In almost every press conference that Mahendra Singh Dhoni attended over the last three months, he had to answer at least one retirement-related question. Dhoni’s replies had certain amount of mischief and occasionally a touch of contempt. He revelled in teasing the reporters, in pursuit of breaking news. He eventually made a statement, with his bat; in the Asia Cup final against Bangladesh at Sher-e-Bangla Stadium.
Up to a point, it was a tight contest, for the game had been truncated to 15 overs per side. When Dhoni promoted himself at No.4, India still needed 22 runs for victory off 14 balls. The captain finished it off in just six deliveries, taking Al-Amin Hossain to the cleaners. The winning hit was a six over wide long-on. Forget retirement talks, here’s a man who had promoted himself up the order in the 2011 World Cup final and took his team to crowning glory, hitting a six off Nuwan Kulasekara.
Five years down the line he did something similar to give India their sixth continental title. Maybe the fans can’t ask for something more reassuring ahead of the World T20 about to begin.
The final can’t be judged in isolation. Dhoni’s batting throughout the tournament confirmed that he was showing signs of being able to play the big shots at will, a quality that made his one of the best finishers in world cricket.
In the opening game against the hosts, he faced just two balls and hit a six in one of them to remain not out on eight. In a low-scoring affair against Pakistan, he played three balls and remained unbeaten on seven with a four. And against Sri Lanka, he faced four delivers and hit a six to once again remain unconquered on seven.
Dhoni’s finishing had become the stuff of legend. The 2011 World Cup final has to be the most memorable of them all but maybe the tri-series final against Sri Lanka in Port of Spain in July 2013 was even better. With 15 runs to get from the last six deliveries, he changed his bat and threw the kitchen sink at Shaminda Eranga.
His finishing in that game was magical.
In fact, he has done it so many times in international cricket and IPL. Against Sri Lanka in Jaipur in October 2005, against Sri Lanka in Pune in November 2005, against Zimbabwe in September 2005, against Pakistan in Gwalior in November 2007, against Pakistan in Karachi in June 2008, against West Indies in Dabmulla in July 2005 and of course that tri-series final in Port of Spain, the 2011 World Cup final and the 2016 Asia Cup final are just a few examples. Of late, however, he seemed to have lost his magic.
The slump had started during the three-match ODI series in Bangladesh last year. India were chasing 308 for victory at Mirpur. Dhoni came to bat at No.6 with his team stuttering on 115/4 after 23 overs. He got out after getting his eye in (five off seven balls). Dhoni promoted himself at No. 4 in the next match, at the expense of Ajinkya Rahane. But he struggled to get going, scoring 47 off 75 balls. India lost that game as well. It was also their first-ever series defeat against Bangladesh.
Things hardly improved in the home T20s and ODIs against South Africa. Dhoni maintained impressive strike-rates of 125.00 and 95.49 in T20 internationals and one-dayers respectively but failed to provide impetus at the death. The first ODI in Kanpur was a case in point. The Saffers had set a victory target of 304 and India were well on course, thanks to Rohit Sharma’s brilliant hundred. The stage was nicely set for a late assault from Dhoni but he got stuck a bit. Eleven runs were required in the final over. Dhoni charged down at Kagiso Rabada in the first two balls but couldn’t connect properly. And then, he was out, charging down again and attempting a slog. In the end, India lost by five runs. Dhoni had only one four in his innings.
He didn’t look comfortable during India’s only win in the ODIs in Australia as well. He hit a six in the final over alright and it proved to be hugely important in the context of the game. But overall, his approach was not convincing as a score of 34 off 42 balls would attest. India got home and avoided a clean sweep because of Manish Pandey’s brilliance.
The way Dhoni had been playing, there was a clear hint of changing his batting approach which invited speculations about his waning powers. The fans would be very happy to see him regain his attacking form.