India don't like being favourites, and being written off by many even before their young ODI side assembled in Colombo ultimately worked just fine. Defeat in the final Test at the P Sara Stadium was so comprehensive that it was difficult to see where the one-day recruits would turn for solace as they landed for five matches against Ajantha Mendis and Co. Now, after beating the hosts by 46 runs, India have sealed their first series win in Sri Lanka. And central to their success has been their captain, Mahendra Singh Dhoni.
From the day he landed in Colombo, Dhoni stressed the past should be left alone and the focus should be on the task facing his side. He admitted Ajantha Mendis would be a threat but said it was up to the individual to handle him. He stressed on the importance of the batsmen to back themselves to score briskly, despite the setbacks. India's recent record in the subcontinent included losses in the finals of the Kitply and Asia Cup, which Dhoni termed as "crucial games", and he hoped to rectify that trend. This match was a final in itself, and India held their nerve to win it.
He is a very important cog in this wheel, and for the second game running he was at the centre for India, overcoming health issues - he had a a fever yesterday and evidently hadn't recovered fully. Dhoni and Suresh Raina showed how it should be done, scoring runs at a good clip after Sri Lanka left India 81 for 3 in the 18th over. He led the way in proving Mendis could be thwarted, even as he struggled to remain on his feet towards the end of his innings. Overall, Dhoni has top scored in the series with 192 runs at a strike-rate of 79.33, won four tosses in a row, made the right selection choices, and been proactive in the field.
Under lights, with Sanath Jayasuriya in a punishing mood, Dhoni tossed the ball to Harbhajan Singh in the 18th over. With pace taken off the ball, Jayasuriya edged the third ball to a smartly-placed wide slip. After that Dhoni added an extra cover, who was sharp to deny runs. Attempting to work Yuvraj Singh off his pads, Chamara Kapugedera was trapped lbw. These are minor moves Dhoni makes, but they often have a resounding resonance. Dhoni opted for four specialist bowlers in the last two games and he was rewarded with wickets from Yuvraj. Dhoni also won four successive tosses: some call that luck; with Dhoni, it's all part of the package.
In his book, What Sport Tells Us About Life, Ed Smith writes of the 19th-century historian Thomas Carlyle, who believed the bravery of heroes and leaders derived from their inspired and resourceful force. "The history of the world," Carlyle argued, "is but the biography of great men." Dhoni is no great, yet, but he has this amazing knack to inspire. And, since becoming captain and changing his approach to batting, he has played key roles with the bat. He averages 57.17 when in charge, with ten fifties and one century.
Many had criticised Dhoni's decision to skip the Test series, forgetting that he had to endure such a gruelling schedule this last 18 months (14 Tests, 56 ODIs, eight Twenty20 internationals, and the IPL). In the Test side Dhoni has yet to cement his place, as one century in 31 matches suggests; in fact, he was dispensable at the time he announced he was opting out. Dhoni is the most important member of a young one-day side and he realised that for the better.
Numerous television chat shows slammed Dhoni for the loss in the series opener and for reportedly influencing the selectors to pick young talent instead of ageing, vastly experienced heroes. Now Dhoni has led this group, with their struggles and pressures, to win a series few expected them to even contest.
Unlike in the second and third matches, where Zaheer and Dhoni were virtually one-man shows, this was a collective victory. "Contributive efforts are better because you are not relying on one individual," Dhoni said after the last game. "You will get individual performances brilliantly, but it's always better to win through a team effort. Everyone can enjoy it that way."
Consecutive fifties from Raina and Dhoni, Virat Kohli's maiden half-century to papered over the failures of Gautam Gambhir and Yuvraj, Munaf's two-wicket burst, Zaheer Khan's accuracy, wickets for the spinners. This match had it all, and that will give Dhoni immense satisfaction.
Critics can argue that India were helped by a complete batting failure by the hosts, and off-key series for Chaminda Vaas and Muralitharan. Dhoni will tell you that his bowlers got the measure of the batsmen, and there is no denying how Dhoni and S Badrinath's approach towards the spinners in game two sparked a revival. Sri Lanka were poor in this series, very poor, but India were good.
This isn't in the same league as the ICC World Twenty20 or the CB Series, but it should be toasted. It came after Mendis - he who mauled India in the Asia Cup final - and Muttiah Muralitharan made a mockery of the best middle order in Test cricket. The line-up India fielded resembled virtually that of the dismal Asia Cup final but, led by Dhoni and his sheer bullishness in believing Mendis could be overridden, they overcame the odds. Ignore the awful times, and concentrate on the good ones, seems to be Dhoni's mantra.
Baseball, poets say, cannot be scripted. Neither can cricket. After the barrage of questions they faced before this series, Dhoni and his bunch of upstarts can sit back and smile. They've defied the odds and deserved to win, and Carlyle would certainly have toasted their success.