148 (153)—Faisalabad, 21–25 January 2006 vs Pakistan

Any sentence that has ‘India–Pakistan cricket’ in it is unlikely to have the word ‘dull’ anywhere close to it. However, when India visited Pakistan in 2006, there was no other way to describe the action in the first couple of Test matches. The pitches were so flat and the criticism so strong that at the end of the second Test, the Pakistan Cricket Board itself announced that it was taking initiatives with international assistance to improve the conditions of the pitches that were proving to be a graveyard for the bowlers. The rain-marred first Test in Lahore saw 1089 runs being scored for the loss of just 8 wickets. The next Test in Faisalabad saw 1702 runs being scored with only 28 wickets falling over five days of Test cricket.

Yet, 148 out of those 1702 runs stood out on one gloomy January afternoon. In fact, for the first time in seven days of cricket in the series, when MS Dhoni took on the Pakistan bowlers, the action was anything but dull.

By 2006, Pakistani bowlers knew what MS Dhoni was capable of. Only nine months ago, he had blown them off with a thunderous 148 in only his fifth ODI. The history of limited- overs cricket, however, stands testament to the fact that not all big hitters of the white ball find the going easy against the red cherry. And so, when MS Dhoni arrived on the pitch in only his fifth Test with his team in a precarious situation, Pakistan’s instinct was to press harder.

After posting a mammoth 588, Pakistan began to see an opening develop on the third afternoon when India collapsed from 236/1 to 281/5. Sachin Tendulkar had just been sent back by Shoaib Akhtar, and as always, Akhtar, after taking Tendulkar’s wicket, had turned into Akhtar Pro Max. Even before sending the Little Master back into the hut, he had tried to get under the skin of a youngster who almost shared his hairstyle and gave it a tinge of brown too. The mercurial pacer probably took offence to that. It would be revealed in the hours that followed, however, that the Indian with an impressive mane also shared another trait of Akhtar’s—jazbaa!

Dhoni had been welcomed to the crease with a vicious bouncer from Akhtar with some words on the side. Dhoni couldn’t duck it the way he would have liked, and the ball almost kissed his helmet on its way to Kamran Akmal’s gloves. By the time Dhoni could find his balance, Akhtar stood two metres away, giving the young man some valuable lessons on the art of ducking a bouncer. The next ball bowled at 153.6 kmph was another bouncer but this time it was sent over the slips by Dhoni. Shoaib had a smile on his face for he knew it was a battle now, unlike in the morning when nothing he said or did could rattle the calm and collected Rahul Dravid. The next one at 152 kmph was directed at the ribcage and Dhoni managed to keep it down. Another Akhtar stare saying, ‘How long are you going to survive, kid?’ followed.

An over later, Akhtar steamed in again and bowled another one aiming for the helmet. This time though, the ball met the blade on the way and in seconds was flying across the square leg boundary for the first 6 of the innings. Things were heating up on that cold afternoon.

But having been brought back to earth with that flat-batted 6, Akhtar had his tail up in the same over again as he managed to get Tendulkar to glove one to the keeper to leave India staring at a possible follow-on scenario. As the crowds erupted when a timid- looking Irfan Pathan played another Akhtar bouncer awkwardly, Dean Jones quipped on air, ‘Don’t think there’s a boring draw here on the cards. Shoaib Akhtar has brought this Test to life.’ Of course, Jones knew a thing or two about the Rawalpindi Express’s ability to bully the lower order into submission.

It looked like the plan in the following overs as Akhtar hurled one bouncer after the other at both Dhoni and Pathan. The left- hander remembers the baptism by fire, ‘I asked MS how’s the pitch behaving upon my arrival, and he said “Kuch nahi ho raha” (Nothing is happening). Then when I began batting, one ball flew close to my right ear and another close to my left ear. I went up to him again and asked, “Mahi, what’s happening?” He responded with a smile and said, “Ab asaan ho jaaega” (Now, it will be easy).’

The two also devised a strategy to counter Akhtar. Pathan remembers, ‘Shoaib was bowling fast and making the ball talk on a flat surface. He was the only one who looked like he could take wickets as he was able to get some swing. He was also throwing verbal volleys at us. We decided that to rile him up, I’d respond to whatever he says, and MS would laugh at it.’

The plan worked. Even with the bat, Dhoni didn’t back down. He pulled and cut with the same ferocity with which Akhtar was bowling at him. After the Akhtar challenge, Mohammad Asif seemed way too easy to face as he was dispatched to the boundary ropes thrice in an over. Abdul Razzaq too was treated with similar disdain. Suddenly, the narrative had turned from the Indian lower order being bullied to a counter-attack brewing. Pathan adds, ‘As soon as Shoaib got tired, we knew we had won half the battle and felt confident about avoiding the follow-on.’

Pakistan had only themselves to blame for the narrative changing so quickly. Their actions fed into the counter-attack. When Danish Kaneria was brought into the attack, the man facing him was MS Dhoni. Dhoni quietly pushed the first ball towards Kaneria with a proper front-foot defence to give evidence of his Test batting credentials. Kaneria’s response was to hurl the ball back in the direction of the batsman and then pepper him with words. In typical Dhoni style, the response didn’t come immediately and definitely not in the form of words. The next 2 deliveries, however, were sent flying out of the ground as Dhoni brought up his half-century in just 34 deliveries with seven 4s and three 6s.

On the other side of tea, Pathan meted out similar treatment to the leg-spinner, showing how well he had grown in confidence in the company of Dhoni. When the leg-spinner turned to bowl round the wicket, one knew that the bully had been bullied. If there was any doubt, it was laid to rest when Dhoni played one of the most audacious shots seen in the match. As Kaneria slipped in a faster one that would have been a wide had Dhoni let it go, he slapped it towards the boundary behind him. Another 6 right over his head a few overs later was evidence enough that Kaneria had tickled the dragon with his actions.

As the day came close to an end, Shoaib Akhtar returned to the attack with the hope of changing the script of the game. Instead, he became the bowler Dhoni drove uppishly to bring up his maiden Test hundred off just 93 deliveries. The Faisalabad crowds had been treated to a 97-ball century by Shahid Afridi in the first innings and not many would have thought then that it could be bettered. But not only had Dhoni bettered Afridi’s effort, but he had also driven India to safety in the match.

The Shoaib–Dhoni contest didn’t end with the day though as the next day brought a re-energized Akhtar determined to get his team a breakthrough. But the results were disastrous this time around. He was driven straight down the ground for 4 when he for once decided to pitch it up to Dhoni. When he went back to bowling short, it was sent over the slips in a way similar to the shot which helped Dhoni open his account in the innings. Quite predictably, Akhtar came round the wicket as if to intimidate the batsman. At this point though, Dhoni wasn’t going to be intimidated. He pulled it for another 4 to the mid- wicket boundary. The next delivery was a shocker. Bowled from the same angle, Akhtar hurled a beamer at Dhoni at 156 kmph. The ball missed the wicketkeeper and went for 4. And there was no apology from the bowler either.

That beamer, if anything, was an admission that the battle was over. There was only one winner. It was the jazbaa of MS Dhoni, who once again ended with 148 versus Pakistan and helped India to a 15-run lead with a 210-run partnership with Pathan.

Published with permission from ‘Do Different: The Untold Dhoni’ by Joy Bhattacharjya and Amit SinhaPenguin Random House India.