There are things in sports that genuinely cheer you up. One such is the sight of Mahendra Singh Dhoni swinging through the arc, head down, knees slightly bent, kinetic energy from those baseball-bat-sized arms powering through the ball, and the crowd exploding. It is a thing of brutal beauty. There were many around the world who woke up on Monday morning with that very image still fresh in their minds. The bowler missing, Dhoni pouncing. The ball soaring, the stadium erupting.
In Mohali on Sunday night, a Colosseum-like crowd found itself paying obeisance to a gladiator whose time many thought had come. The willingness to carry on, as admirable as it was, was proving to be too stifling. The performance was no longer backing the obduracy. That still may hold true, but we will leave that for another day.
Instead, this was about celebrating the gifts of a man whose show we have feasted on for 15 years and still cannot seem to feel content. This was about him and his fanatical band of followers, the kind who still look up to him like an eternal demigod. This was about him telling us why he still remains indispensable. This was about him showing us what we have been terribly missing. This, in a boxing sense, was like a seasoned heavyweight fighter absorbing the early blows and then unleashing a savage combination of jabs and hooks to leave his opponent sprawled on the canvas. Well, almost.
The critics have made their peace with Dhoni’s scrappiness. Dhoni is justified in believing that he doesn’t have anything to prove to them, and they don’t bother too much with arraigning him, either. Anyway, this wasn’t about answering the brickbats — Dhoni just doesn’t play his cricket that way. For long, the Indian public has lionised him for his capacity to put on a show, for his mastery that allows him to elevate his game to a whole new level when the chips are down. The performance against Kings XI Punjab was just about the Indian cricket fan. It was Dhoni’s way of thanking thousands of them for sticking by him so loyally, despite his very apparent decline. After all, this is what fandom often triggers; a belief that your heroes can never be spent forces. Acceptance isn’t something that is part of the fan lexicon. And Dhoni on Sunday night competently displayed why it mustn’t be.
This wasn’t so much about Dhoni rolling back the years as it was about him exhibiting what he can do when he’s afforded time at the crease. Dhoni is no longer the furious sprinter of his youth, he is now the canny middle-distance runner who knows exactly when to make his move. He perhaps left it too late in Mohali, but he was clearly hampered — in addition to a back problem — by Ravindra Jadeja’s sluggishness at the other end. Even then, this was a calculated assault that would have culminated in an unlikely win on another day.
Big sixes that see balls disappearing out of the ground are generally the standouts in most Dhoni specials. Yes, the half-helicopter shot against Mohit Sharma pinged off the bat in the sweetest of manners. But it was another shot, off Andrew Tye, which took most by surprise. The stroke was almost anti-Dhoni: an exaggerated ramp shot of sorts over third-man executed at the last second with the most stunning precision. Dhoni probably surprised himself at how deftly he played it.
It takes an awful lot to leave Chris Gayle — who came up with a rampaging half-century of his own in the first innings — in the shade, but then Dhoni is no ordinary batsman. The trademark last-ball six also arrived, but the game had already slipped away by then.
It is difficult to say if he will be able to replicate anything like this in the games to come. Probably not. And we won’t complain. After all, this Mohali evening — much like the one in Dharamsala all those years ago when Dhoni made Irfan Pathan look like a club bowler — will linger in the memory for some time to come. That he keeps on giving us such moments is what makes him so endearing.