IT HADN’T been classic MS Dhoni till the innings hurtled towards his favourite scenario — the last-over shootout. He was still batting on 45 off 34 balls though. There had been a couple of those characteristically clubbed boundaries in the two overs leading up to now. It still somehow hadn’t looked or sounded like what we’ve been accustomed to expect of a Dhoni innings. For someone playing his first competitive match in over two months, he didn’t look rusty. But the ball hadn’t quite found the middle of the bat as often. There had been more clumsy thwacks than sweet tonks.
Most of his runs had come off deflections than any power-packed strokes. The first boundary was a swivel pull, where he helped a short delivery from David Willey along to the right of the backward square-leg fielder. The second came off a mis-field at deep extra cover. But Dhoni was still scoring at well over run-a-ball. And with only the last over to go, the stage was set for him.
Chris Woakes was clearly England’s most consistent seamer during the Test series. And he’d started the one-day leg of the tour well too with the new-ball on Tuesday. Now he had Dhoni to contend with the final six deliveries of the innings.
It didn’t start well for Woakes as Dhoni swung the first delivery, full and angling in, over the square-leg fence for six. It wasn’t the usual Dhoni six, where his forearms provide most of the power and it’s all muscle. Here it was about getting his body into position, getting the right angles, and using it as a lever to pummel the ball across the line. The ball did still travel quite a distance. He repeated the shot a few balls later though this one went more towards mid-wicket. It was more body than just hands again, and the direction the ball travelled in had more to do with the line of ball with Woakes pitching it closer to off. In between the two sixes were two fours. The first was a slice over the short thirdman fielder followed by a top-edge that flew past wicket-keeper Jos Buttler.
Woakes does possess a mean yorker in his arsenal. But he wasn’t the first bowler to be completely put off by a Dhoni onslaught. Like he has so often in his career, Dhoni, who remained unbeaten on 68 off 40 balls, was dictating where the bowler was landing the ball. Woakes did finish the over with a perfect yorker from around the wicket. But by then, Dhoni had already taken him for 22 runs.
A cautionary note
Yuvraj Singh had spoken with ‘the good old days’ nostalgia on the eve of the match about how Dhoni would go back to playing as freely as ever. On Tuesday he’d echoed Yuvraj’s sentiments with bat in hand. He’d also sent a cautionary note to the English camp about what they could be in store for and raised hopes for the Dhoni faithful that there’s still some gas left in the tank. He’d also given for the thousands who had filled up the Brabourne Stadium with the sole aim of seeing him bat—or perhaps just in flesh and blood—more than what they’d bargained for.
Dhoni’s arrival at the crease was understandably a vociferous affair as thousands roared in unison. At some point, even Yuvraj joined in the applause. It’d been over 11 years since Yuvraj had been joined at the crease by his long-standing sparring partner in a non-international match in India—the last being when they turned up for India Seniors in the Challenger Trophy final in October 2005. But it’s unlikely that had anything to do with him clapping his bat against his gloves in the middle. Perhaps he was sucked into it by the prevailing emotion around CCI. The atmosphere was such. The noise wasn’t just deafening, it was ear-splitting.
For the thousands who had lined up outside the Brabourne Stadium—forming queues that stretched up to Churchgate station—the moment had arrived. They had waited close to two-and-a-half hours for it. Dhoni was finally in the house. There had been a false alarm when the second wicket fell—Shikhar Dhawan literally roared off the playing field. But it was the tall figure of Yuvraj that emerged out of the CCI pavilion. Ambati Rayudu was inadvertently playing the party-pooper. He was in many ways the most irrelevant feature of the match, considering he’s not part of either of the squads to face England. But here he was, playing a rather destructive innings. Still he kept getting barracked by the crowd for a majority of his innings. Some of the members even thought it wise to ask Adil Rashid, fielding at long-on, to get Rayudu to throw his wicket away. Rashid could only smile sheepishly.
Rayudu hits ton
Rayudu did eventually walk off but only after he’d brought up his century. With only nine overs left in the India A innings, he had no choice but to vacate the stage.
Dhoni started off a tad scratchily. The third ball he faced struck him on the thigh. The next was short from Willey and Dhoni’s attempted pull almost took the top-edge and landed on his stumps. In the next over from Woakes, he flashed wildly at a ball outside his off-stump. The Dhoni-Yuvraj show didn’t last for too long with the left-hander finally falling prey to the short-ball after having survived a barrage of them earlier in his innings. It only meant Dhoni could now take centre-stage for good just like the crowd wanted him to.
Yuvraj, who made 56 off 48, had given them some cheer too in his comeback to the ODI squad after three years. When he wasn’t facing the short-ball and on occasions struggling against Rashid’s googly, he flowed. There were two lofted sixes off full deliveries from Rashid but it was an straight drive off Woakes past the mid-on fielder that stood out.
In what is certain to be the final time Dhoni captains an ‘Indian’ team, he seemed as involved as ever on the field too. At one point early in the innings, he moved Shikhar Dhawan slightly to his right at slip, and the opener almost ended up grasping a catch at that very spot. He also used his spinners incisively, and Kuldeep Yadav in particular kept India A in the game with his chinaman that fetched him a five-wicket haul, one that should only fast-forward his eventual and inevitable entry into the Indian team.
But it was somehow fitting that in Dhoni’s final game as captain of an ‘Indian’ team and on a day he took the field donning a shirt which didn’t have his name printed boldly on the back, it was a batsman wearing the No.7 jersey who eventually stole the show with Sam Billings—93 off 85— smashing England to a morale-boosting first win of their staggered Indian tour.
Brief scores: England 307 for 7 (Billings 93, Roy 64, Kuldeep 5-60) beat India 304 for 5 (Rayudu 100 retd out, Dhoni 68*) by three wickets