The graph of MSD’s career suddenly had a bull run like the Sensex. It went skywards in a matter of few months starting off with the series against Bangladesh where he was the man-of-series. The signs were there in the series against England in a test match when India was all but ‘down and out’ at Lord’s (first test) and were completely at the mercy of Rain Gods, as we all know they did not disappoint. For the first time in many years the rains actually saved India the blushes and they went to Trent-Bridge with the series still in the balance. Although rain played its part, MSD’s contribution was also crucial to the cause. Barring a few streaky strokes here and there, he was solid at the wicket and played according to the situation. He played a crucial knock, runs being insignificant but those minutes at the wicket were ‘worth its weight in gold’ and England were denied a win by the last-wicket pair of Sreesanth and Dhoni as rain played spoilsport for England. Had ‘Steve Bucknor’ been younger, India would have packed up as it was the last pair at crease. England never recovered from this heartbreak and they went on to lose the series 1-0. Dhoni’s love-affair’ with London continued as he scored a quickfire 92 at the Oval and it was what we normally associate with him a ‘Dhoni Dhamaka’ innings. Although India had a chance to enforce the follow-on, Dravid played it safe and I wouldn’t blame him for that as the series was on the line. England survived on the last day but India had the ‘last laugh’ as it was their first series win in England after 21 years. This was just a stepping stone to success. More was in store.
The scars of the 2007 WC were still pertinent but thankfully not many were carrying those memories into the T20 WC as the squad had some fresh faces. Dhoni was in-charge of the youth-brigade. India’s opening match against Scotland was washed out without a ball being bowled and next they were up against the arch-rivals, who had pounded the same opponent (Scotland) in their previous match. The match lived up to the billing and both teams had to be separated by a ‘bowl-out’ with India coming out trumps (Pakistan bowlers failed to hit the timber even once). What a dream start it was to Dhoni’s captaincy! There is a no better feeling than beating your fierce rivals in your debut match as a captain. Nobody had any expectation from this team especially after what had transpired 6 months earlier (India failed to reach even the ‘Super-Eights’ in the 50 over version). The journey became toughermore tough after their marginal loss against New Zealand in the opening match of the ‘Super-Six’ and they were up against it.
Now everybody expected Mahi’s men to get steam-stream- rolled. But Dhoni and his troops had different ideas. Against England, Yuvraj came to the party and poor Broad ‘bore the brunt’ for Flintoff’s antics as Yuvraj tore him apart to all parts of the ground hitting six humongous blows off his single over. It was also the fastest half-century in T20 format coming off just 12 balls. Dhoni had the best view at the non-striker’s end. After such carnage the result was just a formality. Next up were the Proteas and match was at Durban, the bounciest wicket in SA and worst part, man-in-form (Yuvraj) was ruled out due to injury, surely a ‘body- blow’. It was a ‘do-or-die’ match for India but somehow strangely SA managed to make it a ‘do-or-die’ for them by using their choking qualities.
India posted a respectable total of around 150, thanks mainly to the partnership between Rohit Sharma and the skipper after a stutter at the start. The equation was simple for SA, score 119 runs and qualify for the semis or score 154 runs and dump India out of the tourney. The first target looked like a cakewalk. But having watched SA over a number of years, their fans surely must have feared for the worst. And the worst happened, Let alone 154, SA made a ‘heavy weather’ of 119 and gave a back-door entry into the semis to the Kiwis. Now suddenly the expectations rose. People realized that India was within a touching distance from creating history. But as Frank Clark once said, “If you can find a path with no obstacles, it probably doesn’t lead anywhere”. Similarly the road to victory had a huge speed-breaker in the then ‘World Champs’ Australia. But on a more positive note India’s talisman Yuvraj was passed fit and it was a morale-booster for the team. He did not disappoint as he seldom does in big matches, taking the attack to the opposition and scoring a majestic 70 off just 30 balls to give India more than a fighting chance in the match.
Dhoni gave the finishing touches to the innings and India had 170 odd runs on the board to defend. But given the bowling line-up of India, Aussies were in with more than a shout at the target. Luckily for India, maverick pacer Sreesanth was on the money that day and he dealt the first blow by getting rid of the dangerous ‘Gilly’. Then again he scalped the big- fish Hayden who was threatening to run away with the match. Hayden’s timber was castled and Symonds followed him soon, the mode of dismissal being same. India suddenly found a new sense of hope. Dhoni rung in the bowling changes smartly and bought on Bhajji who (18th over) yorked Michael Clarke and gave a meagremeager 3 runs which completely changed the complexion of the match. RP Singh’ssingh’s next over was the final nail in the coffin as Aussies needed 22 off the last over which against any bowler was a daunting task. ‘Jogi’ (one of those players who are born to be forgotten after a stunning performance here and there) bowled the final over without any drama and India was now only a step behind from the cusp of glory. I guess it was all written in the heavens (Indo-Pak final) and more than the people the broadcasters were ‘over the moon’. TRP ratings had a box office opening of an Amitabh movie. Stadium was jam-packed and all were in readiness.
India started off their innings briskly as Yusuf Pathan had decided to take on the attack but it turned out to be one too many as he miscued one and holed out. Pakistan was fired up and they were taking wickets at regular intervals. ‘Gul’ was the ‘wrecker-in-chief’ as he accounted for two of India’s best batsmen (Mahi and Yuvi). He also got rid of the dangerous looking Gambhir when he was just about to open up after steadying the ship. Rohit Sharma’s lusty blows at the end helped surpass the score beyond 150. Total on the board is always a plus in a knock-out match as the scoreboard pressure is always a factor. Hence it was advantage India at the end of the first half.
RP further widened it by getting rid of Hafeez in the opening over. But all of it was neutralized as Sreesanth was at his wayward best leaking runs at will and Pakistan was off to a flyer. R. P. Singh again proved to be the ‘thorn in the flesh’ as Akmal’s stumps were castled. Dangerous looking Nazir was soon run-out and this was a serious dent to Pakistan’s hopes. Irfan dented it further when he struck 3 crucial blows in the middle which eventually won him the ‘Man-of-Match’ award. But unfortunately for India Harbhajan was having one of those off-days, and Misbah-ul-Haq plundered him for plenty in the 17th over to bring the equation in balance.
Sreesanth wasn’t helping the captain’s cause, either going for plenty in the 18th over even though he scalpedscapled a wicket off the last bowl. 13 were needed off the final over and Dhoni went with instinct rather than logic (Joginder instead of Harbhajan). Every Indian fan was flummoxed at the ground and while they were still searching answers to fathom it Misbah hit a straight six to make matters worse. Suddenly the surprise turned into anger and shouts of, “MSD, what have you done??,” gathered momentum all over India. But MSD the cucumber injected cool aggression into the bowler. ‘Jogi’ managed to keep his head but not Misbah as he went for his favourite scoop shot and no need to remind what happened after that. “In the air Sreesanth, takes it… India win…”, were the words of Ravi Shastri in his typical raised voice. This moment surely would haunt Misbah throughout his life. This match was just like a ‘Bollywood movie’ with a happy ending after all the drama.
From being a ticket collector at Kharagpur, to a world-cup winning captain this surely must have been a dream come true for Dhoni. The ghosts of ‘Caribbean World Cup’ were finally buried. The victory was much sweeter as nobody had expected it. This was the first of many ‘feathers’ in MSD’s cap…
Excerpts from book
Author Pratik Deshpande