A turbo-charged bulldozer

S. DINAKAR

Kumara Sangakkara cracked a superb hundred, but his knock paled in comparison to Dhoni's blitzkrieg.-S. SUBRAMANIUM

MAHENDRA SINGH DHONI walks with a swagger and dumps the ball to the different corners of the ground. He stays and he conquers. His act of destruction at the Sawai Man Singh Stadium was more like a heavyweight boxer pummelling a lightweight opponent. This Jharkhand lad can hurt.

Muttiah Muralithanran stopped a fierce straight hit from Dhoni. Or so it seemed. The ball struck the off-spinner's left palm and speeded to the boundary. The pace had been taken off the ball, yet the deep mid-off fielder had no chance.

This was Power Play. And this was Dhoni. His unbeaten 183 in the third game of the Videocon Series was an epic. India raced to a 3-0 lead over the shell-shocked islanders and Jaipur had a new King. Dhoni's cricket is laced with an unmistakable arrogance, stemming from immense self-belief. Reputations just don't bother him. He wants to dictate terms, dent bowlers' egos, set his own rules.

The wily Chaminda Vaas discovered this the hard way. The Lankans had just emerged from an elaborate bout of celebration after the paceman had snared Sachin Tendulkar. Dhoni sauntered in at No. 3. Not long after, Vaas was dismissed over the cover boundary, a stroke high on the scale of difficulty. The left-armer attempted to angle the ball across the right- hander; Dhoni used the angle to give himself room to strike the ball long and hard. It was a stunning blow off a delivery not lacking in length. Soon, a carbon copy of the earlier shot boomed and Vaas peered down the pitch in disbelief.

The Lankans had been full of beans as they entered the arena in the afternoon session. Guided by a well-constructed unbeaten 138 from wicket-keeper batsman Kumara Sangakkara, the islanders had finished at a strong 298 for four. The surface was made for batsmen, but the Indians had a fight on their hands. Dhoni made it a no-contest; India was home and dry with 23 deliveries and six wickets to spare.

In the Indian display was another nugget. Harbhajan Singh's 10 overs for just 30 runs on a pitch favouring the batsmen spoke of his skills as an off-spinner. The Sardar is pivoting more on his hip, he is operating with flight and spin, control and guile.

Back to Dhoni and his fireworks. Virender Sehwag's 39 was the next highest contribution by an Indian in the innings and Dhoni's sixers (10) totalled more than that. Only Sri Lanka's Sanath Jayasuriya and Pakistan's Shahid Afridi have struck more sixes (11) in an ODI.

Dhoni had a big first though. His was the highest score in an ODI by a wicket-keeper batsman, surpassing Adam Gilchrist's 172. It was also the single biggest innings on a chase.

The Indian think-tank has used the No. 3 slot as a floating one. After Irfan Pathan and Jai Prakash Yadav in Nagpur and Mohali, it was Dhoni's turn to occupy this slot and have a crack at the Lankan bowling. He made the most of the opportunity.

Chappell and Dravid once again showed they were flexible tactically; they have kept the opponent guessing about the batsman surfacing at the fall of the first wicket. "The No. 3 is an important position in the order. The pitch was a flat batting track. I knew if I could stay, I would get the runs," said Dhoni, who is a picture of modesty outside the arena.

Skipper Rahul Dravid was lavish in his praise of Dhoni's 145-ball effort (15x4, 10x6). "It was as good as Tendulkar's century in the Sharjah final (1997-98)," he said.

Dhoni gets into position quickly and possesses an easy swing of the bat; this is evident when he strikes the ball between covers and mid-wicket. There are certainly no half measures when this match-winner decides to give the ball a thump. Strike the ball, he certainly does. Even when he bravely carried on despite suffering a bout of cramps.

The leg-spin of Upul Chandana was treated with contempt, the medium pace of Maharoof was put away with disdain. To his credit, he handled Muttiah Muralitharan's tantalising off-spin with confidence, a key attribute in his batting. The Pakistanis had suffered under his pounding blade last season. Now, it is the turn of the Lankans to feel the Dhoni heat.

Dhoni's blazing ways overshadowed Sangakkara's effort. Opening the innings, the Lankan southpaw remained unconquered in his 147-ball knock (13x4, 2x6). He is a well-balanced left-hander, and a refined strokemaker. Sangakkara's drives through the off-side were particularly pleasing. He used his feet well while countering both pace and spin. His shot selection was invariably impeccable.

He found a willing partner in Mahela Jayawardene (71, 70b, 10x4), whose strokeplay is wrapped in old world charm. Towards the end, Maharoof's rollicking cameo (33 off 16 balls) provided the Lankan innings the thrust it needed.

In a wonderful display of physical fitness and mental resilience, Sangakkara not only batted for the full 50 overs in energy sapping conditions, he also kept wickets admirably during the 46.1 overs of the Indian innings.

When Tendulkar edged Vaas in the first over, Sangakkara flew to his right to snaffle a brilliant catch. The Kandy cricketer is deeply committed; he is also street smart.

Dhoni too put in a tremendous effort physically.

The match was a wonderful advertisement for the game's hardest working breed — the wicket-keeper batsmen.

The Indians were led well by Rahul Dravid. There is an air of authority about his leadership. Even during the stage when the Lankans threatened to grab control, he remained unruffled. The skipper's body language had a positive effect on his men.

The scores

Third One-Day International, Jaipur, October 31. India won by six wickets. Man of the Match: M. S. Dhoni.

Sri Lanka: K. C. Sangakkara (not out) 138; S. T. Jayasuriya b Agarkar 15; M. S. Atapattu c Dhoni b Yadav 17; D. P. M. D. Jayawardene c Sehwag b Agarkar 71; T. M. Dilshan lbw b Sehwag 3; M. F. Maharoof (not out) 33; Extras (lb-5, w-12, nb-4) 21; Total (for four wkts. in 50 overs) 298.

Fall of wickets: 1-31; 2-77; 3-228; 4-240.

India bowling: Pathan 10-0-67-0; Agarkar 10-1-62-2; Yadav 9-0-53-1; Harbhajan Singh 10-0-30-0; Kartik 6-0-42-0; Sehwag 4-0-29-1; Tendulkar 1-0-10-0.

India: V. Sehwag lbw b Muralitharan 39; S. R. Tendulkar c Sangakkara b Vaas 2; M. S. Dhoni (not out) 183; R. Dravid c & b Muralitharan 28; Yuvraj Singh b Dilshan 18; Y. Venugopal Rao (not out) 19; Extras (b-5, lb-3, w-1, nb-5) 14; Total (for four wkts. in 46.1 overs) 303.

Fall of wickets: 1-7; 2-99; 3-185; 4-250.

Sri Lanka bowling: Vaas 6-0-43-1; Fernando 8-0-38-0; Maharoof 7-0-50-0; Muralitharan 10-1-46-2; Chandana 10-0-83-0; Dilshan 5.1-0-35-1.

Sri Lanka full substitute: U. D. U. Chandana (T. T. Samaraweera, India innings, 0.0 ov).

India full substitute: S. K. Raina (M. Kartik, India innings, 0.0 ov).