No Indian has ever run that first run as hard as him. No one has turned around for the second as briskly and purposefully as him. In that, the years have hardly left a scar. In that, it s still MS Dhoni of the old. And in the end, irony hit – who would have thought it s that one unchanged trait would nail him? Life.
When he turned after the scrambling run and moved towards his partner Bhuvneshwar Kumar, he would have known. This was it. Gone. His left hand was in agony (and it would swell up shortly) and his right was gingerly holding it as he glanced at the big screen to see if perhaps the replays throw up some miracle. Nope. Game over.
But until that moment though, how he kept us churning with hope. So many familiar Dhoni touches flowed through the knock.
The bat was pressed into his armpit, the right fingers ripped off velcro of the left glove and the left did it for the right, and the fingers would disappear through the helmet grille and wipe sweat from above and below the eye. At the end of every ball.
But it would be his walk between the wickets, usually at the end of the over, often in the middle, that would be the takeaway from this knock. The walk towards Ravindra Jadeja. Impassive face, lips occasionally muttering something but hard to guess what was said but that walk said a lot. At the start, it was like an elder brother approaching for counselling, until he saw Ravindra Jadeja sashay down the track and smash a six. After that, that walk turned brisk. Purposeful. Hopeful. He must have felt that situation could be salvaged. That he didn t have to do it on his own because at this stage in his career, he can t.
The responsibility to hit and score runs was Jadeja s, who seemed possessed. He didn t have to be the Dhoni of old, he didn t have to mimic his younger self and fall short as he tried in couple of early games in the tournament. Now, he could slide back to the statesmanlike role, be a real margdarshak, and run hard. The thighs flexed, the head would be put down, and he would dash across. The batting touch too returned.
He would stand there and move his hands – the ball would plummet towards deep point for a single, it would whisk through midwicket and once, a rare occasion these days, it even rushed to the straight boundary. Somewhere around this time, he even smiled at Jadeja at the end of the overs. A chat with the umpire, and a look at the distance at nothing in particular.
He still has one attacking shot that he can pull off to short pitched deliveries. And when Lockie Ferguson s slower bouncer stood up outside off in the penultimate over oh boy, did Dhoni stir. The feet lifted, the eyebrows squeezed up, and Clint Eastwood of modern-day cricket was in the air as the bat thunderously smashed the white round thing into orbit. That moment, Dhoni in mid-air, should be frozen and put on a poster.
Never mind the result. He tried. There would be some silly criticisms about whether he was a bit slow, whether he should have outsourced the entire hitting job to Jadeja. But what else could he have done? This isn t that Dhoni, and two games into the tournament, after couple of dawdles, he would have known.
And he had re-assessed himself and settled into the grafting anchor-finisher without the big shots. Unless they bowled short, he wasn t going to hit. Push and run, tap and run, punch and run, walk-into-a-drive and run – that s his game now. And he didn t stray from that self-assessment. He didn t try anything different. He knew if he had tried, the chase would have derailed a long time back.
Another criticism might be that he didn t stride out at No.4 or 5. No way, he would have survived that spell of the moving ball then. The mind can visualise a fatal walking prod. He had to be kept back. He had to do what he did. Lay that blame on the brittleness of the middle order, the absence of a solid batsman at No.4. Not on Dhoni.
His job was to catch that Jadeja s inner conflict in a bottle and spray it at the New Zealanders. He did that. He allowed Jadeja to unburden his fury. He allowed Jadeja to express ire in the most positive way. The match slowly started to turn, Kane Williamson started to scratch his beard more frequently, Ross Taylor would dash across more often to his captain, Trent Boult would counsel Ferguson urgently. It was Jadeja s spirit, but it was bottled and sold by Dhoni.
Without him, Jadeja couldn t have done it. Without Jadeja, Dhoni couldn t have done it. Together they almost did it but then Jadeja fell. Now, Dhoni had to do the hitting. That wasn t going to happen. Still, that six off the first ball of the penultimate over raised hopes. Could this be happening? Has the old magic returned? Can he hit a six and twirl the bat over once more like that night at Wankhede? To see its possibility, he had to get back on strike. And off he dashed. Irony tripped him. And he walked back in pain, from the left hand and from the near-miss. Head was down as he climbed up the stairs to the dressing room where the sea of players parted and clapped.
The only appropriate reaction for the moment.