Dhoni's audacity wins it for Chennai
Long before the Chennai Super Kings players mobbed their captain after he struck the game-winning six with two balls left, there was a far less cheery appearance to the squad. There was MS Dhoni - as he told it later - looking at how the campaign of a team that had never failed to reach the IPL semi-finals had led it to a knockout league match in Dharamsala, as far detached from Chennai's humidity as possible. Chennai had been hurt by the absence of two overseas allrounders, the ineffectiveness of their Indian fast bowlers, and the patchy form of Matthew Hayden and Dhoni for much of the competition. Their season had reached a point of great irritation and desperation.
Dhoni spoke after the match of how his own form had been a disappointing feature before this cracker of a contest, and that gave context to his rare outburst after sealing victory. When he slammed a second successive six off Irfan Pathan to ensure Chennai evaded elimination, Dhoni's passionate and intense release of emotion, which culminated with an uppercut he landed himself on the chin, spoke volumes. In the space of four deliveries Chennai clinched a thriller, and the resounding effect of Dhoni's performance echoed louder than many could have envisioned.
After another shambolic bowling effort - where the faster bowlers were again to blame - and another single-digit score from Hayden, two excellent innings from Suresh Raina and S Badrinath had ensured there was never any real panic during a huge chase. Dhoni commended the pair later, but his own role proved the decisive one. To hit 28 of the 29 runs needed from the two remaining overs, and with two balls to spare, was sublime. The turning point came in the penultimate over when, after hitting two boundaries, Dhoni was dropped by Kumar Sangakkara. In the final over, from which Chennai needed 16, Dhoni switched gears to smash two sixes.
There are three basic aspects to Dhoni's game - speed, confidence and unflappability. For someone with an unorthodox technique, the bat speed he generates is remarkable, his running between wickets is among the quickest India have seen, and his timing is sweet. And then there is the it factor: his seemingly nonchalant disregard for the opposition and an unfazed demeanour. Asian batsmen are known to be wristy craftsmen and Dhoni is the Andy Warhol of this artistry - bold, aggressive, and striving to redefine. That's what he did tonight when Irfan - whose pace was just how Dhoni likes it - was given the ball.
Such is Dhoni's swing, bat speed and ability to hang back in his crease that he can turn good deliveries into boundary-balls. The first ball was nearly a yorker, but Dhoni converted it into a freebie and bludgeoned it past extra cover for four with awesome wrist power. After a miscue for two, Dhoni reached out to a failed yorker and crashed it from outside off to on top of the roof behind long-on. It was an audacious hit, and you could only but sit and marvel at Dhoni's genius.
Dhoni's power-hitting has been influential in India winning many ODIs, but this was a different Dhoni after the win. "It was a very emotional moment for me, because franchise cricket is also professional cricket, " Dhoni said. "At the end of 20 overs it was very tough to say whether we could chase down 190-odd runs. Raina again gave us a start and soaked up all the pressure, and Badri batted really well. Because it was a small ground and the altitude is high the ball travels really far, and the outfield is quick, so at the back of my mind it was there that whatever runs were needed at the end, they could be achieved. Most chances are that I may succeed, about 60-70%, and that's what happened."
Dhoni has earned the reputation of being a great finisher and this was another example of just how devastating he can be. The situation was so precarious, but that's exactly when Dhoni chose to step up. Chennai had been in tight spots earlier in the competition and failed to hang on. Tonight, in a do-or-die match, they emerged trumps thanks to the sheer gall of their most valuable asset.
It was perhaps fitting that Dhoni rediscovered his mojo here in the Himalayas, for he originally hails from the hill region of Almora, in Uttaranchal. Tonight he played his part to perfection, flattening Kings XI Punjab with a brilliant innings and living up to his billing as a finisher. If the sky provided all the rain during a day that fluctuated from chilly to warm, Dhoni's bat took care of the thunder and lightning.
Jamie Alter is a senior sub-editor at Cricinfo