India v SA, 2nd ODI, Indore October 14, 2015

Calm Dhoni towers above the chaos

After a difficult week in which his very place in the team was being questioned, he answered back with an innings of hope, skill and defiance

Play 03:14
'If I can't take pressure, no one can' - Dhoni

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.

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

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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Sarang on October 16, 2015, 9:28 GMT

    I am an ardent fan of Dhoni but oflate he has not been himself. Street-smart, flexible with team selections, playing as per opposition were his trademarks. He is not able to do that these days and it shows in his batting order, bowlers selections and in the end, his own performance. Yes, this innings was good, very good but doesn't hide the fact that Indian batting is confused and bowling selections are not smart enough. Why Axar Patel and not Gurkeerat? Why not Mishra in place of Harbhajan? To win against good teams like SA, you need good in-form players. Come on Dhoni, show us again why we loved you so much.

  • Ramana on October 15, 2015, 18:14 GMT

    well done Captain !! three cheers !!!

  • VINAY on October 15, 2015, 15:43 GMT

    The captain that took India to T20 World Cup Win, Champions Trophy Win, World Cup Win and Top of Test ranking has now to justify his place... Great media and fans. He may not be as great as a batsman as he was before, but thanks for showing us what you can do. His decision on not playing Ajinkya may be a question-mark, and the selection committee has tried to show it to him, by sending Ajinkya as Captain to ZM.. but he is a great captain.. Lets not encourage petty politics to take over.

  • Sharmin on October 15, 2015, 14:46 GMT

    Thanks, MSD for the fantastic entertainment. Take a bow, you deserve it. I was one of the hardest critics of you in recent times and thanks for proving me wrong. Your last innings was just entertaining as it was before when you started your career in ODI. It had patience, mental toughness, resilience, recovery and everything you need as a batsman when the tail was exposed and you are the only batsman in the middle. Please continue proving people like me wrong and we enjoy those moments every single time.....

  •   Muhtasim-us Sakib on October 15, 2015, 14:39 GMT

    CONT... Secondly...I love Rahane. Probably the best batsman we have for overseas conditions. But I dont like the circumstances under which he has got into the ODI side. I understand the depth provided to the batting order playing Kohli at 4. But it means the best ODI batsman now will probably face 8-10 fewer overs than usual. That cant be a sound plan for the future. Rahane's stability is only suited to opening...he must do better and score better than 50s and 60s to prove to me he belongs in the top 3 of the Indian lineup. Finally Im not happy with this search for a seam bowling all rounder. Binny played one good innings under pressure at Nottingham on a barren track where Jimmy nearly scored a ton. But since then he has shown hardly any sign of progress. 1 year is long enough. Sir Jad is an instant replacement once he is full fit but I wish another youngster gets blooded in the mean time. A far better investment

  •   Muhtasim-us Sakib on October 15, 2015, 14:30 GMT

    Giving my 2 cents...Dhoni is the greatest captain India has ever produced and his place in the team was never in question for me. The fight he showed yesterday to steal back a lost cause was proof enough of my conviction.

    But I question some of the tactics he has employed of late. I dont like the 2 spinners plus Raina attack because we bowled half the overs in the 1st powerplay using the spinners despite picking 3 seamers. Why not pick Mishra for Mohit if thats the case? We have held back the turning tracks long enough...South Africa will not be able to adapt if we unleash them now. Hit them hard and demoralize them. Win the test series before it begins.

  • Salil on October 15, 2015, 13:58 GMT

    @VickGower- Agree with you wholeheartedly!

  • Sreekanth on October 15, 2015, 13:55 GMT

    @NS1000 - Dhawan has two centuries and a fifty in the world cup. he has 2 fifties in the bangladesh series, and two centuries in the last two test matches. he has failed only in the last 2 games. how short sighted can you be?

    raina is an odi legend. it is only a matter of time before he finds form. axar is definitely a better batsman than mishra.

    gurkeerat has played a couple of good innings in domestic cricket just recently. he first needs to get consistent there before he can be given a chance at national level. It takes years to groom an international player, you can't just dump them after a few failures. Until 3 months ago people were clamouring to bring in axar, but now suddenly nobody likes him.

  • Gopal on October 15, 2015, 11:06 GMT

    Loved the part, 'Why had the chicken crossed the road?'. Strongly hitting back the detractors. MSD is not a product of the dust like others. A man who had to defy the odds in all walks of life - both on the field and off the field.

  • siva on October 15, 2015, 10:51 GMT

    Great article Mr. Alagappan Muthu. Dhoni's knock always reinstates the quote "Class remains permanent and helps you to stand tall amidst chaos". It was a great knock to watch live and the typical finish with a 6. Indian commentators and critics can look for another player to blame in upcoming matches. Its highly unfair to criticize Dhoni alone. Its hightime for the other bastmen to develop mental toughness like Dhoni and win this current ODI series Vs SA.

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