In the 34th over of the Indian innings on Thursday in Pallekele, the batsman shuffled across, fending one from Vishwa Fernando. The ball caught up between his legs, came off, trickled down and hit the base of middle stump. The bails did not come off.

Just imagine hearts stopping in the Indian dressing room. Just visualise the frustration from Sri Lankan fielders. At that precise moment, both entities were so near, yet so far from victory line. As a resultant of that moment though, only one could cross the finish line.

That incident was also singularly representative of the miniscule margins in international cricket, particularly when a match is headlong into a caught-up scenario – wherein one team gets on top surprisingly, and the other has to dig its way out.

Imagine doing this digging out bit repeatedly, until this is all you are known for – the greatest finisher the world of cricket has ever seen. Sitting on the boundary lines, watching from living rooms as live action is beamed onto our television screens, we have no idea how hard this job is.

None, nada, zilch – MS Dhoni does, though, and he showed amply on Thursday night that he hasn’t forgotten this art of pulling-your-team-across-the-finish just yet. There is life in the old dog, yet.

Little change in approach

Let this be said here – Dhoni is not the same batsman he was a couple years ago. It is but a natural progression of things. The Indian team has spoken about Lasith Malinga in the same vein over the past few days, albeit respectfully. Age catches up with cricketers, like it does with everyone else. What they can do to counter is work on their fitness, maintain their agility and modify their game.

There is something different about Dhoni in Sri Lanka. Watch him bat in the nets and then watch him bat in the middle, albeit this came about only in the second One-Day International. A notable change in technique is visible. Gone is the earlier jerk movement in his stance, he is now taking a more assured forward step whilst facing any delivery. The head is more still and as a result he is more stationary until the last possible moment, before measuring up to the delivery he is facing.

Then, there is the discernible change in the batting pads Dhoni wears. For the past decade of international cricket (at the very least), he has batted with rounded pads that the likes of Sachin Tendulkar, Sunil Gavaskar and Virender Sehwag used to wear. Until the West Indies’ tour recently, Dhoni was wearing the same pads.

Now in Sri Lanka, he has seemingly reverted to the old, more conventional pads, like the ones Virat Kohli uses. It is worth pondering if this change in batting gear is to help with the prominent change in front-foot movement he has exhibited here on the tour.

“If I make a change on the field, I don’t do it all of a sudden. You have to work on it for a long time in the nets so it doesn’t seem unnatural on the field against your instinct. You need to get more comfortable with it as you play more and more. So I work on such small changes in the nets for a long time before trying them out in matches,” Dhoni had said, long ago on the 2014-’15 tour of Australia, in what was a rare insight into his batting approach.

You have to wonder herein about the need of this “change”. At this juncture in his awe-inducing career, Dhoni has still found it necessary to modulate his game as per the current demands. If he is to keep playing – and indeed performing with the bat – until the 2019 ODI World Cup, he has to evolve. This is precisely what he has done.

Finishing off in style, but from the other end

“MS told me to play normal cricket, bat like I would in Test cricket. It was a matter of surviving and playing out all 47 overs. We knew we would win if we did that,” said Bhuvneshwar Kumar.

He is no stranger to batting out “Test sessions” with Dhoni. After all, he got his Test double hundred at Chennai against Australia in 2013 in Kumar’s company. This was a different setting though – the comparable constraint of time was visible, the mountain of runs still needed was very obvious, and the lack of wickets was quite specific. Faced with this familiar battle, Dhoni resorted to the tried and tested formula – run, run hard between the wickets.

Sure, Kohli is arguably the quickest runner between the wickets in this Indian team. But Dhoni’s running between the wickets is an art form in itself. Everybody can run fast, but very few can modulate their running as per the running ability of their partner.

When Dhoni is running with Kohli, it is sheer magic – remember the Australia game at Mohali in the 2016 World Twenty20? When pairing with those slower than Kohli though, it is when Dhoni’s poetry in running between the wickets comes to the fore.

It was on full display at Pallekele on Thursday night – they ran hard, with intelligence, converting singles into twos whenever chance presented. Dhoni ran his first run hard as always, but only when he saw Kumar was comfortable running the second, did he come back.

MS Dhoni (left) and Bhuvneshwar Kumar (right)'s partnership was an object lesson in patience and planning. (Image credit: Manvender Vashist/PTI)

The underlying point of this 8th wicket partnership was Kumar’s comfort at the crease in a pressure setting. Dhoni didn’t farm the strike when he first came to the crease, because the situation – 94 runs needed – didn’t demand so. It allowed Kumar to grow in confidence whilst playing normal cricket and it showed towards the end, when he hit those boundaries, etching out his maiden ODI half-century in a match-winning cause. “I never thought in my dreams that I would so this,” said an elated Kumar afterwards.

Dhoni, meanwhile, watched from the other end. He was happy to take the backseat, content to hold one end up, and in his zone, hauling out another finish from his Santa-sized bag of miraculous wins.

2019 World Cup, you asked again? This finish in Pallekele was the surest sign that Dhoni wants to play in England, one last time.

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