Mahendra Singh Dhoni is 34 years old. And as cricket commentator Harsha Bhogle never fails to remind us, he is in the “autumn” of his career.

Mahendra Singh Dhoni is the captain of an Indian team which he has led to three titles in international cricket. And yet, he remains an enigmatic creature in Indian sport, a player who attracts love and hate in equal measure. Players who have achieved less than him are admired, adored, even celebrated. For every “Captain Cool”, there has always been the “he is just lucky” accusation thrown at Dhoni.

Cantering home

MS Dhoni came into the first one day international against South Africa on Sunday with India cruising. Rohit Sharma was ensuring that the only thought on the Kanpur crowd's minds were how early India could win. Sure, the equation read 90 off 60 balls, but in these days of the Indian Premier League and Rohit Sharma batting on 108 at the other end, it should have been nothing more than a canter.

It seemed like that. Sharma slammed Imran Tahir over mid-wicket. Then, with a flick of his wrists, Kagiso Rabada was dispatched to the mid-wicket boundary. Dale Steyn was disdainfully slammed over square-leg for a six. In between, South Africa missed an easy chance to run him out. Sharma reached 150. The equation was 35 off 24. It was all going India’s way.

But Sharma and Suresh Raina fell next over to the leg-spinner. No matter. Dhoni was at the crease. How many times has he done it before – guided India home from such positions? He hared away converting singles into doubles with ruthlessness, never ever looking like a man at the “autumn of his career”. Memories of past chases came springing back – that 183 not out against Sri Lanka in 2005, that six over long on in the 2011 World Cup final, that final over mayhem in Adelaide in 2012.

Like the famous actor playing the same role again and again with unrestrained relish, Dhoni took it down to the last over. That has always been his way. Reduce the contest down to him versus the bowler. Make the pressure of bowling against the “world’s best finisher” get to the bowler. Capitalise on the bowler’s invevitable mistake. Take India home and be feted by thousands of delirious fans.

It should have been easy.

No more The Finisher

But it has not been easy for MSD, especially in the last few months. There are thin margins in world cricket. Had Dhoni connected with that wild heave off Kagiso Rabada, there would have been wild celebrations and headlines tomorrow of “Dhoni, the finisher is back.” It was not to be. The ball looped up and after an agonising wait, dropped into Rabada’s hands. Two balls remained but the match had been decided. India had done what South Africa have made a habit of doing – choked. From cantering home at a gentle trot, they had somehow conspired to lose by five runs.

As expected, the response was immediate – cue calls for Dhoni to step down as captain. In fact, the match should never have been about Dhoni at all – it was a match defined by two contrasting but amazing centuries. For South Africa, the innings was defined by AB De Villiers, who like always, manufactured momentum from nothing. One moment, South Africa were stumbling along, looking like getting to nothing more than 260 odd. The loss of Ravichandran Ashwin, arguably India’s best bowler, who went off clutching his side, hurt the home team badly as De Villiers, as has become his wont, unleashed utter mayhem at the death on his way to 104 not out.

Few can overshadow a De Villiers special but Rohit Sharma was the man who did just that. Those double centuries will always be special, but there was an element of class about this knock, doubly special as it came with the team chasing a difficult target. For all the criticism Sharma has faced, he did all he could to deliver the game India’s way – scoring more than half the team’s total and putting them on course for victory. And yet when he looks back at this match, Sharma will probably not remember those exquisite boundaries, but for that weak dab to Tahir which dismissed him and kickstarted India’s plunge.

But like always, once the match ended, few discussed Rohit Sharma or AB De Villiers.  It will all come down to Dhoni. Should he just call it quits? Should he play up the order? Should he play down the order? Has he become a shadow of his earlier self?

After all, in the immortal words of Harvey Dent in The Dark Knight, “you either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.”

First ODI: South Africa (303 for 5 in 50 overs) beat India (298 for 7 in 50 overs) by five runs.