Dhoni keeps his end-over promise
His greatest contribution may be turning fans inured to close defeats and panicky collapses into a set that refuses to believe a game is lost as long as he stays in
This was not cricket; this was poker. MS Dhoni was too calm, too cool, too sly. He bluffed and bluffed. He raised the stakes even as wickets fell. He rode his luck, survived a close run-out chance, escaped two perilous mix-ups with Ishant Sharma, and closed it out.
Dhoni wasn't even supposed to play this match. And it was clear that he was struggling with injury through his innings. He declined some easy singles and didn't take some twos he would have normally harried through. He was up against the run rate. He was up against a sharp Rangana Herath, Lasith Malinga and Angelo Mathews. And he was up against pressure. He overcame them all.
There is plenty to say about Sri Lanka's batting, India's bowling, and India's top order. There is a lot to write about Rohit Sharma's innings. And there is much to talk about Herath. But let them be for now.
Dhoni walked in at 139 for 4. He tapped and blocked. Occasionally he nudged. It took him 16 balls to get to 4. Meanwhile his partners came and left. Suresh Raina swished at an away-goer; Ravindra Jadeja played back to one that nipped back in; and R Ashwin was done in by the arm ball. Bhuvneshwar Kumar made nothing (though he did hang around for 15 crucial balls), and Vinay Kumar had a popcorn burst in his head when, on 5, he tried to slog a short ball out of the ground.
Twenty runs were needed off 22 balls. With Ishant, the last man, sauntering in. Dhoni played out two balls. Then took a single. And Ishant blocked out the final delivery.
The next three overs tell you the story of India's finest finisher. He waited. And he waited more.
This was classic Dhoni. He bides his time until the game reaches a boiling point, plays out the best bowlers, pushes the required rate higher and higher, and then backs himself to win the face-off. Javed Miandad did this often. As did Michael Bevan. Dhoni has turned it into an art form.
With 19 needed off 18, he faced Malinga. He patted the first ball down the pitch and defended the next one to the off side. The third was slightly wide but he smashed it to cover. He saw a chance to sneak a single but turned it down. The fourth ball was fuller, on off stump, and he wristed it to deep midwicket for two. A typical Dhoni hustle, manoeuvering the gaps with his tennis-ball technique.
The next ball was angled to third man. Again he turned down the single (even with only one ball left). The last ball was a bit wide. He tapped it to point and hollered, "No". Ishant, who was halfway down the pitch, was lucky to survive a run out.
Seventeen were needed off 12.
Ishant stayed on strike for the whole over from Mathews. He was nearly run out off the first ball. He picked off two runs off the fourth. And blocked out the next two.
Fifteen were required off the final over. And Dhoni asked for a change of bat. "A 2kg bat," as he later revealed.
There is a reason India adores Dhoni. For those who followed Indian cricket in the '80s and '90s, he may even come across as a messiah. Those were the days India choked and crumbled. They withered at the first hint of pressure. Their batsmen seemed to know exactly when and how to combust. All would be hunky dory until a slew of wickets wrecked their progress.
Dhoni bides his time until the game reaches a boiling point, plays out the best bowlers, pushes the required rate higher and higher, and then backs himself to win the face-off
Match after match, big tournament after big tournament, India pined for a batsman like Miandad. Or Saleem Malik. Or Bevan. Or Steve Waugh. Or any number of others who could stay ice-cool in a chase. They craved reassurance when the rate climbed. They yearned for some batsman to steer them calmly.
Dhoni's calm can be intimidating. It's as if he absorbs all the pressure as he works himself into a zone. Those watching can feel this. They understand that he gauges the pulse of the game, that he reads the opposition and the conditions. They are so used to his ways in ODIs that they trust him to take the right decisions at the right time.
Fifteen off the final over with a wicket in hand - that's what schoolboy dreams are made of, the kind of scenario that young kids imagine while they stare into a life-size mirror. The first ball of the final over was short and slightly wide. Dhoni tried an almighty hoick and missed. Many other batsmen would have cussed aloud. Or admonished themselves. Dhoni walked away towards square leg.
The second ball was full and wide. It stood no chance against his pendulum swing. A monstrous six. The third ball was on a length. He carved it behind point. Five needed off three. The fourth ball was also on a length. Another meaty swing. Another six. Match over. Tournament won. Let's all go home.
The Sri Lankans were stunned by the assault. Dhoni's team-mates looked shocked too. The commentators were delirious. And those at the ground went bananas. But when all these people sit back and quietly consider the final stages of the match, they will be overcome by a sense of inevitability.
Dhoni is no doubt a badass finisher. He is one of India's finest ODI batsmen. And he is their most decorated captain. But his true contribution goes far deeper. He has managed to turn a fan base inured to close defeats and panicky collapses into a set that refuses to believe that a game is lost as long as he stays in.
There was a time when Indian fans turned off the TV when Tendulkar got out (and Dhoni too has admitted to having done the same when he watched the 2003 World Cup final). But the thinking these days seems to have been turned on its head, almost to a point where fans tune into a game when their captain walks in.
Siddhartha Vaidyanathan is a writer based in the USA