It is the penultimate over of the Indian innings in the fourth One-Day International against Sri Lanka in Colombo on Thursday. Lasith Malinga, the yorker deliverer extraordinaire of the recent past, misses hitting the blockhole by a few inches like he does these days, and Mahendra Singh Dhoni bludgeons it to the fielder at long on, setting off at top speed to finish a single and intent on coming back for the second run that would have given him a 50 in his 300th ODI.

Instead, he turns around only to see that Manish Pandey – his partner batting on 49 – is not ready and they both agree to keep it to just one. Unless the next ball is an extra, Dhoni’s innings will remain 49 with an asterisk next to it. He acknowledges that, walks up to Pandey while adjusting his gloves, the bat snuck between his arms and gives a comforting nod – a nod that it’s alright. Pandey finishes the innings with a single, gets to his 50 and gets a pat on the back from Dhoni.

In his 300th ODI, Dhoni executed the role of the elder statesman to perfection.

Dhoni, the mentor

It’s no secret that Dhoni is not a finisher, in the Dhoni sense of the word, anymore. He won’t be hitting too many more sixes in the last over the innings. He will often not be able to deliver a win single-handedly if the required rate is beyond reach.

But what he has shown in this Sri Lanka series, is an ability to morph into a different kind of finisher. Dhoni, these days, is less Dhoni and more Michael Bevan. The second ODI in Pallekele, with his teammates heading back to the pavilion in the speed in which they came in to bat, was a good example of this new version of Dhoni.

When he found a partner in Bhuvneshwar Kumar, who could keep his head in a situation that was getting out of hand, he placed his trust in him. He did not hoard the strike, he rotated it with freedom. Towards the end, when it became apparent that the duo had pulled the game back from the jaws of defeat, it was Bhuvneshwar who applied the finishing touches with a flourish, as Dhoni stood watching from the other end.

In the third ODI too, with the top-order struggling again in a not-so-straightforward chase, Dhoni came in to calm things. His presence ensured that Rohit Sharma played his natural game at the other end, without any “what ifs” looming over his head. (Not that such a thing usually bothers Sharma when it comes to playing his shots.)

MS Dhoni, the Enabler

And it was more of the same in the fourth ODI in Colombo. He walked in when India had lost three wickets in the space of 19 balls after Virat Kohli and Rohit Sharma had pummelled Sri Lanka into submission early on. At the other end was Manish Pandey, a journeyman in this Indian squad whose career has been a constant struggle of holding a spot down in the middle order, trying to make use of an opportunity back in the side.

In the context of the game, where Sri Lanka ended up losing by 168 runs, that 101-run stand between Dhoni and Pandey did not ultimately matter too much. But in the context of what Dhoni means to this team, as a mentor to youngsters lower down the order, it was another example of his now-evident evolution. He’s becoming an enabler more than a finisher.

As our correspondent in Sri Lanka pointed out after the heist in Pallekele, Dhoni has made significant, if minute, changes to his game on this tour. He wears a different set of pads – trading a lighter pair for a heavier one, to help with flexing his knees. He has introduced a shuffle to his stance to perhaps gain an extra second’s advantage.

An evolved version of an old classic

Dhoni did hit the boundaries when the opportunity presented, he did finish with yet another unbeaten ODI knock that took him past the previous record, he did finish with a strike rate above 100. But it was almost poetic that he was watching the last ball from the non-striker’s end, seeing his partner get to a milestone.

The former captain is a firm believer in getting ready for the World Cup years in advance. He started moulding a team for 2011, right after the World Twenty20 win in 2007. And now, with the 2019 World Cup in the horizon and his involvement in it expected to be a constant topic of debate, it’s becoming clearer that Dhoni wants to level up.

He has not made a statement with his performances in Sri Lanka – evidently a weak opposition – but read between the lines, and you understand that Dhoni has set his sights on becoming a better version of himself by the time the marquee event comes around. Whether he succeeds, remains to be seen, but he has begun his journey towards that goal.

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