th over, and faced only 35 balls by the 35th. So out of the 90 that were left, he took strike for 51 and finished with 92* off 86 balls. The rest made 142 off 215.
Defiance. Of his limitations. Dhoni's big-hitting ability has decreased. A younger Dhoni used to say he did not need too many balls before putting one into the crowd. At 34-years old, he can not quite deliver on that. Besides, no player at the top of his game would commit to retirement, but Dhoni had mentioned he might have to take a call after the 2016 World T20. That is only five months away. And he is an honest man. He would not express a desire to bat higher on a whim. He must have felt his value to the team would be greater at No. 4 because he would get in early and with time, gain access to his full range of shots. Here, he had the time, and he spent it carefully. No big shots until absolutely necessary. Only two boundaries - both on the leg side when the bowler erred - until the 40th over, and then six fours and three sixes.
Let us not forget his defiance of a very fine captain in charge of a very fine team either. "We tried everything in the book to break that partnership," AB de Villiers said "And I thought we did pretty well to get down to No. 9 and 10 there, but unfortunately he managed it very well and rotated the strike really well and paced his innings really well."
Dhoni was tall. Very tall, especially in his team-mates' eyes. Every one of them was willing their captain on as he neared a century. It did not matter that the score was far lesser than what they had hoped. They wanted to celebrate Dhoni for taking it all on himself. To show Dhoni the world might criticise him, but they were firmly in his corner. He could not get to triple-figures, but "It doesn't really matter if I get a hundred or not," he said. "Definitely it will help the stats, I have more 90s than hundreds. There are not many batsmen who have that so I can proudly say I have more 90s than hundreds."
The impact Dhoni's 92 had on his bowlers and fielders was stark. India were predatory in their defence of 247. Only 20 times since 1986 have India managed to do that at home. This one was all down to their captain, MS Dhoni.
Alagappan Muthu is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo