The happy hooker
Some players have an instinct that tells them when a team is there for the taking. Mahendra Singh Dhoni knew, looking on from the dressing room yesterday, that Australia was that team. Whenever a batsman hit a few boundaries Ricky Ponting would push his field back and the bowlers would bowl wide outside off stump. The tactics caused the run flow to ebb, and Australia escaped being dominated.
Dhoni, however, came in to bat determined to dominate. He was aided by Ishant Sharma, who got Australia's attack in bouncer-bowling mood with his stubborn defence - and got out to one, in fact. Dhoni's first delivery came from Brett Lee, who charged in, bowled short and watched the ball speed off the bat towards the square-leg boundary. Peter Siddle tried his luck with a bouncer in the next over; Dhoni got inside the line and hooked it from in front of his face over the long-leg boundary.
Dhoni had laid out his agenda for all to see, and he was a brave man for doing so. He began his innings with India in danger of being bowled out for a below-par total on a terrific batting pitch. Dhoni's critics don't recognise him as a reliable Test batsman; it was only his second Test as captain and the extra responsibility could have justified a safer approach had he wanted to adopt one. However, Sourav Ganguly wasn't finding it easy to score steadily and so Dhoni needed to take charge.
He ruined Australia's satisfactory start by unsettling them. They tried to retort to his happy hooking with more short deliveries and two men on the leg-side boundary, but got more hooks in return. One time, when he was in no position to either hook or duck, Dhoni merely stood still and took the blow, from Lee, on his body. He did not flinch.
Australia's innovative fields did not come into play for Dhoni, for he was hitting the ball so hard that positions such as short midwicket or silly mid-on were fraught with danger. He took his chances against the only close catcher, a leg gully, and was lucky, pulling just to the left of the fielder on one occasion.
In due time, after four short balls had disappeared for a six and three fours, Australia revised their plan against Dhoni. They tried to contain him by taking pace off the ball but by then he was well set, on 26 off 22 balls. His last substantial innings had been at The Oval in 2007. He had scored 92 then, and his hitting in that match had been just as clean.
Dhoni scored 92 out of the 158 runs India scored today. He managed to add 31 with tailenders who weren't half as motivated as they had been in Bangalore. In this Test, despite being captain, he was the batsman whose head was the least cluttered.