Playing the lead to perfection
Coming in with India at 91 for 4 in the 22nd over after another failure by the middle order, Dhoni knuckled down, didn't take any risks, ran like a hare, and finished with a match-winning effort. From the start, his primary focus was on survival. He had to make do with what he had, and had to make it work. Not being a natural cutter and puller, he had to graft for his runs, but showed he was up for the challenge.
Dhoni has said before that the more batsmen faced Ajantha Mendis the more they could establish some sort of command over him. Having faced him twice in three days, handling him well the second time in Dambulla, Dhoni went out to the middle and began in earnest.
Crouched, bat coming down repeatedly, Mendis was watched until the ball spat off the track, and then, with a huge stride, pushed it gently onto the off side. When Mendis once erred in line, Dhoni's bat flashed the ball away for four. "Till now Mendis was never under any pressure and was bowling at his best," Dhoni said. "You need to punish him if he bowls a bad ball. If you continue to defend him, he will always be on top."
There was turn in the track but Dhoni's footwork was positive and he carried an intent that suggested he wanted to give it back to Sri Lanka. He drove the ball handsomely while also showing ingenuity in finding the gaps, and displayed great application in hanging in to make sure that India would reach a good score despite the regular fall of wickets. In Suresh Raina, whose promising knock was kept down to 53 after a bizarre call for a single ran him out, and Rohit Sharma, Dhoni found adequate support.
In his first couple of years in international cricket, Dhoni would usually attack the bowling regardless of the match scenario, scoring at nearly a run a ball. But he has since altered his method; he now scores runs with greater precision and care. Dhoni doesn't hit as many boundaries, but still gets them at a brisk rate, and while his reputation as a finisher is well known, he's now started, as captain, to play smart innings with an eye on the result.
"I'm giving myself a chance," Dhoni said. "I had a different role when I started playing international cricket, batting at a different slot. We had players to play long innings but I was one of those to go out and accelerate and even if I got out, it was okay. There was a transformation, and in the last two years I've been under a little pressure to be more responsible. That's what I'm doing, and I've got a strike rate of nearly 90."
Once Dhoni went past fifty, he upped the tempo with consecutive boundaries off Muttiah Muralitharan, who went wicketless. A single-run, double-wicket over from Mendis in the 49th took the sheen over how well India had handled him for nine overs. A competitive total was ensured when India passed 220 and Dhoni's effort went a long way in India winning the game.
It wasn't an easy win. India had Sri Lanka at 59 for 6 but allowed them to get within striking distance, dropping five catches along the way. The top order blues continued, but Dhoni showed the way admirably.
"If there's commitment, that's victory for me," he said earlier this year when asked about leading a bunch of young players. When they get it right India are a treat to watch, but this team often hangs back when you most expect them to sting. Dhoni must now focus on getting the message through to his embattled batting order.
Jamie Alter is a staff writer at Cricinfo