One of the most fascinating phases of play came in the 35th over during Australia’s innings, when Mohammed Shami out-thought and bounced out Glenn Maxwell on a slow MCG pitch, with Bhuvneshwar Kumar taking a brilliant diving catch, running in from deep fine leg. On either side of it, Yuzvendra Chahal spun a web around the Aussies to bag a six-for that set up India’s first-ever bilateral ODI series victory Down Under. MS Dhoni’s match-winning 114-ball 87 not out and his Man-of-the-Series award put the cherry on the cake.
As Virat Kohli said at the presentation, Chahal was brought in for Kuldeep Yadav for the decider at Melbourne, because the Indian team management didn’t want the chinaman bowler to become too predictable. This is after all the World Cup year. Chahal as a replacement highlighted the excess of riches. Given the gulf in class and experience between the two sides, a triumphant tour for India was expected. Australia played out of their skin to defend a modest total on Friday. But they failed to seize key moments.
After Kumar made early inroads with a couple of wickets, Shaun Marsh was rebuilding the innings for the hosts, along with Usman Khawaja. Marsh had a life on 11, when Dhoni dropped him off Kedar Jadhav. But the left-hander was carrying the confidence of his century in Adelaide. It wasn’t a 300 pitch and Marsh’s association with Khawaja had already yielded 73 runs for the third wicket, when Chahal came into the attack in the 24th over. The leggie accounted for Marsh with his second delivery, stumped off a wide down the leg side. Marsh left the crease a little early and Chahal spotted it. Dhoni was a tad slow by his very lofty standards, but he still got the bails off in time.
Three balls later, Chahal dismissed Khawaja, taking a simple return catch off the leading edge. Australia started to look edgy against the leg-spinner, who got the better of Marcus Stoinis with a beauty. Rohit Sharma took a fine, diving catch at first slip. The batsman, on the other hand, was done in by the drift and turn.
The ball was gripping and stopping. Maxwell, however, decided to take the attack to Chahal, hitting two fours in an over. Kohli brought Shami back into the attack, which proved to be a tactical masterstroke. After setting up Maxwell with a couple of bouncers, Shami removed him with the one that reared off a length and hurried the batsman. The Aussie allrounder probably expected a fuller delivery. It was excellent thinking from Shami and a superb piece of captaincy from Kohli.
Chahal once again made his presence felt at the back end of the innings, snapping up Jhye Richardson, a well-set Peter Handscomb and Adam Zampa to return with 6/42 from 10 overs — his career-best. It was also the joint-best ODI figures in Australia, along with Ajit Agarkar.
On the face of it, a victory target of 231 wasn’t a tough ask for this Indian batting line-up. But Australia refused to go down without a fight. Rohit and Shikhar Dhawan departed early, and Dhoni came in at No. 4 to join Kohli in the middle.
No. 4 is a problem area for India in white-ball cricket. Dhoni is the latest to fill-in the slot and with time on his side, the former captain played at his own pace. He had a reprieve in the first ball he faced – Maxwell, the safest pair of hands among the Australian fielders, dropped a sitter at backward point off Stoinis.
Dhoni also survived a close leg-before shout and a run-out opportunity at the non-striker’s end. A sluggish pitch was hampering Kohli’s flow at the other end. He was dropped on 10. And after he got out on 46, the chase became a difficult one, with the asking-rate climbing. The visitors still required 118 runs from 20 overs. But Dhoni’s experience allowed him to stay calm. He picked his target; fast bowler Peter Siddle.
Another dropped chance that Dhoni survived came late in the day, as Aaron Finch couldn’t hold on to a full-blooded drive at mid-off. He pulled the next ball from Stoinis, a slower delivery, to the fine leg boundary. As usual, his calculation with regard to upping the ante was spot on.
“It was a slow wicket, so it was difficult to hit whenever you wanted to. It was important to take it deep. No point going after the bowlers who are doing well, so that was the gameplan,” Dhoni said after the match.
The veteran finished the series with an average of 193. If he can carry this form to the upcoming five ODIs in New Zealand, a tougher assignment, India will have their No. 4 position settled.
Jadhav played a lovely hand at No.5, scoring 61 not out off 57 balls and hitting seven fours that significantly lessened the pressure. He and Dhoni added 121 runs in an unbroken fourth wicket partnership that secured a seven-wicket win for India, with four balls to spare.