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Grace under fire

As the stakes mounted in the World Twenty20, India's captain held his nerve and kept his faith - and his smile. By Dileep Premachandran

Dhoni's aggressive nature has been best seen in his field placements © Getty Images
After they had dominated vast tracts of the match, darkness suddenly appeared to be setting on India's World Twenty20 dream. Matthew Hayden and Andrew Symonds, two of the hardest hitters of a cricket ball ever to swagger on to a field, were making mincemeat of the bowling, and Australia needed just 60 from six overs with wickets in hand. For Mahendra Singh Dhoni it was time to take a call, one that would decide the outcome of the game either way.
Sreesanth had been the outstanding bowler in the game, bowling his first three overs for just six runs - a magical spell that included the wicket of Adam Gilchrist. Bringing him back for his final over was fraught with risk, especially since RP Singh had gone for plenty in his opening spell. But the fifth-bowler options, Joginder Sharma and Virender Sehwag, had been carted for 51 from three overs, and Dhoni had little choice but to put all his chips on Sreesanth and hope for the best.
When Symonds flicked an errant delivery for four to fine leg, Dhoni wasn't unduly flustered. The main event was to come. Sreesanth had troubled Hayden incessantly in his opening spell, swinging the ball back into the pads or tempting him to drive, but the moment Hayden took strike in the 15th over, the plan changed. Sreesanth was coming round the wicket, reprising the tactics used so successfully by England's bowlers in the 2005 Ashes.
The first ball, fast and straight, took out off stump, and the frenzied celebrations from bowler and captain spoke of two men who had called the dealer's bluff and prevailed. Symonds followed soon after, and India were more or less home. But Dhoni had one last quirky act up his sleeve.
With Michael Hussey needing 22 from the last over, Dhoni tossed the ball to Joginder Sharma, a proven domestic performer with no international pedigree to speak of. Perhaps inspired by his captain's faith, Sharma bowled an impeccable over, and Hussey and friends got nowhere close to completing Mission Impossible.
That must have been in Dhoni's mind when he called on Sharma to bowl the most important over of his life on Monday. India had more than seven fingers on the trophy by the time Misbah-ul-Haq set about Harbhajan Singh, but after Sreesanth proved profligate, too, only 13 were needed from the final over.
Harbhajan was one option that Dhoni had, but he was well aware that Misbah had tonked him for five sixes over two games. Sharma's lack of pace and his ability to bowl full deliveries made him the more attractive option, but Dhoni must have known what the repercussions would be if his gamble of no-name over proven performer failed.
His treatment of Sharma in the two biggest matches of the tournament summed up his qualities as captain. You or I could toss the ball to a Wasim Akram or a Curtly Ambrose and calmly watch a match clinched in the final over. It requires no great leadership quality or tactical nous.
The real test of captaincy lies in bringing the fringe player into the centre circle and making him feel that he's not a misfit there. It's almost certain that no other Indian captain of the last decade and more would have dared go with Sharma for those final overs. By doing so Dhoni was emphasising sport's greatest but often forgotten truth - it's not about the stars, it's about the XI. And sometimes the unlikeliest ones shine brightest.
Ravi Shastri and others with access to the team have spoken of the wonderful spirit and camaraderie within the ranks. That, too, should be no surprise. Dhoni is not a controversial figure. Not for him the world of cliques and Chinese whispers and Brutus stabs. Even when Indian cricket was on its downward spiral into hell, he stayed aloof from much of the nonsense, refusing to take sides and doing his own thing. You can tell that many of his players respect him for it.
It's almost certain that no other Indian captain of the last decade and more would have dared go with Joginder for those final overs. By doing so Dhoni was emphasising sport's greatest truth - it's not about the stars, it's about the XI
His press conferences have been a delight, peppered with frank answers, a ready smile, and an absolute refusal to put too much pressure on individuals like Yuvraj Singh [after his six sixes]. Yet, when he has needed to, he has also taken a stand. Sreesanth was superb with the ball against Australia, but as his captain's mild bollocking afterwards suggested, he needed to focus more on his bowling and less on auditioning for some Ace Ventura movie.
It helped that Dhoni led by example with the bat, sometimes eschewing his monstrous hitting for a more circumspect approach. On the field he never scowled or glared at his players, preferring instead to run down the pitch and have a quiet word if he thought someone was feeling the pressure.
His aggressive nature was best seen in the field placements. India didn't just sit back and aim to stifle. They attacked and went for wickets, with a slip in and the inner ring hustling the batsmen rather than out on the periphery. And with the exception of RP Singh and Sreesanth, who usually bowled the first six overs, the other bowlers were switched around frequently.
In the final Dhoni gave Yusuf Pathan, another fringe player, an over early on in Pakistan's reply. He conceded just five runs, but then wasn't seen again as brother Irfan and Sharma killed off any semblance of momentum.
Greg Chappell, under whom Dhoni enjoyed his most prolific spell as a batsman, always rated his leadership credentials, saying that he had the gambler's streak that set the fine captains apart from the ordinary ones. "He's not reckless," Chappell used to say. "Some of the shots he plays may seem outrageous and risky, but I can assure you he's usually weighed up the options. He knows what he's doing."
More than anything else, though, it's Dhoni's zest for life and the game that sets him apart. Like the Joginders of this world he has come up the hard way, and is determined to enjoy every moment in India colours. Both his predecessors suffered when the joy went out of their games, when captaincy and being out in the middle stopped being fun. Somehow you can't see that happening to Dhoni.

Dileep Premachandran is an associate editor on Cricinfo