Gujarat 179 for 4 (Panchal 62, Parthiv 44, Axar 32*) beat Jharkhand 177 for 7 (Dhoni 44, Jaggi 34, Axar 2-30, Bumrah 2-30) by six wickets
For a little under two hours, the steady stream of faithfuls who had turned up in Alur looked edgy. It wasn't because of a delayed start, but because their favourite player was nowhere to be seen near the dressing room. But they came alive at the first sign of him padding up, and when he finally walked out to bat in the 22nd over, close to 200 people roared in unison.
The hero's welcome accorded to MS Dhoni, looking visibly slimmer and recognisable only because of his brisk walk and giant strides to the centre, briefly had everyone reach out for their phones and test their zoom lenses to the maximum extent possible to get the best click. This even as reserve players from the adjacent ground, where Railways and Kerala were locked in battle, were left wondering what the fuss was about.
For the better part of the next 90 minutes, Dhoni pushed, prodded, and ran hard between the wickets, only occasionally showing glimpses of the white-ball destroyer he is by bringing out a couple of flat-batted pull shots. Twice he called for a heavy bat as his innings progressed, the only indication of his willingness to cut loose.
But every time he looked to tee off, a wicket fell. In the end, his measured 64-ball 44 was the lone bright spark in a disappointing batting effort as Jharkhand finished 177 for 7 in their allotted 47 overs. It proved below par on a flat batting pitch with true bounce as Gujarat rode piggyback on Priyank Panchal's solid 62 and his 106-run second-wicket stand with Parthiv Patel to secure a comfortable six-wicket win with plenty to spare.
While much of the focus was on Dhoni, another India international went about his job meticulously. Axar Patel, the left-arm spinner, varied his pace beautifully, mixing his usual full and quick with a few loopy ones to beat batsmen in the air with his trajectory. The end reward was figures of 2 for 30 off his 10 overs, which played a key role in ensuring Jharkhand's slog kept getting delayed to a point from which they just didn't have enough firepower to force the pace.
If Axar's spell was all about variation, Jasprit Bumrah, the medium pacer, was sharp, accurate and hustled the batsmen with short balls. His two wickets, including that of Dhoni's in the final stages of the innings, ensured Gujarat executed the death overs to near perfection. Dhoni apart, the only other innings of note for Jharkhand came from Ishank Jaggi, who made a measured 34 before a rush of blood consumed him.
Gujarat lost an early wicket and the squeeze was on. The first eight overs yielded 21 runs, but once the extra pace of Varun Aaron was negotiated, runs flowed freely. The change in speed also meant the ball was sitting up for Panchal and Parthiv, the Gujarat captain, to drive through the line, rock back to cut effortlessly and at times also pull over midwicket off the front foot.
Parthiv was easily the more attractive of the two during the course of their second-wicket stand. He brought out his full range of strokes across the ground, including a cheeky glide over the wicketkeeper's head, but failed to capitalise on his start. An error in judgment that had him play back to a delivery he could well have pushed forward to resulted in the ball sneaking through to hit the stumps as Kaushal Singh, the offspinner, picked up a wicket.
Panchal carried on untroubled, unfurling one classy drive after another to eat into the target. But, like Parthiv, he failed to see the chase through and was bowled for 62 off Shahbaz Nadeem. Axar then steered the team out of a potentially tricky situation to ease the nerves and smoothen the passage of victory with a serene unbeaten 32, while Rujul Bhatt made 24 not out.
As far as results go, it was one-way traffic even though Gujarat lost two more wickets than they would have liked to, with Dhoni breathing some life and lending some artificial excitement to the game. For the fans, it wasn't as much about Jharhand v Gujarat as much as it was about Dhoni v Gujarat. In the end, they got what they wished for.