Big-hitting Dhoni helps level series
First, he consolidated the innings with Gautam Gambhir. Then, in tandem with Suresh Raina, he ripped the bowling to shreds. MS Dhoni's superb 107-ball 124 was the foundation for India's highest-ever total against Australia, a mammoth 354 for 7, and once Praveen Kumar and Ishant Sharma winkled out Australia's top three for just 45, the match was effectively over. Michael Hussey's 53 provided a lone note of defiance as India romped home by 99 runs, to leave the series all square as the teams packed their bags and headed to Delhi.
The match slipped out of Australia's grasp in the final 11 overs of the Indian innings. When the batting Powerplay was taken with the scoreboard showing 238 for 4, the run-rate had dipped close to six. But with 47 coming from those five overs, and the mayhem continuing unabated afterwards, Ricky Ponting's decision to bowl first in view of the dew factor didn't look too clever. Peter Siddle bowled with impressive pace and accuracy, while Nathan Hauritz was tidy, but the rest were taken to the cleaners on a day when Dhoni appeared to rediscover his big-hitting mojo.
It was no one-man show though, with Gambhir contributing 76 from 80 balls and Raina lashing 62 from just 50 deliveries. When Gambhir departed, run out by a direct hit from Hauritz at mid-off after Dhoni had miscued a slower ball from Siddle, the stage was set for a final onslaught, but few could have predicted how devastating it would be. The first five overs of the Dhoni-Raina partnership produced just 22 runs, but from the moment Dhoni slugged Siddle though cover to end the first over of the Powerplay, the wheels came off for Australia.
Raina kept heaving Mitchell Johnson through midwicket, and with Dhoni slapping one straight down the ground, 18 came from the over. Ben Hilfenhaus's return to the fray was greeted with an astonishing flat six over midwicket and two mighty wallops over long-off from the hapless Shane Watson took Dhoni to his century, his first against Australia, from just 94 balls.
Raina then took over, racing to his half-century from 42 balls in a Hilfenhaus over that went for 18. And though Johnson, who'd gone for 70 in his first nine overs, returned to dismiss both in the final over, the damage had been done, with the partnership worth 136 in just 93 balls.
They had started as explosively, with Virender Sehwag in terrific form. Hilfenhaus took the new ball in Brett Lee's absence, and Sehwag wasted no time, with a lofted cover-drive and powerful cut setting the scoreboard in motion. At the other end, Sachin Tendulkar got off the mark with a neat tuck off the pads for four, but when Siddle got one to dart away a touch after pitching outside off stump, he could only edge to first slip.
Sehwag though carried on undaunted, clipping Hilfenhaus for two leg-side fours, prompting Ponting to bring on Johnson in the seventh over. Siddle was bowling furiously quick, stinging Tim Paine's fingers with a misdirected bouncer, but it was all India as Sehwag clouted a slower ball from Johnson over long-on for six.
The next slower ball had a different outcome. This time, Sehwag could only find mid-off, and with 67 already on the board, Australia delayed the Powerplay by an over and called back Hilfenhaus. Yuvraj Singh, back in the side in place of Virat Kohli, promptly worked him through midwicket for four, and when Paine grassed a tough chance to his left with Gambhir on 20, it seemed as though it wasn't to be Hilfenhaus's day.
But the break for drinks changed that, with Yuvraj slamming the first ball, another slow one, straight back down the pitch. Hilfenhaus took it at shin height. The next ball struck Dhoni on the back of the helmet. By that stage, Ponting had turned to his slow bowlers. Hauritz had been lofted for a straight six by Yuvraj, but both he and Adam Voges were getting sharp turn and for a while, the Indians were reliant on singles and twos to keep the score ticking over.
But a Dhoni straight-drive off Hauritz and two impressive shots from Gambhir through the covers broke the boundary shackles, and with both men running brilliantly between wickets, the bowlers were never allowed to settle. Both took 55 balls for their half-centuries, and it took a moment of carelessness on Gambhir's part to end the partnership which was worth 119 from 113 balls. But with Raina filling the breach so effectively, India never flagged. As for Dhoni, he was simply unstoppable.
Praveen didn't start too well with the new ball, and it seemed that the mistakes of Vadodara were being repeated. But then he got a full delivery to swing and take the inside edge of Paine's bat. The leg stump went cartwheeling and India were on their way. Conscious of the asking rate, Ponting got going with a lovely off-drive off Ashish Nehra, prompting Dhoni to bring Ishant on in the 10th over.
The very first ball he bowled reared up at Watson, and was fended off the face to Tendulkar at slip. As Watson walked off, angry words were exchanged. The potentially decisive blow came from the other end, as Praveen nipped one back to strike Ponting right in front. At 45 for 3, Australia were on the ropes.
Hussey revived the innings somewhat with three consecutive fours through the off side when Harbhajan was introduced, but when Cameron White's stop-start innings ended with a tame clip to midwicket, the asking rate was on its way towards 10 an over. Ravindra Jadeja then bowled Hussey through the gate, bringing the curtain down on the contest long before the last ball was bowled.
Dileep Premachandran is an associate editor at Cricinfo