India v/s Sri Lanka – FINAL
When Sri Lanka knocked India out of the 2007 World Cup to break a billion hearts and send them into collective mourning, they didn’t imagine- not for a second- that their own hearts would be shattered by the same team for 6 painful years after that, led by the long-haired young wicketkeeper in that ageing 2007 side. For the second time in two consecutive ODI finals, MS Dhoni finished a heartbroken Sri Lanka off with a six. Only this time, the situation couldn’t have been more different.
Back in Mumbai in 2011, Sri Lanka had already accepted defeat a few overs before Dhoni deposited Kulasekera over long-on. They were outplayed- fair and square over the game.
At Port-Of-Spain on a sunny Thursday after a topsy-turvy tournament, Sri Lanka were ahead of the game till the last 5 balls. They had destroyed the Indian middle order, just like their own fell against the Indian spinners. Herath put them in a winning position- leaving the last pair (Dhoni and Ishant) 21 to get in the final 3 overs. Indian fans, especially those that followed the 90s with unbridled passion, would have felt a deep sick knot at the bottom of their stomach by now. But there was this man at the crease- coming back only to lead India in the final. And only to prove that his strategy of taking every close game down to the final over- is, in fact, a massive play against every bowling side. It reduces the game to a 1-on-1 battle, a shootout- bowler against batsman. Even if it doesn’t need to go down to a last over, Dhoni prefers it- because in his books, he is mentally already ahead by laying down the gauntlet. He even puts aside the mind-numbing stat of his average in successful Indian chases (100.5).
Against all odds- another term for ‘even odds’ for the captain- MSD demonstrated, as he often does, why he is the greatest limited-over finished of his time. As soon as Dhoni came in with an injured hamstring, there was an air of inevitability about this final. Surely, India could cap off their limited-overs summer with another title. The pitch was typical of how the Caribbean grounds played this tournament, and batsmen had to work hard for their runs- while slow bowlers had a field day. Collapses in both innings stood out, as did some determined top order batting (Sangakkara again for SL, Rohit for India).
When Eranga came up to bowl that final over, he had 6 balls to get it right. As it turned out, Dhoni gave him only 4. Dhoni hit 3 of them, into various arcs on the offside. In his mind, Eranga had already lost the battle the moment the ball hit the roof on the second delivery. Mathews didn’t even dare to bowl Malinga in the final over- and had him bowl to Ishant in the 49th, hoping to keep Dhoni away from arguably his ‘best’ bowler. After protecting Malinga, letting Ishant survive a tense penultimate over, Mathews must have felt that there was definitely something creepy about Dhoni’s calmness. It was almost intimidating.
What did he know that nobody else knew? This is the same captain that also led India to their worst Test losing streak in history- the same guy who challenged an aggressive Gambhir time and again about his finishing ways.
As history will have it, Dhoni was always right. His percentage of pulling off such improbable wins only matches yesteryear’s Michael Bevan- an Australian batsman that was long hailed as the greatest ODI batsman of all time. This innings by Dhoni was very unBevan-like, and almost unDhoni-like, for his lack of running between the wickets and his precise assault.
It was almost unfair to every batsman in the tournament, that the entire 2-week long triseries came down to 3 balls of such brutalness, irrespective of how dead and slow these pitches were. The only thing that mattered was how heavy Dhoni’s bat was, and how strong his arms were. His mental strength? That rarely matters anymore. It’s a given.
Not many Indian cricket fans could have imagined an era where they would feel safe with 15 runs to get of the last over in a final of a tournament with the last 2 at the crease. Sri Lanka must now feel like India of the 90s- and how painful it must be.