MS Dhoni likes to take the game into the last over. He did at the SCG. Dhoni likes to hit the first ball of the said last over for a six. He did at the SCG. Much as we would like to console ourselves that Dhoni helped India finish their only win of the series, he was a pale shadow of himself. That he was there to take the match to the deep end was indeed the difference between Canberra and Sydney, but the old Dhoni would have done so with much more deliberation. Here, he did play a panicked shot, and was dropped. He did play across the line, and survived a plumb lbw decision.
We don't know when Dhoni's next ODI will be, or if there will be one (can't bank on a farewell tour for Dhoni), but more than thinking about whether he nearly botched up a fourth chase in the last five chances he will be extremely pleased that two youngsters helped India cross the line they have been finding so difficult to chase. Manish Pandey, in his fourth ODI, and Jasprit Bumrah, on debut, finally provided the support Rohit Sharma and Virat Kohli so badly needed.
When playing against a superior opponent, you need to scrap until the end. In Canberra, Ishant Sharma and Umesh Yadav conceded 29 in the last two overs, in Sydney Bumrah bowled the rare Indian yorker to help India concede just seven after the 48th over. In Canberra batsmen other than top three choked, in Sydney, Pandey remained cool. Not to mention the 10 or so runs he saved in the field.
There might be a lesson in here for the selectors to back winners, and perhaps punt a little less.
Talk to anyone familiar with the Indian domestic circuit about Pandey, they will tell you he might not be the best technically but he scores on big occasions. In the 2009-10 Ranji final, he scored 144 as Karnataka fell six heart-breaking runs shy of a chase of 338. He became the first Indian centurion in IPL in a must-win game for his team in 2009, and followed it up with a Man of the Match in the semi-final. He went on to add a double-century in the Duleep Trophy semi-final in the 2010-11, and a half-century in the final. He won an IPL final off his own bat, with a 94 in a chase of 200 in 2014.
Bumrah, with his unorthodox action that creates an illusion of extra pace, with the ability to bowl the yorker, and with the improvement made through the addition of the ball that holds its line, was part of the Gujarat team that won the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy in 2014-15. In the next season he was the leading wicket-taker in the domestic 50-over competition, the Vijay Hazare Trophy. He bowled Dhoni with a yorker in the league stages and picked up five in the final.
Pandey, though, had to sit out for no fault of his because he doesn't bowl and because India don't have other allrounders. Bumrah somehow didn't make it to the original squad, and unconfirmed reports say they couldn't get him a visa fast enough when Mohammed Shami got injured. Lucky they were playing because of more injuries, and under pressure in the dying moments, both of them delivered.
"The kind of innings Manish Pandey has played, it gives you extra 15 games to settle in and start to do what you need to do. And adapt to the demands of the game. Because a lot will also change when you play in the subcontinent. As of now he looks good at No. 5."
An instructive moment was when Dhoni asked Ishant at the start of an over at the death what field he wanted, and you could hear: "Bumrah wali [the one that Bumrah had]." Here was a veteran trying to emulate what a debutant was doing, and he went on to find success. When it comes to finishing it off with the bat, the coolest cat with the bat could trust Pandey. The rookie might even have helped the veteran out.
That Pandey knew what he was doing was evident from how he didn't try the desperate shot, relied on his legs and his placement to get the couples, resisted the temptation of manufacturing shots to the shorter boundary, and then produced the masterful steer off a yorker in the final over to bring up his hundred and take India to within two of a win.
Tangibly Dhoni's 34 off 42 took the asking rate past 12, but intangibly he might have just imparted the invaluable wisdom you gain only by finishing games off again and again. Sample what Dhoni told Pandey: "The difference [between runs required and balls left] was 15-20 runs. Whatever happens we will get at least at least two boundaries. And also both of us are quick between the wickets, which means we will put pressure on the slower fielders or the ones that don't have good arms. Ultimately we will get those extra runs rather than looking for the big six."
One of the biggest mistakes inexperienced batsmen make is feel they are running out of time. Dhoni might have taught him the most valuable lesson: there is more time than you think. Perhaps Pandey knew it himself?
Dhoni is not one to get carried away with early success. He spoke well of the two youngsters, but remained guarded too. "Bumrah was fantastic playing in his first game," Dhoni said. "It becomes slightly easy for you when youngsters come and perform in the first five games that they play. You see a glimpse of what they may become in the coming years if they don't get injured. He bowled well with the semi-new ball, he bowled well in the middle overs, then he bowled well at the death. That is the kind of bowlers we are looking for. He has the variations, he has the slightly awkward action."
About Pandey he said: "Manish paced his innings really well. You have to realise it is not always about big hits. Over here the ground are big. If you mistime you can get out, but at the same time if you hit a good yorker, more often than not you get two. You rely a lot on your running. This innings will help him but what he needs to keep in is how he calculated the run chase. The kind of innings he has played, it gives you extra 15 games to settle in and start to do what you need to do. And adapt to the demands of the game. Because a lot will also change when you play in the subcontinent. As of now he looks good at No. 5."
When asked if this gave him reason to change his mind about lack of ready-made talent coming through from the system, Dhoni said it is important is to not get "high on individual performances", and also said he can only judge by what the selectors give him, that it is their job to find the best talent and push it through to international cricket.
In typical Dhoni fashion he remained noncommittal about what future held for Dhoni the ODI player, joking you might need a public-interest litigation to find out, but the wistfulness you might have felt looking at his diminished striking ability disappeared a little when you heard him talk with joy about a youngster who planned a chase as well as he wanted him to do.