When MS Dhoni walked out to bat, to a thunderous applause from the crowd in Pune of course, India needed 112 runs from 113 balls. Pune, these days, is also Dhoni’s home away from home away from home — given Chennai Super Kings played all but one of their away matches in the IPL this year at the very venue. The West Indies bowling attack, without any respect, isn’t the greatest in the world. And Virat Kohli, whose form cannot be described as just a purple patch anymore, is batting on 78 at the other end.
If ever the stars were aligned for a walk across the finish line where Dhoni plays his typical finisher’s innings, this was it.
This is the kind of situation where, in the not too distant past, you’d put your house down on India chasing the target down. Two of the greatest modern-day chasers in ODI cricket, with the run-rate well under control against a not-so-world-class bowling attack.
But as it turned out, India ended up losing the match by 43 runs.
Let’s get a few obvious points out of the way, first.
If someone is chastising Kohli for India’s loss in Pune on Saturday, they need to be made aware of this statistic: He has scored 23 centuries in ODIs while batting second and only one three of occasions, have India lost. He hardly ever leaves the job unfinished and this match against the Windies was a major exception and not the rule. So spare us the theory that Kohli should have done more. He might not make you think he’s human, but he is.
Should India have been chasing 284 at the first place? To have their full strength bowling attack back and to let Windies score 283 after having them reeling at 227/8 is not the most ideal scenario. Jasprit Bumrah was phenomenal once again, conceding just 16 runs in his final four overs while taking two wickets — including that of the well-set Shai Hope with a phenomenal yorker — but Khaleel Ahmed and Bhuvneshwar Kumar couldn’t back him up. Kumar, especially, bowled a horror 49th over to concede 21 runs with Ashley Nurse hurting his bowling figures.
But once again, in the bigger picture, the bowling attack did well enough to restrict Windies to less than 300 for the first time this series and with batting conditions expected to be better under lights, the damage was not irreversible.
Which brings us to India’s middle order woes. (Yes, that again.)
When Rohit Sharma and Shikhar Dhawan were dismissed for below par scores, you knew the narrative for the rest of night would go in one of the two directions:
1. Virat Kohli, the chasemaster, does it again with a breathtaking innings to take India past the finish line.
2. India’s middle order continues to be a major concern in the lead-up to the World Cup.
And till the 25th over, it looked like the first narrative was going to be the clear winner. But first, Ambati Rayudu chopped one on to his stumps trying to run the ball down to third man. Then Rishabh Pant, after swinging his bat to a quick-fire 24, was done in by technology. The faintest of touches on his glove was caught by Ultra Edge. Now the narrative started shifting.
You would never have thought in the past that Dhoni walking out in this situation would give the opposition hope. That is the one thing that Dhoni never offered. This used to be child’s play for him. But on Saturday in Pune, the Windies bowlers knew they were in with a shout to dismiss Dhoni early. The fielders were buzzing, the bowlers had a spring in their step. They were circling over his wicket like vultures.
And Dhoni fell prey to the lack of confidence. In what has now become a familiar mode of dismissal, Dhoni edged one to the keeper trying to nudge the ball through third man for a single.
This is not a new problem for India. Dhoni’s form in this format is now a lingering concern that began in England, continued in the Asia Cup and has propped up against the West Indies at home. And to think this has all come a few months after that phenomenal IPL season he had, makes it all the more curious.
One thing is clear: the team management will back Dhoni to the hilt. If you are harboring hopes of Dhoni getting the marching orders this close to the World Cup, think again. That will be his own decision. And he showed once again how valuable he is to the team as the wicket-keeper, with his athleticism and razor-sharp reflexes on full display.
But the fact that this innings with the bat came the day after the selectors made a decision to look past him for T20Is should rankle Dhoni. Opportunities to find form and prove his worth in the middle order for India are fast running out, and the one in Pune was as golden as they come. Unfortunately, for him and his legion of fans, that opportunity to prove himself came and went as quick as Dhoni’s stumpings.